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In Search of the best old fashioned Southern Caramel Cake Recipe

  • m

I know there are a lot of caramel cake recipes floating around, but my grandmother in Louisiana used to make the most amazing caramel cake. It was the icing that was the most amazing and it was simple, but I have never been able to replicate it. Her icing was simply a can of pet milk, sugar and butter. She would cook it until it turned into a rich caramel icing. People came from miles around to eat this cake.

Please share your recipes even if it is not this one. If by chance someone knows how to do the cooked version with pet milk, can you walk me through how long it is supposed to cook to get to the right texture.

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  1. Hello, from a book called "The Cake Club", ("delicious desserts.. from a southern childhood") a recipe for Caramel Glaze to pour over a cake. You put 1/2 cup brown sugar, 3/4 cup heavy cream, 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, and a pinch of salt into a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Stir frequently while it simmers for 7 minutes. (It will thicken.) Cool until lukewarm before pouring on cake.
    Maybe this is close to what you need? I haven't made it myself, just happened to see it. (Oh, it says to use a wooden spoon--I don't know why!)

    1. You may remember a common caramel frosting used in Louisiana and much of the South that used brown sugar, whipping cream, and butter which was cooked to the soft ball stage before beating until it was cool, very thick and fluffy. Sometime a small amount of corn syrup was added. Always a touch of vanilla. Many county cooks used evaporated milk as cream was expensive and not always available.
      Try 1 pound brown sugar, 1 cup Pet or cream, 1/2 stick butter, 1 T corn syrup, pinch of salt.
      Cook to soft ball stage, apx. 236 degrees. Be patient. This may take take 20 minutes. Stir in 2 t. vanilla extract.
      Beat until thick and creamy, about 10 minutes.
      If you use evaporated milk, you may wish to use 1 stick of butter rather than the 1/2 stick. Like all country recipes, the cook adjusts for what's on hand.

      2 Replies
      1. re: MakingSense

        is this for a three layer cake? Do you spread it or pour it over cakes? I assume spread since creamy,but all others say pour.

        1. re: MakingSense

          Yes! That's the one my grandmothers used and it was the most wonderful caramel. Gonna print and save that one, thanks.

        2. I use this caramel icing from an old edition of The Joy of Cooking. It's so good that even on white cake from a mix the result is wonderful: Put in a saucepan 2 cups dark brown sugar packed down hard, 1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, and 1/2 cup cream or milk (I use either). Boil gently to the soft ball stage or 238* on candy thermometer. Let cool just a little bit then add 1 tsp vanilla and beat until it starts to look less shiny then quickly dump it onto the cake and spread. Timing is all but once you've done this you'll get a feeling for when the icing is ready to go on the cake, NOW.

          1. The Louisville, KY Courier-Journal printed a recipe for Easy Caramel Cake with Penuche Frosting on the Wednesday before Labor Day. I tried it, and everyone LOVED it, even though I think my butter was a bit old (I just don't use that much during the summer. . .).

            You can probably find the recipe on the Courier-Journal's web site; if not, I'll post it for you!

            1. Your grandmother's recipe sounds like my mother-in-law's. She uses 3 c. GRANULATED sugar (Not brown sugar)and 1 small can evaporated milk (5 oz.). She removes 3 T. of the sugar and places it in a small frying pan and sets aside. Then she melts the remaining sugar, the milk, and a stick of butter. She brings to a slow rolling boil and cooks to soft ball stage or 115*C on a candy thermometer. Then she removes from heat and adds the 3T sugar (browned) to the mixture with a wooden spoon and immediately frosts the cake.
              Hope this helps!

              1. This sounds like my mama's Pet Milk Cake. It has been famous in my family for 50 years or more. The cake is a light chocolate one and the icing is made from 4 cups of sugar, 1 large can of Pet milk, two sticks of salted butter and 1 Tablespoon of vanilla. All ingredients except vanilla are cooked on medium heat to the soft ball stage, 234 degrees on the candy thermometer, then vanilla is added. Icing then cools a bit before beating to spreading consistency. The icing is tricky but so worth the effort. It is just delicious.

                1. Hi! I am from Atlanta, Ga. and have a very old southern caramel cake recipe. Everyone loves it but be warned, it is very sweet. I hope this helps (recipe below).
                  Allison Hanner

                  Caramel Cake, southern style

                  3 cups sugar
                  1.5 cups shortening
                  3 cups plain flour
                  6 eggs
                  1.5 tsp. baking powder
                  1.5 tsp. vanilla
                  1.5 cups milk

                  Cream sugar and shortening until smooth.
                  Add all other ingredients and beat for 5 minutes.
                  Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes in 3 round
                  cake pans that have been greased and floured.
                  Let cakes cool before icing.

