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Southern Caramel Cake

Southern caramel cake with homemade caramel icing from butter, sugar, and milk. This one tastes just like Grandma’s!

A classic favorite, Southern Caramel Cake is just a regular yellow cake frosted with a sweet caramel cake icing. Some folks like to drizzle the caramel icing in between the layers and just let it drip from the top down the sides, and others like to make a thicker caramel cake frosting.

Slice of caramel cake on a plate with whole cake in background.

I’ve done it both ways and my family prefers the thicker caramel cake icing 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?

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Caramel Cake

When the book and subsequent movie The Help came out, Southern Caramel Cake became popular all over the country. Everyone wanted to make Minny’s caramel cake recipe—not to mention that chocolate pie

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 cake icing over a moist white or yellow cake.

There are even variations with different frostings, like this Easy Caramel Cake with Creamy Cream Cheese Frosting. Yum!

Southerners love cakes and you’ll find a caramel cake recipe on nearly every list of favorite Southern cakes!

Side of a whole caramel cake on a white cake stand.

Caramel Cake Icing

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 cake icing 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.

Tools for Making Southern Caramel Cake

You’ll need a heavy, large saucepan for the caramel cake icing and good cake pans for the caramel cake layers. I love these from Fat Daddio!

You also need a candy thermometer like this one, and a wooden spoon. And if you want to save yourself from arm spasms, you’ll want to use a stand mixer for the caramel cake icing.

Ingredients for Caramel Cake

  • All-purpose flour – I use White Lily for almost all baking
  • Salt
  • Granulated sugar
  • Unsalted butter
  • Water
  • Baking soda
  • Buttermilk – not lowfat
  • Large eggs
  • Vanilla

Ingredients for Caramel Cake Icing

  • Granulated sugar
  • Unsalted butter
  • Half-and-half, Whole Milk, or Evaporated Milk
  • Salt
  • Vanilla

How to Make Southern Caramel Cake

**Cook’s Tip: I use either my 3-layer yellow layer cake recipe  or the cake from my sheet cake recipe (which is the caramel cake recipe included here) which makes 2 thick or 3 thin layers, and while the layers are cooling, I start the caramel cake 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.

Step 1.

Preheat the oven to 350 and butter and flour, then line with parchment paper, either two 9-inch cake pans for thick layers or three 9-inch cake pans for thinner layers.

Step 2.

Sift 2 cups plus 2 tablespoons flour and salt into large bowl. Add sugar and whisk until blended.

Step 4.

Combine butter and water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and pour over the flour and sugar. Whisk until blended.

Step 5.

Add the soda, buttermilk, eggs, and vanilla, and whisk until well-blended and smooth. Pour batter into greased and floured baking pans.

Step 6.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, checking cake after about 15 minutes. 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.

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How to Make Caramel Cake Icing

**Cook’s Tip: It’s important to have all the ingredients measured out and ready, and have your candy thermometer ready. I’m sure Miss Ruby made this without a candy thermometer, but I’m more comfortable using one than trying to guess.

Step 1.

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.

Sugar in skillet to make caramel icing.

**Cook’s Tip: 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:

Sugar starting to melt in skillet for caramel icing.

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.

Sugar starting to crystallize in the skillet.

I pick up, shake, and set down the skillet multiple times to keep the sugar from getting to hot. The crystals will continue to melt until the sugar looks like this:

Melted sugar in skillet for caramel cake icing.

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 caramel cake 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 cake frosting in your monogrammed napkins.

Caramel sugar starting to caramelize in skillet.

It’s a personal preference as to how you want the icing 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):

Dark amber caramel syrup in skillet for caramel icing.

Step 2.

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.

Butter and sugar melting in pot for caramel icing.

Go ahead and attach the candy thermometer to the side so you’ll be ready.

Step 3.

Once the sugar dissolves and the liquid comes almost to a rolling boil, pour in the sugar syrup from the skilletcarefully, because it will cause the milk to bubble up.

Butter and sugar and milk boiling in pot for caramel cake.

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.

Step 4.

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°.

Cooked caramel icing in saucepan ready to whip for caramel cake.

Step 5.

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 until the caramel becomes frosting consistency. This may take 20 minutes depending on your mixer.

**Cook’s Tip: The caramel cake icing 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 icing the first layer because it will start getting thick by then.

Step 6.

Frost the cake immediately using all the caramel cake frosting. It may 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.

Step 7.

