Family Recipes: Caramel Frosting

If you’ve ever asked a family member for a favorite recipe, or perused your grandmother’s cookbooks, marveling at the notes she’s taken in the margins and the bits of dried-on ingredients left as artifacts of her pursuits, then you know there’s a certain comfort to be taken in preserving the heritage that is contained therein.

The recipe I’m sharing today holds a special place in my epicurean heart.  I grew up spending my summers in rural Mississippi.  Mind you, I lived my regular life, during the school year, in metro-Atlanta, experiencing all of the hustle and bustle that came along with that lifestyle.  My summers, though, were reserved for romping barefoot through fields and swimming in murky lakes alongside who-knows-what freshwater creatures.

With those fresh-air pastoral adventures came equally fresh tasting simple foods.  Breakfasts of eggs and biscuits with raw honey, lunches of fresh garden tomato and mayonnaise sandwiches, and dinners of fresh-caught fried catfish and fried okra straight from the garden.

At least once during the summer, we would gather with other members of our extended family for a day-long celebration, meats slow-cooking on the barbecue pit and loads of casseroles and fresh-baked desserts.  As children, we would run around like wild animals all day long, working up an appetite that could only be quenched by devouring heaping plates of delicious homemade dishes followed by equally heaping servings of sweets.

It’s really hard to pinpoint one favorite dessert – there are really just too many to try to narrow it down.  My grandmother’s lemon meringue pie ranks right up there with the best of them.  However, there is one elusive treat that I have tried for years to replicate – one mysteriously simple cake that brings with it memories of my sweet great-Aunt Thelma, who always made a point to bake this cake when she knew I was coming to visit.

My mother mastered the technique years ago, and so would bake it for my birthday every year at my request.  I, however, am still struggling to perfect it.  What you see here is my best effort yet, and so I’m sharing it as a near-triumph to commemorate the end of summer and the building of my own culinary history.

Aunt Thelma’s Caramel Cake

side note: this is actually just a recipe for the Caramel Frosting.  The cake is whatever yellow cake recipe you like.  I think Aunt Thelma used a boxed mix.  I used a sour-cream yellow cake recipe from the Joy of Cooking for this.


3 cups granulated sugar

1 can evaporated milk

1 stick of butter

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

pinch of salt

1. Combine 2.5 cups of sugar and the evaporated milk in a heavy bottomed saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring until sugar dissolves.  Insert a candy thermometer and cook to Firm Ball stage.

2. When sugar/milk mixture is almost to Firm Ball stage, take the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar and cook it in a cast-iron skillet, allowing it to caramelize, but not scorch.  It should be a deep amber color.

3. When the milk/sugar mixture has reached Firm Ball, add the caramelized sugar to the mix and cook the entire thing to Hard Ball Stage.

4. Remove from the heat and add the stick of butter and the vanilla.

5. With a hand-held mixer, beat the mixture until it has cooled and is almost to spreading consistency.  Add the salt and continue mixing until it is at spreading consistency.

6. Spread on the cake or cupcakes of your choice.

A few notes:  I don’t think I cooked my final product to Hard Ball.  The caramelized sugar splattered on my thermometer and I couldn’t see what my temperature was.  Thus, when I went to beat the frosting, it never set up all the way.  It was fine when it was cold, but at room temperature it was a little soft.  Also, mine tasted more like a bruleed caramel because I let my sugar cook a bit too long, and it got mildly scorched.  It made the caramel frosting taste like creme brulee, though, which is not such a bad thing.


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