                  1 cup white sugar
                  1 cup brown sugar
                  1 stick butter
                  1 14 oz. can Eagle Brand milk
                  1 tsp. vanilla

                  Combine all ingredients in saucepan and cook
                  2 minutes, stirring constantly, until thick and
                  bubbly. Remove from heat and let cool until fairly thick
                  and just warm. Pour over cakes and assemble layers.
                  Keep piling icing back onto cake with knife until

                  *Hint: Dip your knife in a glass of tepid water as you are icing cake;
                  this keeps the icing smooth so it won’t get “grainy” looking.

                  5 Replies
                  1. re: Shebaac

                    Thanks for the recipe. I am not familiar with Eagle brand milk. Is it condensed? Evaporated? I ask bc I may need to substitute brands. Thanks!

                    1. re: vvvindaloo

                      In Maryland when you say Eagle Brand it is sweetened condensed milk.

                    2. re: Shebaac

                      How do you assemble this cake? Do you frost all of the layers first, and then put them together? Or, do yu frost as you build?

                      1. re: Shebaac

                        when u say white sugar are you talking about granulated or powdered?

                      2. I know of one, but no guarantees... 3 cups sugar, 1 can PET (12 oz), 1 stick butter, 1 tsp vanilla.

                        Cook sugar and evaporated milk together, stirring occasionally, until it reaches to soft ball stage, (235 - 240 degrees) or 10-15 minutes. Remove from heat. Add butter and vanilla, beat until thickened and creamy. I prefer mine less thick and more "runny". It seems to soak into the cake and make it that much more moist. I've also tried pouring the icing on when the cake is still warm.

                        1. Are you sure that it was just Pet milk, sugar and butter. The Pet milk site has a recipe for caramel sauce that also includes corn syrup. I would e-mail the Pet Milk people because many times way back when, women got their recipes from product labels.

                          1. Hello Mrs.D , I learned how to make this caramel icing when I was 13 years old from my mother , and i think this is what you're looking for.
                            This recipe is for a three layer cake.
                            2 cans of pet milk or carnation evaporated milk
                            3 cups of sugar ( I perfer Dimino because its the sweetest)
                            1 stick of butter
                            1 Tspoon vanilla

                            I use a double boiler to keep from over cooking
                            use 3/4 cup of the sugar
                            in a cast iron skillet pour the 3/4 cup of sugar and let melt to a golden caramel glaze
                            pay close attention to the sides of the skillet to make sure all the sugar is caramelize.
                            mix milk, suger,and butter in a heavy duty pot.
                            Cook on medium heat. stir regularly to keep mixture from boiling over.
                            cook until it boils dowm low. Drop a few drops of the mixture in cold water when forms a ball. If the the icing stays together,it is done.then add vanilla. let icing cool before frosting the cake. Good Luck.

                            Ms. J

                            4 Replies
                            1. re: starr37560

                              This made the carmel I have been searching for!!! God Bless you & your Mother!!! One problem though, I caramelized the sugar, then some of it got hard....What did i do wrong? Could you please be detailed about the 1st step of this perfect recipie??? Thanks in advance...You are a Cake Goddess!!!

                              1. re: mamanikki

                                Yes this is almost identical to the recipe used by my great grandmother and my mother. It is truly the best!! The only difference is after you brown the sugar in the skillet (or dutch oven, is what I use then I continue making the icing in the same pan) you add water (it's either 1/2 cup or 3/4 cup, I don't have the recipe in front of me) and it will sizzle and steam and the caramel will get hard, but keep stirring and cooking until the hard caramel incorporates into the water and you are left with a brown watery mixture. Cook this down until it thickens to a syrup. Then add the butter and sugar, etc., and finish the recipe. This will solve your problem.


                                1. re: mamanikki

                                  My recipe is similar but calls for 1 Tbsp corn syrup which I believe keeps the icing soft and prevents it from cracking and turning sugary.

