Southern caramel cake with homemade caramel icing from butter, sugar, and cream. This one tastes just like Grandma’s!
A classic favorite, Southern Caramel Cake is just a regular yellow cake frosted with a sweet caramel frosting. Some folks like to drizzle the frosting in between the layers and just let it drip from the top down the sides, and others like to make a thicker frosting.
I’ve done it both ways and my family prefers the thicker caramel frosting that covers the sides and in between the layers, and still drips down the sides a little.
Because when it comes to caramel, you can almost never have enough, right?
There’s just something about an old-fashioned, Southern caramel cake that makes me think of days spent lazing the afternoon away in the old swing on Granny’s front porch.
We used to play a game we called Alligator, where we would lie on the floor and creep up to catch the feet of whomever was swinging at the time. We didn’t care that it was blazing hot outside or that gnats were zipping in our ears and noses.
When you’re a little kid, that stuff doesn’t bother you and you just want to play outside until darkness descends and the shadow monsters come out to play.
Would that we could carry that ability to ignore slight discomfort into adulthood.
Instead, it’s easy to complain about the aches and pains in our joints, or the heat, or the cold, or the rain, or the bugs—and forget to be grateful for working arms and legs, or the bright sunshine sparkling on the spring flowers, or frost glistening on a brisk fall morning, or the life-giving nourishment of a summer rain, or the tiny insects comprising an intricate part of the food chain.
It’s so easy to lose sight of the beauty of the world that God made for us.
Maybe we can be like children for just a day.
Let’s start with eating this fattening Southern Caramel Cake and not worrying about calories as we’ll burn them off racing each other or climbing trees or riding bikes or turning cartwheels for hours.
Well, this Southern Caramel Cake recipe is probably pretty darn close to Minny’s fictional cake, based on author Kathryn Stockett’s memories from Jackson, Mississippi. Although there are thousands of variations in caramel cake recipes, most are fairly similar, with a thick, gooey, caramel icing over a moist white or yellow cake.
My brother-in-law’s mother, whom we called Miss Ruby, used to make a caramel cake that everyone raved over. I’ve tried several different caramel frosting recipes, and Miss Ruby’s is my favorite. With a handful of ingredients and an easy preparation method, it’s almost foolproof…but you might have to practice a few times to get the consistency just right.
Southern Caramel Cake:
I use either my 3-layer yellow layer cake recipe or the cake from my chocolate sheet cake recipe (the recipe included here) which makes 2 thick or 3 thin layers, and while the layers are cooling, I start the caramel frosting.
You don’t want to have to worry about your cake layers in the oven while you’re making this frosting because it needs to be stirred continuously.
It’s important to have all the ingredients measured out and ready, along with a good candy thermometer. I’m sure Miss Ruby made this without a candy thermometer, but I’m more comfortable using one than trying to guess.
In a small skillet, preferably a cast-iron one, place 1/2 cup of sugar and stir in 2 tablespoons of water. Turn the heat to medium.
You don’t need to stir the sugar, although once it starts cooking you can stir just a little in the beginning to help it along. You’ll need to pick the skillet up and gently shake it several times to move the sugar around.
It will start to look like this:
Sometimes the sugar may look like the next photo below, but don’t worry. It will not stay crystallized but will continue to melt. Just keep shaking the skillet around.
I pick up, shake, and set down the skillet multiple times to keep the sugar from getting to hot.
The second photo above shows how the crystals will continue to melt until the sugar looks like this:
Watch carefully and let all those sugar crystals melt. You may need to turn the heat down and hold the skillet over the burner, shaking it around gently.
And here’s where you have a choice to make. You can remove the sugar from the heat at this point or you can let it cook a little longer until it darkens to an amber syrup. The darker the sugar, the stronger flavor your frosting will have.
If you go all the way to amber, you’ll have what’s called Burnt Caramel. However, there’s a very short distance from Burnt Caramel to Burned Caramel and if you burn it then the taste will be bitter and bad and your guests will spit it out delicately in your monogrammed napkins.
You don’t want spit caramel in your monogrammed napkins.
It’s a personal preference as to how you want it to taste. I usually let mine get a little darker than the photo above but not quite as dark as this picture (and this is how I know about the spitting):
While the sugar is melting, you will have a large saucepan going on another burner. Put 2 1/2 cups sugar, 1 stick unsalted butter, 1 cup of half-and-half, and a dash of salt in this saucepan and turn the heat to medium.
