Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Caramel Cake

By Rosanna's eldest daughter, Alessandra Wollner

For my 13th birthday, my mother made an extraordinary cake. I can’t recall why she decided to make this particular cake for that particular birthday, but after she did, there was no going back. Since the advent of my thirteenth birthday, I’ve had a decade to explore the vast realm of birthday cake prospects. Despite the staggering array of options, I’ve stayed faithful to one cake. Without fail, I have demanded and enjoyed the same extraordinary cake on every birthday since my 13th.

What makes this cake special is the pitch perfect way in which the flavors harmonize with each other. The salty, sweet, buttery notes of the caramel frosting melt into the slightly savory, nutty essence of the cake crumb. My mother has awarded this cake with the highest accolade she bestows on food, calling it “Ambrosia of the Gods.” My great grandmother just called it Caramel Cake.

The cake itself is dense from the addition of ground walnuts. It tastes like fall; never mind that my birthday comes at the end of May. The frosting is what my friend Emilie calls “not allowed.” What she means to say is that this frosting is the most delicious and decadent frosting she has ever tasted. When people ask me what the frosting is made of, I tell them broccoli and flax seed. I tell them it’s definitely not made with butter, brown sugar, confectioner’s sugar, and heavy cream.

The recipe for Caramel Cake came from my great grandmother, Grandma Edwards. She died soon after my mother made Caramel Cake for the first time, and I never did ask Grandma Edwards where she got the recipe. All I know is that she grew up in Kansas, though her family had immigrated to Virginia a few generations before. We think the cake must have its origins in the South. When my mother went on a trip to Charlotte, NC, last summer she excitedly called me to report Caramel Cake sightings on restaurant menus and in bakery windows the city over.

Obviously, I’m not the only admirer Caramel Cake has seduced into its thrall. After my mother made it that first birthday, Grandma Edward’s Caramel Cake became legend among my friends. Throughout the year, my mother would be repeatedly begged to make the cake, though there was no birthday to celebrate. My friends never did get my mother to make the cake just for kicks. But, since moving away from home, whenever an important birthday arrives, I seize the opportunity to treat my friends to Grandma Edward’s Caramel Cake.

Each time I make the cake, I consult my mother’s book Coming Home for the recipe. Whenever I do this, I feel proud.

I feel proud because eating Caramel Cake creates what I call a Transcendent Food Moment. This is a cake so delicious that, after the first bite, it forces you stop talking. The deep and pervasive satisfaction that arises from eating Caramel Cake mirrors the deep satisfaction and pleasure I take from my relationship with the birthday celebrant, making Caramel Cake an ideal birthday gift.

I feel proud to make Caramel Cake because when I make it I know I’m following a recipe with a long and storied history. I am keeping alive a recipe alive that has, over the course of four generations, migrated from the American South to the Pacific Northwest, across the country to New England, and made its way back again to its current residence in Northern California. I carry Caramel Cake with me, and by doing so I carry on my family’s heritage as well.

When I make my great grandmother’s Caramel Cake, I proudly share a treasured family tradition. I’m proud because I know that to do so makes mother very, very happy.

Recipe for Caramel Cake
For the yellow cake layers
2 2/3 cups cake flour, plus more for pans
2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup finely ground walnuts
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
2 cups sifted sugar
4 large eggs, separated
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup milk

For the brown-sugar frosting
1 1/2 cups packed brown sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream, plus more if necessary
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup confectioners' sugar

Make the cake layers: Preheat the over to 350 degrees.  Butter 2 (8-inch) round cake pans and dust them with flour.  Grind 2 cups of walnuts in a food processor, or chop as finely as possible.

Combine the flour, baking powder, salt, and ground walnuts together into a medium bowl. Set aside.

In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the butter until soft.  Continuing to beat, add the sugar slowly, then beat until the mixture is very light and fluffy.  Beat in the egg yolks, one at a time, beating well after each addition, then stir in the vanilla.  Add the flour mixture and stir to combine, then stir in the milk.

In a separate bowl, using a whisk or clean beaters, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Gently fold them into the batter.  Divide between the prepared pans and bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center come out clean.  Let cool in the pans on wire racks for 5 minutes, then invert the pans and remove the cakes.  Let cool completely.

Make the brown-sugar frosting: Combine the brown sugar, 1/2 cup cream, the butter, and the salt in a large saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the mixture just comes to a boil.  Remove from the heat, transfer to a mixing bowl, and add the vanilla and confectioner's sugar.  Using an electric mixer, beat on high speed until smooth and creamy.  If the frosting is too dry, add a bit more cream.  It should be thick and easy to spread.

Assemble the cake: Put one cake layer on a cake stand and frost the top.  Add the second layer and frost the top and sides.  Serves 6 to 8.

For more delicious recipes like this one, check out my mother's book, Coming Home: A Seasonal Guide to Creating Family Traditions, where she has over 50 recipes divided by the four seasons, but perfect all year-round.

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