Place the frosted cake in the refrigerator for at least an hour to set the frosting. Serve at room temperature.

Overhead view of whole caramel cake on white stand with knife and server.

Tips for Making Southern Caramel Cake

  • The caramel cake icing can get quite thick and may need to be thinned with additional milk
  • If you want a lot of frosting, you may want to make this recipe twice. I do not recommend just doubling the ingredients.
  • You can use whole milk instead of half-and-half. You can also use evaporated milk, although it does change the texture slightly—I love this caramel cake icing made with evaporated milk though! It’s more of a candy-like icing.

Note: This caramel cake recipe makes two layers.

If you prefer a thicker 3-layer caramel cake, please try the Yellow Layer Cake Recipe but be sure and spread the caramel cake icing a little thinner between layers or just make a second batch of frosting, which is what I usually do. 


Side of a whole caramel cake on a white cake stand.

Southern Caramel Cake

Yield: 15 servings
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 1 hour 15 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

Southern caramel cake with homemade caramel icing from butter, sugar, and cream. This is a classic, favorite family recipe.

Ingredients

Cake

  • 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

Frosting:

  • 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

Instructions

Cake:

  1. 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.
  2. Sift 2 cups plus 2 tablespoons flour and salt into large bowl. Add sugar and whisk until blended.
  3. Combine butter and water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and pour over the flour and sugar. Whisk until blended.
  4. 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.

Caramel Frosting

  1. NOTE: You will have two pots going while making this frosting so have everything ready to go and have a large hot pad.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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).
  5. 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.
  6. Whip on medium speed or use hand mixer on low-to-medium and whip until the caramel becomes frosting consistency, can be up to 20 minutes.
  7. If frosting sets too quickly or gets too thick or starts to separate, you can add a little additional half-and-half or milk.
  8. 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.)

Notes

Recipe Tips for Making the Best Southern Caramel Cake:

  • Don't start the icing until your cake is out of the oven. The icing needs your full attention.
  • It's important to have all the ingredients measured out and ready, and have your candy thermometer ready.
  • The caramel cake icing can get quite thick and may need to be thinned with additional milk
  • If you want a lot of frosting, you may want to make this recipe twice. I do not recommend just doubling the ingredients.
  • You can use whole milk instead of half-and-half. You can also use evaporated milk, although it does change the texture slightly—I love this caramel cake icing made with evaporated milk though! It's more of a candy-like icing.
Nutrition Information:
Yield: 15 Serving Size: 15 servings
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 518Saturated Fat: 13gCholesterol: 80mgSodium: 132mgCarbohydrates: 80gSugar: 67gProtein: 3g

Did you make this recipe?

Share a photo and tag me!

More caramel-based recipes:

Homemade Caramel Sauce

Caramel Cheesecake

Update Notes: This post was originally published June 10, 2013, and on October 13, 2018, was updated with one or more of the following: step-by-step photos, video, updated recipe, new tips.


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Morgan

Sunday 27th of September 2020

"And your guests will spit it out delicately in your monogrammed napkins."

Haha!! I love this!! There's nothing quite like connecting with another southern woman. Thank you for this recipe and your cheeky comment that made my day!!

Trish

Wednesday 20th of March 2019

I made this cake and icing last night. It was delicious! The caramel turned out perfectly! The cake is even better today after it’s been in the fridge overnight. I followed the instructions step by step. Thank you for this wonderful recipe!

Pat

Sunday 21st of January 2018

Made an error in temperature should be 220. Also I was not clear about leaving icing cooking while you frost between each layer. Work quickly.

Pat

Sunday 21st of January 2018

This icing is as easy as yours with the same results. I make my sugar syrup the same way as your recipe. Here is where we differ:

1 Lg.+1 Sm. can Carnation evaporated Milk 2 1 /2 Cups Sugar + 1/2 cup for sugar syrup 3 Tbs. Karo Syrup 1 Sticks Unsalted Butter 2 Tbs. Plain flour Pinch Salt Mix all together ( except sugar syrup you add it as your recipe statemented) treat this the same as in your recipe. The differences is you only cook this to about 120 have layers ready (if you put layer in freeze for 30 minutes they will be easier to handle). Leave the icing cooking on very low heat . Take it off heat and frost the top and sides of cake This makes more icing than your recipe.

Chsrla Tisdale

Monday 20th of November 2017

if I choose to use the heavy whipping cream is it the same amount as the half and half

Lucy

Tuesday 21st of November 2017

Yes, the amount would be the same.

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