The Vintage Southern Caramel Cake We Still Request For Our Birthdays

Each slice has a whole lot of love and sugar.

Caramel Cake
Photo: Jennifer Davick

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. And for good reason. Southern Caramel Cake is a classic. We love this yellow cake smothered in rich caramel frosting, and you will too.

Cake for Every Birthday

My grandmother's mother never wrote down the recipe to pass down, and it has haunted her 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 crazier. To this day, we still all request she make it for our birthdays, for the sake of our enjoyment and her never-ending quest.

As Good as Mama's

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.

Tips for the Best Caramel Cake

The complication of a Southern Caramel Cake isn't in the cake itself. Though plenty of care should be taken in cooling the cake before frosting, the cake baking is a pretty standard process. Pay attention to the frosting because that's what shines in this delectable dessert. Since its base begins the same way you make caramel, it's easy to see how things can get sticky quickly.

Store the cake at room temperature for a day or two, or refrigerate and bring to room temperature before serving.

When you make this 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!

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles