My Grandmother Always Made the Same Vintage Southern Cake For Our Birthdays—And We Still Request It
Each slice has a whole lot of love and sugar.
I couldn’t even count how many times I’ve heard my grandmother lament about the same exact problem that, I’m pretty sure, she made up entirely in her head: “It just doesn’t taste like my mama’s did.” Every time, she is referring to the icing on the caramel cake. The most she’ll ever admit is that this one got “so close I could taste it.” In fact, she has all but convinced herself that the more she makes it, the closer she gets to her self-imposed pinnacle of Southern baking, which is her mother’s caramel cake from Bainbridge, Georgia, with a caramel icing so good that folks still talk about it.
Her mother never wrote down the recipe to pass down, and it has haunted my grandmother ever since. That might be why whenever one of her kids’ or grandkids’ birthdays rolled around, a caramel cake would head up the celebration. None of us complained, because it was downright delicious; but for her, I can only describe it as self-induced torment.
It would never be up to her standards, though it was the best caramel icing I’ve ever seen, never too light, too dark, or at all gritty. (At any moment, homemade caramel icing on the stovetop is only about 30 seconds away from not being caramelly enough, crystallizing, or coming out to taste plain burnt.) And so it became a family tradition of sorts: you get caramel cake on your birthday, and Meme drives herself a little more crazy. To this day, we still all request she make it for our birthdays, for the sake of our enjoyment and her never-ending quest.
To anyone else who tries my grandmother’s fantastically spongy layers encased in smooth caramel icing, the vintage cake is a decadent treat that she’s all but mastered. She could sell out at the farmers’ market in an hour. But to her, it will never be “as good as Mama’s,” and I’ve grown to realize that it most likely isn’t about any secret ingredient or number of minutes on the stovetop at all. It’s about Mama. Sadly, that can't be replicated—but Meme is sure going to keep trying.
If you’ve never tried your hand at making classic Southern caramel cake, know that it is worth the trouble. You can’t go wrong with our recipe for Old-Fashioned Caramel Cake, our Caramel-Frosted Pound Cake, and our occasion-worthy Sea Salt-Caramel Cake.
It’ll be love at first sugary bite. My grandmother’s best advice for newbies? Don’t ever stop stirring that sugar and don’t let it out of your sight. Happy baking!