                                  1. re: mamanikki

                                    Late reply, but you didn't do anything wrong. Carmel crystalizes when water hits it. As the milk and other ingredients warm up, the caramel will melt...it is just sugar after all. Keep stirring and you'll get the end result of the recipe, which I thank you for starr37560. :D

                                2. I have a recipe similar to the that. I use
                                  1 can of evaporated milk
                                  3 cups of sugar
                                  1 stick unsalted butter
                                  1 tblspn of vanilla extract
                                  over very low heat melt the butter in a pot, once melted add milk then gradually add sugar..you have to keep stiring once the sugar is added or you will scorch it.You should stir slow and constant.Then add vanilla. Stiring may take up to an hour to get the right texture. You should be able to just pour it on the cake. If you have to scoop it out then you over stirred it. Its best if you pour it over the cake while its still hot, but make sure the cake is cooled completly.

                                  1. I'm new to making this cake but I've learned that the quickest way is to boil in a pot 3 cans of condensed milk. make sure they're covered completely at all times. let the cans cool for about 10 minutes open and stir. you'll have perfect creamy caramel to frost any cake

                                    5 Replies
                                    1. re: scjones1979

                                      How long do you boil the cans?


                                      1. re: scjones1979

                                        condensed milk is a lot different than evaporated milk.

                                        1. re: jeanmarieok

                                          it's "SWEETENED condensed milk" also known as "Eagle Brand", Milk and sugar cooked till reduced and thickened, then canned.

                                          Evaporated milk )ofte " Pet" or "Carnation" brand, is just regular milk, cooked till reduced, then canned. No sugar added.

                                        2. re: scjones1979

                                          This actually makes dulce de leche, which is delicious but has a different texture/flavor (IMO) than the cooked caramel frostings discussed in the rest of this thread.

                                          1. re: scjones1979

                                            I'm new to CHOW and I didn't see an answer to someone's question as to how long the cans of mild are boiled. Also, when you said to keep them covered at all times, is that the water or the pot's lid? Tnx much.

                                          2. My Miss. born grandmother made a mind blowing caramel icing out of PET milk, butter and sugar only. It's similar to the recipes here, only she made it fluffy and soft by skimming it while it boiled for around a half hour over slow heat.....cooled, added vanilla and beat before spreading it.

                                            1. starr37560 is the one you r lookin for ..... It is the Soul Caramel Cake I have been looking for...Good luck...

                                              8 Replies
                                              1. re: mamanikki

                                                What cake do you put this frosting on? I'm curious. I'm hoping to make some old fashioned caramel cupcakes.

                                                1. re: cupcakeproject


                                                  It is funny you should ask for an old fashioned caramel cake/cupcake recipe, as I was home this evening looking through some old newspapers a lady had given me and found the following recipe for Caramel Cake...I found it in Good Stories Newspaper from Augusta, Maine March 1934 edition, submitted in by Mrs. J.T.M. from R. 2. Bringhurst, Indiana. I have broken the recipe down, as it was just in one paragraph, and I have not tried it yet, as I just found it tonight, but do plan on making it this weekend, so if you do make it, please let me know what you think of it. It also listed a Eggless Fruit Cake recipe from the same lady, if you are interested in it, let me know.

                                                  Caramel Cake
                                                  1 cup brown sugar
                                                  1 cup sweet cream
                                                  1/4 tsp. salt
                                                  2 eggs
                                                  1 tsp. vanilla
                                                  2 cups flour
                                                  2 tsp. baking powder
                                                  1/4 tsp. bakind soda
                                                  1 tsp. cocoa

                                                  cream brow sugar and sweet cream together

                                                  beat 2 eggs together and then add to above mixture along with salt & vanilla and sit aside

                                                  sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda and cocoa, then add to mixture above and beat "whole hard" for two minutes

                                                  pour into greased loaf-cake pan and bake in a moderate oven. (it does not state what temp to set oven to or how long to cook it, but I would imagine about 350 and cook until a knife comes out clean)

                                                  Hope this recipe can help you out, I can't wait to try it myself along with the fruitcake also!

                                                  let cool and spread with caramel frosting or any desired icing.

                                                  1. re: momof2boys

                                                    momof2, I am guessing that the "sweet cream" called for in the recipe refers to "sweet cream butter". Did you ever end up trying this recipe? I have recently started collecting old American cake recipes (I especially like ones from the '30s and '40s) and would like to try a traditional Caramel Cake- do you recommend this one?

                                                    1. re: vvvindaloo

                                                      vvvvin--I think it IS just cream, not butter, as there is no milk or other liquid in the recipe. The cream being hte fat and liquid all in one. Easier, too for farmwife--no butter to churn.

