With (burnt) sugar on top

Maryland Independent - - Southern Maryland Classified - Twit­ter: @right­meg

When in doubt, let it rest. And that goes for ic­ing, too. Spencer’s birth­day was in early May. My hus­band is no­to­ri­ously hard to buy for, mostly due to his su­per-spe­cific hob­bies about which I know noth­ing. He’s very into wood­work­ing these days, and there’s no way I could sur­prise him with new tools or ma­chin­ery. And as Spence does most of his “shop­ping” on Craigslist, eBay or Face­book yard sale groups, gift cards are a chal­lenge as well.

Some­thing I did know he’d love? A caramel cake. In­tro­duced to us years ago by my grand­mother, this south­ern del­i­cacy ar­rives frozen from a fa­mous bak­ery in South Carolina and can be stored for months (not that it would last that long).

Spencer first got a taste of it dur­ing an Easter cel­e­bra­tion. My grand­mother lim­its her sweets, but does treat her­self to one caramel cake in the spring . . . and makes it last all year. “You know you’re spe­cial when you get some of my cake,” she says, pass­ing out ra­zor-thin slices. (Just kid­ding, Maw Maw. They’re more like nee­dle-thin. But I un­der­stand.)

Hail­ing from West­ern New York, Spencer has a fond­ness for all things maple syrup. And though Caro­line’s Cakes are tech­ni­cally caramel, the burnt-sugar ic­ing does have a dis­tinctly maple vibe that he loves.

I sur­prised him with one for his 30th birth­day, man­ag­ing to grab the gi­ant box off the porch be­fore he re­turned home with Ol­lie. I thought for sure he’d no­tice the distinc­tive red tin in the freezer, but seemed gen­uinely shocked when I brought it out for last year’s cel­e­bra­tion.

We were richer then. At $60 a pop (plus ship­ping), the treat — while amaz­ing — is pricey, and we now have two (!) chil­dren in day­care. Try as I might, I couldn’t jus­tify spend­ing that kind of coin on cake.

So I thought I’d make it my­self.

With a new­born and tod­dler, I didn’t have the en­ergy to try and sur­prise Spencer this go ’round. You can find just about any­thing on the in­ter­net, and Spence dis­cov­ered a “copy­cat” recipe from a Ge­or­gia blog­ger. Called an “Old South­ern Caramel Cake,” her seven-layer treat sounded very much like what we get from Caro­line’s.

I was a lit­tle cocky, I ad­mit. I love to bake and hadn’t badly butchered a recipe in years, so how hard could it be? Spencer listed the ingredients while I took notes for my gro­cery list: golden cake mix, sugar, sour cream, but­ter. Easy.

But I never read the ac­tual recipe.

When the big day ar­rived, Ol­lie was with his buds at day­care; Hadley had just fin­ished a bot­tle and fallen asleep. Sens­ing my op­por­tu­nity, I tip­toed into the kitchen to start bak­ing. I’d fig­ure out the ic­ing later.

The recipe Spencer found on­line was for an ac­tual seven-layer cake, but that was too am­bi­tious. I can barely con­cen­trate enough to brush my teeth or re­ply to text mes­sages, let alone cre­ate a multi-tiered con­fec­tion on four hours of sleep. I de­cided to make cup­cakes in­stead; just cut the bak­ing time dras­ti­cally and check ’em of­ten so they don’t burn.

That part went fine. Maybe the end prod­ucts were a lit­tle too brown, but def­i­nitely ed­i­ble. I had the cup­cakes cool­ing by 10 a.m. Hadley slept through it all. The ic­ing? Well. In a to­tal rookie move, I failed to read the en­tire recipe be­fore start­ing. The burnt-sugar ic­ing is — get this! — burnt sugar. Home­made caramel. The process of cre­at­ing it is com­pli­cated, fussy and re­ally above my head, hon­estly. Es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing Hadley be­gan cry­ing as soon as I started “burn­ing” the sugar in a pot that I ab­so­lutely could not leave unat­tended. The line be­tween tasty and dis­as­trous was thin. Very thin.

Also? The scant di­rec­tions as­sumed I was an ac­com­plished baker and/or candy-maker, which I am not. I mean, I love to bake, but Betty Crocker is my BFF. Aside from the oc­ca­sional from-scratch ba­nana bread, I’m OK with in­side-the-box think­ing. I had no idea what it meant to cook my sugar mix­ture to a “soft ball” state, and def­i­nitely no clue about a “hard crack.” I needed a sci­en­tist. I’m mar­ried to one, in­ci­den­tally, but he wasn’t there. Just me, a scream­ing baby and a pot of nu­clear-hot sugar I was sup­posed to be whisk­ing con­tin­u­ously — par­tic­u­larly fun against the crescendo of Hadley los­ing her mind.

Feel­ing like both a bad mother and ter­ri­ble baker, I even­tu­ally had to call un­cle and pull the pot off the heat. It was runny. Def­i­nitely not ic­ing. The re­sult looked like caramel, which I tried ap­ply­ing like a glaze; it tasted good but ran ev­ery­where, turn­ing my once sort-of clean kitchen into a sticky cesspool. Then I gave up. Re­treat­ing to the liv­ing room to feed Hadley, I ran through where I must have gone wrong. I had enough heavy cream and sugar to make an­other batch, but the first one had been such a dis­as­ter . . . was it even worth it? I re-read the recipe on my phone while Hadley ate, try­ing to parse to­gether where I’d messed up. Noth­ing. No idea.

With the baby nap­ping again, I re­turned to the scene of the crime to scrub up. I’d have to get some­thing store-bought — or just serve the cup­cakes with the caramel driz­zle. Dis­ap­point­ing, but what can you do?

Ex­pect magic, as it turns out. As I got closer to the scorched pot, I gasped.

My sad pot of caramel goo had, in the 20 min­utes I’d been gone, mirac­u­lously cooled . . . right into caramel ic­ing. It looked awe­some. The di­rec­tions had said some­thing about let­ting it cool “com­pletely,” but my im­pa­tience struck again.

I scraped a spoon across the top, gnash­ing the crys­tal­lized sugar against my teeth. Gritty and sweet and ab­so­lutely de­li­cious — just like Caro­line’s. Per­fect.

Oh, the re­lief. I was so ex­cited I teared up, then started danc­ing, then took pic­tures with my phone and be­gan send­ing them to my friends and fam­ily with “!!!!!!” and lots of cel­e­bra­tory emo­jis. I couldn’t wait for Spencer to try it, prac­ti­cally shov­ing one in his face when he got home.

He didn’t mind. Noth­ing cures what ails you quite like burnt sugar.

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