This made-from-scratch Southern Caramel Cake is a rich, decadent dessert that's perfect for special occasions. The light and fluffy vanilla layer cake is frosted with a buttery caramel icing (no candy thermometer required)! Serve this old-fashioned show-stopper at Thanksgiving, Christmas or any other festive gathering to really wow your guests.
Southern Caramel Cake
An authentic homemade Caramel Cake is truly a Southern classic! You just can't beat the combination of a light and fluffy vanilla butter cake that's smothered in a rich, sweet, made-from-scratch caramel icing. Yes, it requires a bit more time and effort than a boxed mix or a can of store-bought frosting, but in this case it's well worth the effort. I have no doubt that the caramel layer cake will soon become a family favorite in your home, too!
Caramel Icing vs. Caramel Frosting
A true Southern Caramel Cake is coated with a thick layer of caramel icing. The icing has a very firm texture that starts as a thin glaze when it's warm and quickly hardens as it cools. It's very different from a light and fluffy buttercream frosting that you typically find on other traditional layer cakes, and it's impossible to imitate with store-bought canned products. It actually reminds me of a caramel version of the chocolate ganache icing on a Texas Sheet Cake. But don't be intimidated! The actual process is simple, the ingredients are basic, and you certainly don't need a candy thermometer to cook this easy icing. One bite of the decadent dessert and you'll quickly see why this homemade caramel icing is so darn special!
How to Make Caramel Cake from Scratch
A classic caramel cake starts with layers of vanilla cake. This particular recipe has a subtle vanilla butter flavor and a moist, tender crumb. Many traditional caramel cake recipes include three separate layers; however, I prefer to stick with just two layers. It's easier to assemble and it lessens the odds of a crooked cake!
Ingredients for Vanilla Cake with Caramel Frosting
- Shortening: gives the cake a tender, moist and soft consistency. You could probably sub with an equal amount of softened butter, but I prefer the light, fluffy texture of the cake made with shortening.
- Granulated sugar: just enough for a slightly sweet cake. Not too sweet, since it needs to balance out the icing!
- Eggs: add moisture and structure to the cake
- Vanilla extract: provides that classic vanilla cake taste.
- Butter flavoring (also called "Butter Extract"): gives the vanilla cake a very subtle butter taste. You can omit this ingredient or use extra vanilla extract in a pinch.
- Cake flour (or sub with all-purpose flour)
- Baking powder: leavener to help the cake rise
- Baking soda: another leavening agent that reacts with the acid in the buttermilk to lift the cake
- Salt: flavor!
- Buttermilk: the acid in buttermilk reacts with the baking soda to help the cake rise; it also tenderizes the cake for a delicate crumb. See my note below to substitute whole milk for the buttermilk in this recipe.
- Salted butter: the base of your caramel icing
- Dark brown sugar: another important ingredient for the base of your caramel icing; you can sub with light brown sugar if necessary
- Whole milk: added fat and flavor to the icing; do not substitute with fat-free milk or milk alternatives
- Confectioners' sugar: this is the key ingredient to help thicken the caramel icing
- Mix together the cake batter.
- Divide evenly between two round 9-inch cake pans.
- Bake the cakes in a 350 degree F oven for 25-30 minutes.
- Cool completely and level the cakes with a serrated knife before icing.
How to Make Caramel Icing for Cake
While the vanilla cake is absolutely delicious, it's the caramel icing that truly makes this a caramel cake! This icing isn't tricky to prepare -- you just need to have your ingredients organized and ready to go, because the process moves pretty quickly. Since the icing hardens as it cools, do not make this icing in advance -- wait until the cakes are completely cool.
- Melt butter in a saucepan.
- Add brown sugar and whisk to combine.
- Boil the mixture for 2 minutes.
- Add milk, bring to a boil, then remove from heat.
- Transfer to a stand mixer and slowly beat in the powdered sugar.
Spread the warm icing on the cake layers, cool completely, then slice and serve!
The cakes can be baked in advance, wrapped tightly with plastic wrap, and stored at room temperature for 1-2 days or frozen for up to 3 months before icing.
Cover the iced cake and store at room temperature for up to 5 days. You do not need to refrigerate this cake, thanks to the high sugar content in the cooked caramel icing.
