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Old-Fashioned Caramel Cake

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Layer cakes are joyful, towering celebrations. Even in these super busy times, it’s nice to dust off the cake pans and bake a layer cake at Christmas. I like Red Velvet and Coconut Cake, but I have to say my favorite just might be Old-Fashioned Caramel Cake. It was my grandfather’s favorite holiday treat, too. The Southern sweet tooth reigns in supreme glory during the holidays. Divinity, fudge, mints, melt-aways, wedding cookies, and pies all had their place, but he loved Caramel Cake the most.

Holiday Rush

You might think baking a cake during the Holiday Rush as absolute sheer madness and decide you’d rather pick one up at a bakery. I can understand; there’s no doubt the holidays can be hard. I admit to often having a bit of holiday melancholy. It might be triggered by a song, a little taste of something, or even an aroma wafting through the air. Sometimes it’s the glimmer and twinkle of a sparkling ornament in the tree. I feel my throat tighten so much it hurts and find my eyes full, holding back a tear or two. Generally, I am a very happy person, but I think that during the holidays I just miss the folks I’ve lost a little bit more. Undoubtedly, both of my grandparents are at the top of that heavy-hearted list.

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Gentle Giant

My grandfather, whom I called Dede, was a mountain of a man, nearly 6-feet tall with sculpted, strong arms and massive, thick hands. Rumor has it he was only in one fight in his adult life. His appearance was foreboding, but the truth of it is that he was a gentle giant. He’d cry at the sound of a church organ playing his favorite hymn and tended his flowers just as well as he did the vegetables that helped to feed his family. He was a hard-working man and had grown up in the country, fishing and farming his entire life. Dede only attended school until 8th grade; he had to go to work and help support his family, but he was an avid reader. When I was a child, he would tap my young head and say, “Get it up here, they can’t ever take that away from you.”

My grandmother was from a more privileged family and had attended college. They fell in love at a fish fry on the Savannah River and eloped. (I still can’t believe it! Can you imagine how scandalous that was?! And, to defend my grandmother’s honor, their eldest child was not born shortly thereafter.) My grandfather was a Greyhound bus driver and made a solid middle class living; Mama says they never went without. He amassed a good deal of land and he also put his three of his daughters through college, a nod at the education he hadn’t been able to achieve.

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Sweet Memories

Needless to say, Dede and my grandmother were quite a pair. This Old Fashioned Caramel Cake is especially bittersweet during this time of year because my grandparents used to prepare this cake as a team. They did a lot of cooking together, especially during the holidays. They made buttery yeast rolls; spicy cheese straws; ambrosia prepared with freshly grated coconut; and boozy fruitcake, just to name a few of their classic dishes.

For this caramel cake, Meme would “burn” the sugar in her cast iron skillet and Dede would whip the molten mixture by hand, using a wooden spoon until it cooled enough to spread on the tender yellow rounds of cake. I can see him now, sitting in his chair at the kitchen table, in his plaid shirt. His glasses would slip down just a bit and his brow might glisten a bit in the warm kitchen, but his bright blue eyes were sparkling and he was happy. He loved to cook, too, and he loved to be surrounded by his family and loved ones during the holidays.

So, now, I hold him in my heart when I pull my cake pans from the shelf. I hold him in my heart when I cream the butter and burn the sugar in the very same cast iron skillet. I hold him in my heart with every stroke of the offset spatula as I slather the caramel icing on the firm yellow rounds. I cherish his memory and squeeze it tight, so it can’t fade. And, when it’s all finished and hours later, I am finally able to slice the cake take a bite, I feel and taste his love in each and every buttery crumb and sugary morsel.

Happy holidays to you and your family.

Bon Appétit Y’all!
Virginia Willis

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Old-Fashioned Caramel Cake

This batter will make three 9-inch layers.
Course: Dessert
Cuisine: American, Southern
Keyword: cake, caramel
Servings: 20 slices
Author: Virginia Willis


  • 1 cup 2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for the pans
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour plus more for the pans
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 4 large eggs at room temperature, well beaten
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • Burnt Caramel Icing recipe follows


  • Heat the oven to 350°F. Butter and flour three 9-inch round cake pans and line the bottoms with waxed or parchment paper. Butter and flour the paper. Sift together the flour and the baking powder. Set aside. Combine the eggs and milk in a liquid measuring cup. Set aside.
  • In the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the flour mixture and the milk mixture to the butter-sugar mixture, alternating between the dry and wet ingredients in three portions, starting and ending with the dry ingredients. Pour into the prepared pans.
  • Bake until a cake tester inserted into the center of each cake comes out clean and the cakes start pulling away from the sides of the pans, about 25 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool slightly. Invert onto the rack to cool completely.
  • To assemble the cake, place one cake layer on a cardboard cake round. Spread with the still-warm frosting. Repeat with remaining layers, placing the final layer bottom side up. Working quickly, use a small offset spatula to spread the icing gently around the cake. Let stand for 2 hours to allow the icing to set before serving. Store in an airtight container for up to 1 week.

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Copyright © 2019 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.



Please note that this post may contain affiliate links. (That means I make a commission if you use my affiliate link to buy the product.)

Virginia Willis

Georgia-born French-trained Chef Virginia Willis has made chocolate chip cookies with Dwanye “The Rock” Johnson, foraged for berries in the Alaskan wilderness, harvested capers in the shadow of a smoldering volcano in Sicily, and beguiled celebrities such as Jane Fonda, Bill Clinton, and Julie Chrisley with her cooking -- but it all started in her grandmother’s country kitchen. Virginia is a chef instructor for the digital streaming platform Food Network Kitchen and author of Secrets of the Southern Table: A Food Lover’s Tour of the Global South, Lighten Up, Y’all, Bon Appétit, Y’all, Basic to Brilliant, Y’all, Okra, and Grits. Lighten Up, Y’all: Classic Southern Recipes Made Healthy and Wholesome received a 2016 James Beard Foundation Award of Excellence. She is the former TV kitchen director for Martha Stewart Living, Bobby Flay, and Nathalie Dupree; has worked in Michelin-starred restaurants; and traveled the world producing food stories – from making cheese in California to escargot farming in France. She has appeared on Food Network's Chopped, CBS This Morning, Fox Family and Friends, Martha Stewart Living, and as a judge on Throwdown with Bobby Flay. She’s been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Eater, and Food52 and has contributed to Eating Well, Garden & Gun, and Bon Appétit, and more. The Chicago Tribune praised her as one of "Seven Food Writers You Need to Know." Her legion of fans loves her down-to-earth attitude and approachable spirit. Learn more about Virginia and follow her traveling exploits at

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Mandy E.

    Thank you for your recipe! Your grandparents sound like wonderful people and it’s a treasure to have such people in our lives. Thank you for sharing who they were and their beautiful cake with us. 🙂

  2. Dianne Evans

    where is the icing recipe?

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