                                                      1. re: vvvindaloo

                                                        Over several years, I have tried many recipies for caramel cake. The easiest 1 has proved to be the best & the one I was looking for. 3c granulated sugar, 1 can evap milk & 1 stick butter. I make a butter cake out of box & use the leftover caramel for kids to dip apples in

                                                        1. re: mamanikki

                                                          I'm confused. What do you do with those three ingredients, with a box of cake mix? Left over caramel?

                                                          1. re: toodie jane

                                                            So sorry it took so long to reply, I got a new job. no time for anything...So you take the ingredients all except 1/2 ugar & put them in a dutch oven. the 1/2 cup sugar you brown in a pan. The butter will melt as itcooks. After the sugar is carmelized, add it to the dutch oven. Cook for about 1/2 hour over medium-medium/high heat until it comes to a rolling boil & then continue to boil until you dip a spoon in it & then let a drop into a bowl of cold water & the ball stays together...Add 1 t. vanilla, let cool for 10 or so minutes, & then frost your 2 or 3 layer cake...I like the super-moist butter yellow cake right out of the box. this is the best cake , i think. I usually doupuble the recipie & then my leftover frosting I put into tupperware bowls & when the grandkids come over I give them a couple TBS with their apples & they lick their plates clean. I have to admit I like it too!!!!

                                                2. Here is a recipe passed to me by a friend from S Carolina, the ladies of his family make it:
                                                  (the graphics on the note card indicate it was written in the 40's--50's)

                                                  Mrs Hubbard's Caramel Icing

                                                  2 heaping cups brown sugar
                                                  1 stick butter
                                                  1 sm can Carnation cream [evaporated milk]
                                                  Stir in one direction [over moderate heat] until comes to good boil
                                                  Put 1 tsp vanilla
                                                  Beat till right [ spreading] consistency
                                                  Use about 4 T. to each layer [rest on top and sides]
                                                  Put fine [chopped] nuts between layers and larger pieces on top --optional

                                                  My friend said this goes on a plain homemade vanilla butter cake--it's the frosting that makes it "caramel cake". This is from South Carolina, near Columbia.

                                                    1. re: Chocolatechipkt

                                                      wow--One and a half pounds of butter, 8 cups of sugar and topped off by a cup of Crisco. phew!

                                                      1. re: toodie jane

                                                        Yeah, that's a bit ridiculous in its richness. I was focusing on the concept and hadn't yet noticed the ingredient specifics.

                                                    2. Mrs.D, it appears as if you've got the cake itself covered, so here are two versions of frosting, and they're both really, really good. I think the second one is the one you're looking for. Good luck, happy eating such a grand treat!
                                                      1 c. heavy cream
                                                      1/2 c. packed light brown sugar
                                                      1 T. light corn syrup
                                                      good pinch salt
                                                      1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
                                                      In medium saucepan over medium heat, bring all ingredients except vanilla to the boil, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Boil, stirring occasionally, until thermometer registers 212 degrees, which will take 12-14 minutes. It will thicken, but it should be pourable.

                                                      This one is fully traditional, but note: it takes a long time. Pls. read through before you start!
                                                      3 3/4 c. sugar
                                                      2 sticks butter (this is the one recipe I use salted butter for specifically, otherwise it tastes flat to me)
                                                      2 cans evaporated milk
                                                      Cook sugar and butter in heavy-bottomed pot over high heat, stirring constantly and rapidly, until mixture turns light brown, 7-8 minutes. If it starts to take color on rapidly before this amount of time, turn the heat down but keep it at a boil at all times. Next, use heavy caution when adding the cans of milk, and turn heat down to medium-low; cook stirring constantly until mixture is completely blended and smooth, 8-10 minutes. Cook, stirring occasionally until icing registers 240 degrees - this will take about an hour and a half. Remove from heat, and beat with wooden spoon until thick, glossy and spreadable : 20-25 minutes. A dollop dropped on a plate should BARELY ooze. Ice cake middle, stack and ice the rest. Chill in fridge until ready to serve.

                                                      1. Well, here's what I've got. I'm noticing this is a vey old post, but since it's been updated recently, maybe this will help someone else. I've made this cake many times and it is well worth the trouble and completely delicious.

                                                        Rose's Famous Caramel Cake
                                                        (9" cake pans. Well-calibrated candy thermometer an absolute must, for icing.)