- Don't have buttermilk? You can substitute with whole milk, but you'll also need to omit the baking soda and increase the baking powder to 3 teaspoons.
- Easy Caramel Cake: For a shortcut, use a box of vanilla cake mix. You'll still need to prepare the icing from scratch, but the cake mix eliminates half of the work!
- Chocolate Caramel Cake: Use a box of chocolate cake mix or your favorite chocolate cake recipe to make chocolate cake layers instead of vanilla.
- Caramel Spice Cake: Use this caramel icing with layers of spice cake.
Tips for the Best Caramel Cake Recipe
- Line the bottom of the pans with parchment paper, then butter and flour the paper. I like to use this baking spray that has flour in it as a shortcut. The layer of paper between the cake and the pan makes it easy to un-mold, but it also keeps any metallic flavor out of the cake.
- Use cake flour if you can find it. In a pinch, you can substitute with all-purpose flour (the cakes will still be delicious), but cake flour is a low-protein flour that's milled into a fine consistency. The lower protein in cake flour means that less gluten forms when mixing the cake, resulting in a light, tender, and soft crumb.
- Allow the cakes to cool completely before preparing the icing. The cooling process takes about 60-90 minutes. If you try to spread icing on a warm cake, it will just drip right off.
- Level the cakes before icing. Since the caramel icing is different from a thicker cream cheese or buttercream frosting, it's important to make sure that your cakes are level before icing and stacking. Once cool, use a very long serrated knife to horizontally slice off the domed part of each cake.
Extra Tips for the Best Caramel Icing
- Sift the powdered sugar before adding it to the icing. This will ensure a smooth caramel icing with no lumps!
- Dark brown sugar gives the caramel icing a richer, deeper flavor. You can substitute with light brown sugar when necessary, but it's not my preference.
- If the icing is too thin initially, give it a few minutes to cool a little more and firm up slightly. Otherwise you may find it drips off the cake or causes your layers to slide.
- Work quickly when spreading the icing, since it hardens as it cools. If the icing gets too firm before you're done, just microwave in 10-second intervals until it's smooth and spreadable again.
More Old-Fashioned Cake Recipes that You'll Love
- Orange Juice Cake
- Sour Cream Pound Cake
- Caramel Apple Bundt Cake
- Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting
- Rum Cake
FOR THE CAKE:
- ¾ cup shortening
- 1 ½ cups sugar
- 3 eggs
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon butter flavoring
- 2 ¼ cups cake flour (or sub with all-purpose flour)
- 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¾ cup buttermilk
FOR THE CARAMEL ICING:
- 1 cup salted butter
- 16 ounces dark brown sugar
- ½ cup whole milk
- 3 ½ cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
BAKE THE CAKE:
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour 2 9-inch cake pans lined with parchment paper.
- In a large bowl, use an electric mixer to cream together shortening and sugar until light and fluffy (about 5 minutes). Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the vanilla and butter flavoring; mix until fluffy.
- In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
- With the mixer on low, alternately add the flour mixture and the buttermilk, beginning and ending with the flour mixture, beating until well blended.
- Beat the batter for 5 minutes on medium speed.
- Divide the batter evenly between the two prepared pans. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool cakes on a wire rack for about 10 minutes, then remove from pans and cool completely before icing. Once the cake is cool, use a long serrated knife to trim the cake layers if they have domes on top. You want a flat, even surface on the top of each cake.
MAKE THE ICING:
- Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over low heat. Add the brown sugar and whisk to completely combine. Bring to a gentle boil and let the mixture bubble for 2 minutes, stirring constantly with a whisk. Carefully and slowly add the milk (it will bubble up), stirring constantly, until the mixture comes to a full, rolling boil. Remove from heat. Transfer mixture to the bowl of a stand mixer that’s fitted with a whisk attachment.
- With the mixer on low speed, gradually add the sifted confectioners’ sugar, mixing until smooth. The icing should look glossy and will pour easily from the bowl.
- While the icing is still warm, frost the cooled cake layers by spreading the icing between the two cake layers first, then on the top and sides of the cake. The icing will set up as it cools. If the icing gets too hard while you’re frosting the cake, just microwave the icing in 10-second intervals until it’s smooth again.