With (burnt) sugar on top
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.