                                                        16 T. unsalted butter, softened(see note below)
                                                        3 1/4 c. cake flour, sifted w/
                                                        1 T. baking powder
                                                        1/2 t. salt

                                                        6 1/4 c. sugar, divided
                                                        2 t. best-quality vanilla extract
                                                        4 eggs
                                                        1 1/4 c. whole sweet milk
                                                        16 t. unsalted butter (no, not a replication of above)
                                                        2 12-oz. cans evaporated milk
                                                        Preheat oven to 350, and set rack in middle. You'll need two greased, floured 9" cake pans: use 1 T. from first 16 T. for this. Make sure ingredients are room temperature for best result.
                                                        Put sifted flour mixture in large bowl, and set aside. Put remaining 15 1/2 T. butter and 2 1/4 c. sugar in another good-sized bowl, and beat w/ electric mixer until fluffy; about 3 minutes. Add vanilla and eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. (about 1 minute per egg added.)
                                                        Add flour mixture and milk alternately to butter mixture in 3 batches, again beating well after each addition. (It's a fairly sturdy cake, and better you should overbeat than underbeat, which will result in a tough, streaky cake...) Divide batter between pans, and bake until golden, testing after 30 minutes, but they may take up to 35. Cool on rack 10 minutes; remove cakes and let cool completely. Slice tops off cakes to level them.
                                                        To make icing,clip candy thermometer to side of pan, or put it into pan. Cook remaining 4 c. sugar and butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over high heat, stirring quickly and constantly, until light brown, roughly 7-8 minutes. CAREFULLY stir in evaporated milk, and reduce heat to medium-low. Continue to cook, stirring constantly, until mixture is smooth, 8-10 minutes. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until icing registes 240 on candy thermometer, about 2 1/2 hours. Remove from heat, and beat with heavy wooden spoon until thick and glossy, and spreadable not drippy, about 20-25 minutes. Yes, ouch. It helps to have another set of arms for this step. Ice bottom layer; top w second layer and ice the outside and top. It's not traditional, but I also like to press chopped toasted pecans into the sides of the cake, and I never got any complaints. This is a fantastico cake and worth every bead of sweat.

                                                        10 Replies
                                                        1. re: mamachef

                                                          wow, how bad could it be with 4 sticks of butter? Truly, sounds absolutely divine, thanks.

                                                          1. re: pine time

                                                            Crazy-rich and crazy-good. Sided by a scoop of vanilla bean or butter pecan? It will transfer you to another, gentler nicer universe.

                                                            1. re: mamachef

                                                              That universe must not have calories, right? :)

                                                          2. re: mamachef

                                                            I am easily confused. The frosting takes 5 tablespoons and 1 teaspoon of butter? And it cooks for about 2.5 hours?
                                                            I have a birthday coming up and this sounds like it should be my birthday cake!

                                                            1. re: Weeziemom

                                                              Yes, it does have to cook for approximately that long to reach the spreadable, fudgy-caramel texture without burning first, and no, it doesn't call for 5 T. and one t. butter, it calls for 16 T. or two sticks of butter.
                                                              It would be a screamin' birthday cake - go for it!

                                                              1. re: mamachef

                                                                @ mamachef...I made one of the above recipes yesterday and it took about an hour for the caramel to cook. I could've left it to cook longer but it was deeeeelicious. I'm going to make another one using yours. Question though, you beat for 25 min after it comes off of the heat, would it work to put it in a stand mixer and let it beat that way? Save some arm strength for spreading the cake? ;-)

                                                                1. re: Lonnikins

                                                                  Absolutely, on low. Use the regular beaters at first,t and then switch to the paddle as it thickens.

                                                                2. re: mamachef

                                                                  Okay 16 Tbsp. for the frosting.
                                                                  "Spreadable, fudgy-caramel texture." Don't think I can wait 17 days 'till my birthday.
                                                                  Thanks for the clarification.

                                                              2. re: mamachef

                                                                Thanks mamachef for a great recipe. I made this yesterday and it is fabulous. Just wanted to post in case others are impatient like me... You have to wait until the frosting is cooled almost to room temp and "not drippy" as the directions state. I beat it in my stand mixer for almost an hour and it was still very warm. I got impatient and decided to frost anyway, despite it being pretty oozy (and against my own better judgment). That wasn't the right move as I spent the next hour scooping all the lava-like frosting back onto the cake. It did set up eventually and it was amazing. :-)