Monday, October 26, 2015

Caroline's Burnt Sugar Cake

Is it more salted caramel, butterscotch, spice cake without the spice...?

Burnt sugar cake? What is this, Gwen, some kind of recipe gone wrong?

Nope! It's actually a very interesting, allegedly quite historical cake that - while a little labor intensive to make - surprised and pleased everyone who tasted it. Although we did run into some speed bumps, this was a big enough hit that I would definitely be happy to make it again for an enthusiastic audience. There was some debate about what flavor cake everyone thought this was, but I promise, it's not quite like any cake you've ever tasted before.

... Unless you've had a burnt sugar cake before.

So, what's this about allegedly historical?

Caroline breaks the mold by being one of the only American Girl main characters who has a fall birthday, and while she doesn't have a birthday specific story the way most of the other girls do, she does celebrate her tenth birthday in her series. As a treat, her mother bakes her a burnt sugar cake, and while it's not exactly recreated in her party treats set, the cake that comes with it does look pretty similar to the cake I wound up with.

So, this would seem to suggest that this cake flavor has been around for quite a while, right? Well, for the life of me, I couldn't find an actual recipe for burnt sugar cake that was confirmed to exist before 1950. I found plenty of references to it being a very old fashioned cake with a long history, but not much specific confirming that yes, a ten year old growing up during the War of 1812 would have enjoyed this for her birthday. American Girl does employ a few historians to fact check and research their historical characters and books, but some things do fall through the cracks. I'm curious if this is one of them, or if there really is some cookbook out there with an authentic recipe just waiting for me to find it!

Long story short, the recipe I used is a modern one, baking soda and all. It comes from Chickens in the Road, and is a product of the blog author's experimenting with a couple different recipes. She warns any curious cooks that this is a recipe that takes a while, and that didn't bother me too much. What did was the idea of how to make that burnt sugar syrup without having an accident in my kitchen!

When I first heard about burnt sugar cake, I wondered if it meant it was going to be sort of similar to a crème brûlée. Maybe you just dusted it in sugar and took a blow torch to it? How would Mrs. Abbott have done that?

It turns out, you actually need to make a burnt sugar syrup, which is what makes this recipe. There's no other spices or seasonings, and trust me, you don't miss them at all. I was a little dubious about the idea of "burning sugar", but the recipe reassured me that you're really just melting it slowly down in a pan. You take 1 1/3 cups of sugar and put it in a pan or skillet over medium low heat. The sugar ever so slowly starts to melt down. You're encouraged not to watch this too closely, but honestly, I thought it was so much fun watching it melt, I pretty much sat with it the whole time it cooked down.

Once the sugar's dissolved, you're instructed to add 1 1/3 cups of hot water to the pan. This makes the sugar bubble like crazy, and totally startled me when it happened. I would definitely recommend using a pan with high sides so you're not getting splattered with hot sugar.

After letting it cook for another five or ten minutes, you take it off the heat and let it cool before adding it to your other ingredients. The recipe says it will thicken as it cools down, but I was sort of surprised to find out that it never really got to be as thick as some maple syrups I've used, and it was a lot runnier than something like molasses. None of this is a bad thing! It's just not exactly what I was thinking when I started.

It also tastes pretty much exactly like a liquid brûlée topping, which was pretty cool. I'd definitely like to hear any suggestions for more things to do with this!

So, no accidents so far! The reason I was worried about burning the sugar is because when I was a kid, I tried to melt a candy cane in the microwave and... burned it. Pretty badly. The whole house smelled like burned sugar, we might have had to throw out the dish I tried it out in... it was a disaster. Glad to know it didn't happen this time! The pan was even easy to clean after we were done with it.

The rest of the cake is a fairly standard cake. Which is fine! This is a really solid cake base and created a really tasty end product, and I'm definitely of the mind that basic doesn't mean bad. You take 3/4 of a cup of room temperature butter and cream it with 1 1/2 cups of sugar. Add in two egg yolks, beat it again, and then combine it with your dry ingredients: 3 cups of flour, 2 teaspoons of baking powder, and 1/2 of a teaspoon of salt. A cup of burnt sugar syrup and 3/4 of a cup of milk get added in and everything's mixed together into a thick cake batter. Two whipped egg whites make it nice and fluffy when you fold them in.

I wound up with enough batter to make two eight inch cakes. These need to bake in the oven at 350 degrees for about thirty minutes. Like most of my old fashioned, home made cakes, mine actually wound up taking much longer than that.

I don't know how much longer, because unfortunately, I had to run out the door and leave my dad to pull them out of the oven when they were done. They looked okay when I got home.

But when I tried to pull them out of the pans, disaster!

I think - through no fault of my dad, because he is not a baker and I didn't tell him to do this before I left - that because they were left to cool in the pans for so long, the cakes effectively welded themselves to the pans and totally ripped apart when I tried to pry them out. Plus, they really did just seem like fragile cakes, so it's possible I might have run into this issue even if I'd been there to shake them lose a little before trying to get them out of the pans.

Fortunately, my mom and I came up with a plan to help mask the damage!

Chickens in the Road does offer a recipe for burnt sugar frosting, but since that didn't really seem period accurate to us, we decided to recreate the apple fan on top of Caroline's cake. We baked the apples with just a little cinnamon and then arranged them on top of the cake before drizzling the last of the syrup over them.

On the plus side, they did travel well! We brought them up to my aunt's house for a family get together and I was very relieved to discover they were mostly in one piece when we got there. I say mostly, because again, they were pretty busted up right out of the oven.

But that really didn't affect the taste!

I'm not a huge fan of caramel flavor, or butterscotch, which some of my taste testers guessed it might be when they first tasted the cake, but I really liked this. It was sweet without being too sweet, and really didn't need any extra spice or seasoning. I was very surprised!

My mom liked that it was moist, but had a slight chew to it without being too gummy, almost like a real caramel candy! It also didn't lose this moistness after sitting out for a few days, and didn't get soggy and sad looking, either, which was something I was a little worried about. I tend to worry a bit regardless when I bring things to people who haven't gotten to try my food often before, especially when it's showing up in rough shape. The apples can't hide everything! But I think the taste made up for its homeliness, and I definitely think I'm going to be making it again. It really was a big hit!

So, overall, despite there being some road bumps and not being all that sure if a variation on this would really be something Caroline got to enjoy for her tenth birthday, I'm calling this one a success, especially because I got to share it with some family members who - while being faithful blog readers - don't often get to taste the food I make because they live farther away. I appreciated their feedback and input on what they thought of the cake, and the pumpkin cookies I brought with me, too! Hopefully they'll get to try out some more in the coming months!

And happy late birthday, Caroline!


  1. I just wanted to tell you about a GIFT SWAP that I'm having on my blog Spreading My Joy. I would love it if you could be a participant! :)

    Allie D.

  2. Replies
    1. It was super tasty! I'd definitely make it again. :)