Go ahead and attach the candy thermometer to the side so you’ll be ready.
Once the sugar dissolves and the liquid comes almost to a rolling boil, pour in the sugar syrup from the skillet—carefully, because it will cause the milk to bubble up.
You can turn this mixture down on low if need be while you’re waiting on the sugar in the skillet to melt, just keep it simmering slightly.
Cook, stirring continuously until about soft ball stage. This means that if you take a spoon and drop a bit of the frosting into a cup of cold water, then you can take your fingers and form a ball with that drop.
On your thermometer this should fall between 235°-240°.
Finishing the Frosting and Cake:
Remove the saucepan from the heat, pour into the bowl of a stand mixer, stir in 2 teaspoons vanilla, and allow to cool for 10-20 minutes. Then whip on medium to medium-high until the caramel becomes frosting consistency. This may take 5-10 minutes depending on your mixer.
The frosting should dribble from the beater and you should be able to spread slightly on the inside of the mixer bowl. If the frosting starts to separate or gets stiff then add a little more half-and-half or milk—I usually add more after frosting the first layer because it will start getting thick by then.
Frost the cake immediately using all the frosting. It will seem a little runny but will set up as it rests. Pour about 1/2 cup on top of each layer and the rest over the top and let it run down the sides, then smooth a little with an offset spatula.
Place the frosted cake in the refrigerator for at least an hour to set the frosting.
Note: If you’ve printed this recipe for Southern Caramel Cake before, I have recently changed the cake recipe to make a 2-layer cake or a smaller 3-layer cake so there will be more frosting per layer.
If you prefer a thicker 3-layer cake, please try the Yellow Layer Cake Recipe but be sure and spread the frosting a little thinner between layers or just make a second batch of frosting, which is what I usually do. I’ve also changed from using heavy cream to using half-and-half because I like the texture better.
Southern caramel cake with homemade caramel icing from butter, sugar, and cream. This is a classic, favorite family recipe.
- 2 cups plus 2 tablespoons sifted all-purpose flour, plus flour for dusting cake pans
- ⅛ tsp salt
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 2 sticks unsalted butter
- 1 cup water
- 1 tsp baking soda
- ½ cup buttermilk
- 2 large eggs, room temperature
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 3 cups granulated sugar
- 1 stick unsalted butter
- 1 cup half-and-half, plus a little more when frosting sets up
- Dash of salt
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
- Preheat oven to 350.
- Butter and flour then line with parchment paper in two 9-inch cake pans for thick layers or three 9-inch cake pans for thinner layers.
Sift 2 cups plus 2 tablespoons flour and salt into large bowl. Add sugar and whisk until blended.
Combine butter and water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and pour over the flour and sugar. Whisk until blended.
Add the soda, buttermilk, eggs, and vanilla, and whisk until well blended and smooth. Pour batter into greased and floured baking pans. Bake for 20-25 minutes, checking cake after about 15. Cake is done when tester comes out clean but be careful not to overcook. Remove pans from oven and allow to cool on a rack for 15 minutes, then turn layers onto parchment covered racks to cool completely.
- NOTE: You will have two pots going while making this frosting so have everything ready to go and have a large hot pad.
- In large saucepan, place 2 1/2 cups sugar, butter, half-and-half, and a dash of salt. Cook on medium until almost to a rolling boil then pour in sugar syrup that you are making in another skillet. You can turn this pot on low while you're melting the sugar in the other skillet.
- At the same time, in a small skillet, place 1/2 cup sugar with 2 tablespoons water and stir. Melt the sugar on medium until it becomes an amber color. You don't stir this sugar after the first time but you will need to shake the skillet and lift it off the burner every few minutes to help distribute the sugar and keep it from scorching. This is the sugar syrup that you will pour into the saucepan.
Once you pour the sugar syrup into the milk mixture, cook slowly on medium to medium-high, stirring constantly until soft ball stage or 235-240 on thermometer (thermometers may register differently).
- Remove pot from heat, pour into a large bowl or the stand mixer bowl, stir in vanilla, and allow to cool for about 15 minutes
Whip on medium to medium-high speed or use hand mixer on medium and whip until the caramel becomes frosting consistency, 5-7 minutes.
- If frosting sets too quickly or gets too thick or starts to separate, you can add a little additional half-and-half or milk.
- Pour about 1/2 cup on top of each layer and the rest over the top of the cake. The frosting should run down the sides and you can spread it slightly with an offset spatula (dip in hot water.)