Let Me Eat Cake {yellow cake with caramel frosting}

I used to work in an independent school in town. It was a rewarding job filled with cute middle schoolers desperately trying to survive their awkward years and high schoolers testing their boundaries while also wanting to win approval of parents, teachers and even the odd administrator like me. While there were life-lessons-a-plenty to be had, perhaps one of the most important things I learned during my short tenure was that schools are the epicenter for sharing baked goods. PTA members and room mothers came to the lounge armed with cookies, bars, pies, cupcakes and the like and we, the faculty and staff, were encouraged to eat them as repayment for helping to shape the young minds of these children entrusted to the school 180 days a year. Seems fair.

One day, I sauntered into the empty lounge during class time to see a box from a local bakery on the table. The cake inside looked interesting if not familiar. Golden brown, mostly, with a matte layer of frosting on top and what looked like a buttery filling between four layers of yellow cake. Being an equal opportunity snacker, I decided I would investigate. Something that doesn’t often happen in one’s 20’s, this is a day in which I distinctly remember trying something amazing for the first time. I took one bite and actually exclaimed upon tasting what I eventually realized was a yellow cake with caramel frosting. Exclaimed. I was alone in the lounge moaning and mumbling about this buttery confection that had just shaken my appreciation of cakes to the core.

Because I wanted to be able to eat this cake whenever I wanted, I decided I needed to figure out how to make it. Teach a man to fish, they say… But it wasn’t easy. It was hit and miss both with the homemade yellow cake and the frosting. I didn’t used to be a big cake baker and when it came time for the husband’s birthday, he was always excited about yellow cake from a box and chocolate icing from a can. Worked for me.

But this was different. I knew that if I was going to create this transformative taste experience it had to be authentic. So I scoured my Cake Bible and Joy of Cooking. I implored my dear friend and expert baker over at Life in Recipes for help and she even shared with me her great aunt’s recipe for caramel frosting. Unfortunately, that recipe required a candy thermometer and after three attempts yielding burnt sugar bound for the trash can, I threw up my hands.

Finally I turned to Christopher Kimball. In many ways, America’s Test Kitchen makes me insane with their scientific approach to cooking. Pulse your dough EIGHT times for .42 seconds each time and sear the outside of your tuna on a grill that has been elevated 7″ off the ground by four ramekins and a hand-built cedar platform. Whatever. Just cook. But when it comes to baking, it turns out that their insane precision is actually beneficial.

It is because of Bridget Lancaster, the lanky man in the bow tie and their minions that I was able to eat a light and fluffy yellow cake with homemade caramel frosting for breakfast yesterday and for dessert last night. And now, because this cake changed my life, I share it with you. It’s a simple sheet cake but I’m sure you could make cupcakes or maybe even a layer cake out of it but there’s no need. It’s really just a flat surface upon which to perch the frosting.

For the cake, you’ll need the following:

  • 2 3/4 cups cake flour (I use Swan’s Down – it comes in a box in the baked goods aisle)
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 3/4 cups sugar
  • 4 large eggs at room temp
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract (I used a bit less)
  • 1 1/2 cups whole milk at room temp

Preheat your oven to 350º and set up a rack in the center of the oven. I’ll share with you a few basic rules that I learned from my grandmother that apply to this cake and others. Always use room temperature butter, eggs and milk. When you’re adding dry and wet ingredients into a batter, always alternate adding them and start and end with the dry ingredients. When prepping a pan to cook, always butter and flour it (parchment is a good idea too but I generally don’t turn out a sheet cake onto a platter so I don’t think it’s necessary here).

First things first, whisk the flour, baking powder and salt together in a bowl and set aside.

In a large bowl or a stand mixer, beat the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy (about 3-6 minutes).

Light? Absolutely. Fluffy? Check. Now beat in the eggs one at a time and the vanilla until combined – about 30 seconds.

This trick I learned from my mother – always crack your eggs individually into a separate bowl. This way if you have one bad egg you’ll know before adding it to the cake batter. Now – I’ve never actually come  across a bad egg (literally, no – figuratively, yes) but evidently back in the day it was touch and go. Wonky chickens. Who knows.

Now it’s time to reduce the mixer speed to low and beat in the dry ingredients and the milk. You’ll add 1/3 flour mixture followed by 1/2 of the milk, then another 1/3 flour, the rest of the milk and then the rest of the flour. Get it? Beat all of this until only just combined.

Pour the batter into the prepared 9″x13″ pan. Smooth it out and give it a tap on the counter and toss it in the oven for 25-30 minutes or until a tester comes out mostly clean (a couple moist crumbs won’t hurt).

Let your cake cool for 2-3 hours until you frost it with the world’s most delicious icing.

Speaking of:

  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 cup dark brown sugar, packed
  • 1/4 cup whole milk
  • 2 cups confectioners’ sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Don’t get too worked up about the fact that you have to cook sugar here. This is remarkably unscientific for ATK. It’s sort of slacker’s caramel because you’re using a shortcut with brown sugar rather than cooking white sugar until it’s caramel, which is where I failed in the past.

This comes together pretty quickly and so I recommend having everything prepped and ready to go before you get started. Measure out your milk, confectioners’ sugar and vanilla and get the wooden spoon and hand-mixer out, plugged in and ready to go.

Bring the butter and brown sugar to a boil in a medium saucepan that you don’t mind using a hand mixer in (i.e. don’t use a non-stick pan or anything coated).

Make sure that you’re stirring constantly until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture becomes foamy – about 3-5 minutes. I called in reinforcements for the photography here and think that he did well!

This photo shows the sugar and butter approaching being dissolved and foamy but not quite there. Once you hit that, whisk in the milk, bring the mixture to a brief boil and then remove from the heat. I carry the pan over to the counter and onto a hot pad.

Working fairly quickly here, stir in the confectioners’ sugar and vanilla with a wooden spoon and then grab your mixer and beat until smooth – about 2-3 minutes.

Yum. So much yum. Pour the warm frosting over the cake and get really excited. You’re about to indulge in the fruits of your labor. You can try to let the frosting cool about 25 minutes before cutting yourself a piece of cake or not. It’s your cake. You made it and you can do whatever you want with it.

I recommend two servings a day, at breakfast and after dinner – daily cake parentheses – with coffee or milk as directed.

Print me.