Saturday, November 29, 2008

Daring Bakers: Mmmmm...Caramel

I love caramel. I find the sweet, creamy, gooeyness to be irresistible. So it is quite appropriate that I officially end my Daring Bakers maternity leave with Shuna Fish Lydon's signature Caramel Cake with Caramelized Butter Frosting, as published on Bay Area Bites. There was an optional challenge of Alice Medrich's Golden Vanilla Bean Caramels from Pure Dessert. This month's challenge was co-hosted by Delores, Alex, and Jennny, with Natalie helping out with the gluten-free option.

I have to admit that I was a little intimidated when I read what Shuna had to say about this recipe:

"This is one of those cakes that is truly about baking. It may sound strange because aren't all cakes about baking? What I mean is that getting this cake to bake is about balancing fat with acid and protein JUST RIGHT...It would be very easy to get various other flavours in the caramel cake but what's tricky is making sure the flavour does not screw up the liquid-fat-flour ratio too much...Various flavouring ingredients and agents carry with them their own acidity and moisture contents...But I will say this about flavours: you will hide and lose the subtlety of the caramel flavour in the cake and that's what this cake is about."

I initially was thinking about trying to add a little coffee flavor to this cake, as I LOVE the coffee and caramel flavor combination (my guilty indulgence at Starbuck's is a Caramel Macchiato, and my standard order at Cold Stone involves coffee ice cream and caramel), but after reading Shuna's warning, I decided that this cake would probably pose enough of a challenge as is.

I decided to make this cake for Thanksgiving. I started Wednesday night by making the caramel syrup. It's amazing how just sugar and water (and heat) can turn into such a wonderfully flavored syrup! Following the warning of the DBers who'd already made their cakes, I wore long sleeves and a heavy oven mit to pour in the water to stop the caramelization process. I think this was wise. There was lots of sputtering and spitting of molten hot sugar. The instructions said to cook until "dark amber" which I realized as I was making it is a rather subjective term. In retrospect, I think I could have let the syrup cook a little longer before stopping it, and let it develop a richer caramel flavor.

Does this look "Dark Amber?"

Despite that, the syrup still had a wonderful caramel flavor.

Once the syrup was made and cooled, I got started on the cake. I have to admit that I got a little distracted, and realized as I got into it that I added some of the ingredients in the wrong order. I'd started adding my dry ingredients and milk when I realized that I'd forgotten to add the caramel syrup (only the key ingredient to the cake). So I went ahead and added it as soon as I remembered, but I was a little nervous, as Shuna's warning about this cake was floating around the the back of my head. Fortunately, this little lapse did not affect the final product in any way. (Side Note: One of my favorite kitchen tricks involves the measuring out sticky things like honey, molasses, or caramel syrup. If you spray the measuring spoon or cup with cooking spray before measuring out the sticky stuff, then it slides right out when adding it to whatever you are making. It makes things so much easier!)

I made the Caramelized Butter Frosting on Thursday afternoon. I was quite wary when I saw that the first step in this recipe was to brown the butter. I've always been scared of browned butter as everything I've read is that it's easy to burn. And the recipe did not give much direction as to how to go about it. So, I did what I always do in such situations, and I asked Google. Google provided me with several good links, and after reading through a few web pages, I decided it was time to bit the bullet and conquer my fear of browned butter. (The best tip Google gave me was not to use a dark bottomed pan to brown the butter, because it makes it too difficult to see the color of the butter and the milk fats as it's cooking. So I figured I'd share the love and pass that tip on to you!) My butter browned successfully on the first try. And it was nearly as scary as I'd been making it out to be. Once the browned butter had cooled, I started beating in the powdered sugar, and thinning with cream and caramel syrup as necessary. After frosting the cake, I used some of the left over caramel syrup to decorate the cake.

With all the warnings and sputtering caramel and browning butter, it actually came together really easily for me. It seems that the DBs have all had different experiences with this cake. Some said it was dense like pound cake, others said it was light and airy. Mine was somewhere in between. But it was very moist, and DELICIOUS!! It got rave reviews from everyone at the table. I'd read from the other DBs that this cake, particularly the frosting, were very sweet, and I was worried that they might be a little too sweet for me. But they weren't. It was perfectly balanced. The cake was sweet, but not in the gave-me-a-tummyache-and-sent-me-into-a-sugar-coma kind of way. The subtle yet rich flavor of the caramel was just right. Not over powering, but enough to really infuse the cake with that little something extra. And it was even better the next day, after the flavor of the caramel had time to mellow and deepen.

While I could go on and on about how wonderful this cake was, it boils down to this: simply amazing! Go find it and bookmark it. This is definitely a recipe you want to try!

P.S. I didn't get to the caramels, but those that did raved about them, so I'm going to try to get to them before Christmas.

P.P.S. I've been cooking and even remembering to photograph, but I haven't had time to blog. Hopefully I'll get to some of these backlogged recipes soon. But it's so hard to tear myself away from this: