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The Beginner’s Guide to Caramel Cake

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Caramel Cakes are an epic endeavor, there’s no doubt. This is a cake you only make for people you love. I love to bake a Caramel Cake at Christmas. Coconut Cake, Red Velvet, and Hummingbird Cakes have their place, but my favorite old-fashioned cake is Caramel Cake. Read on to find out the secrets to making the best Caramel Cake!

caramel sauce

Why You’ll Love this Recipe

The Southern sweet tooth reigns in supreme glory during the holidays. Divinity, fudge, mints, melt-aways, wedding cookies, and pies all have their place, but there’s nothing like an Old-Fashioned Caramel Cake.

The moist yellow cake is sturdy enough to hold up to the decadent icing, but it is not as dense as a poundcake. The tricky part about a Caramel Cake is the icing. The traditional, old-fashioned icing is made of burnt sugar, butter, and cream. There are “cheater methods” using brown sugar and confectioner’s sugar, but nothing is like the magic of an Old-Fashioned Caramel Cake.


Sugar Stages

Caramel Cake is all about cooking the sugar. The process of sugar becoming caramel is pure science. As the syrup is boiling water evaporates, the sugar concentration increases, and the boiling point rises. A given temperature corresponds to a particular sugar concentration. The stage refers to the reaction of a spoonful of sugar syrup that has been drizzled into cold water.

Thread Stage – 230°F to 235°F

At this relatively low temperature, there is still a lot of water left in the syrup. When you drop a little of this syrup into cold water to cool, it forms a liquid thread that will not ball up, but simply dissolves in the water. Cooking sugar to this stage simply produces syrup, not candy.

Soft-Ball Stage – 232°F to 240°F

At this temperature, sugar syrup dropped into cold water will form a soft, flexible ball. Fudge, classic pralines, and fondant are made by cooking sugar to the soft-ball stage.

Firm-Ball Stage – 242°F to 250°F

Drizzle a little of this syrup in cold water and it will form a firm ball, that will retain it’s shape when you take it out of the water, but remains pliable and will flatten when squeezed between your fingers. Caramels are cooked to the firm-ball stage.

Hard-Ball Stage – 250°F to 268°F

At this stage, the syrup will form thick threads as it drips from the spoon. Very little water remains and the sugar concentration is rather high. The syrup drizzled into cold water will form a hard ball. If you take the ball out of the water, it won’t flatten, but you can still change its shape by squashing it. Nut brittles, nougat, marshmallows, and divinity are cooked to the hard-ball stage.

Soft-Crack Stage – 270°F to 290°F

As the syrup reached soft-crack stage, the bubbles on top will become smaller and closer together. When you drop a bit of this syrup into cold water, it will solidify into threads that, when removed from the water, are flexible, not brittle. They will bend slightly before cracking and breaking. Butterscotch is cooked to the soft-crack stage.

Hard-Crack Stage – 300°F to 310°F

The hard-crack stage is the highest temperature before caramel. If you spoon a little of the molten syrup in cold water and it will form hard, brittle threads that crack and break when bent. Toffee and lollipops are cooked to the hard-crack stage.

Caramel – 330° – 350° F

At the lower end of the temperature range of caramel all the water has boiled away and the pure sugar is liquid and light amber in color. As the temperature rises the sugar becomes richer and darker. Caramelized sugar is used for spun sugar and can also be used to give a candy coating to nuts. Above 350° caramel tastes burnt and bitter.

homemade caramel sauce

The Secrets to Making Old-Fashioned Caramel Cake

  1. This cake takes time. Give yourself at least 3 hours. You can also bake the cake layers the day before and wrap them tightly in plastic wrap once they’ve cooled.
  2. Have a metal bowl of ice water at the ready. You can use it to stop the cooking if your sugar starts to burn, simply tip the bottom of the pot in the cold water. That’s why it’s important to use a metal bowl, so it won’t shatter with the rapid temperature change.
  3. Have a good thermometer, at least to start until you know your stages.
  4. Go low and slow. There’s no reason to rush. Rushing can lead to burning.
  5. Use a heavy-duty pot that’s less likely to have hot spots.
  6. Don’t stir once the sugar has melted. Swirl the pot instead. If sugar crystals form they can turn your intended caramel into rock candy — and Southern-style caramel icing. In this instance, we don’t want crystals.
  7. Just because you take the sugar off the heat doesn’t mean it stops cooking. You often need to pull it just before you think you should.
  8. Immediately place any and all utensils in hot soapy water once you’ve finished, helping with clean-up.

Virginia Willis

Eat the Dang Cake

Hey, don’t even think about the WW points on this one. Eat the dang cake. Sure, the holidays can be hard for healthy eating, but moderation will be your saving grace. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying an indulgent, festive piece of cake — just make sure that your meals surrounding it are healthy and nutrient-dense.

If you’d like to learn more about my real-life approach to weight loss and health gain check out my new subscription on Instagram. It kicks off in the new year with members-only live chats and conversations.

Thanks so much for reading! Happy holidays to you and your family.

Bon Appétit Y’all!
Virginia Willis

Caramel Cake on


Old-Fashioned Caramel Cake

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


  • 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. The cake must be *completely* cooled before you frost it!
  • 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.


Burnt Caramel Icing

Makes about 2 cups


  • cups sugar
  • ½ cup unsalted butter (1 stick)
  • 1 cup heavy cream plus more if needed to loosen
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • ¼ teaspoon fine sea salt


  • In a heavy cast-iron skillet, heat ½ cup of the sugar over medium-high heat. Stir until dissolved, then do not stir again; simply shake the pan occasionally until the mixture reaches the caramel stage 320°F to 335°F on a candy thermometer.
  • Meanwhile, in a heavy saucepan, combine the remaining 2 cups sugar, the butter, and the cream. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally.
  • When the sugar reaches the caramel stage, immediately pour it into the cream mixture and stir to combine. Cook over medium heat, stirring once or twice, until the mixture reaches the soft-ball stage, 232°F to 240°F. Remove from the heat; add the vanilla and salt and stir to combine. Place on a rack and set aside until just cool enough to touch, 10 to 15 minutes.
  • Transfer the mixture to the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat on high speed until creamy, 5 to 7 minutes.
  • I’ll be honest, this icing is a bear. That’s why caramel cakes are so special. A couple of helpful hints: when you are ready to frost the cake, place the bowl of icing in a bowl of warm water to keep it loose and fluid. Also, if it starts to set too firmly, you may need to add warm heavy cream to loosen it. That, holding your tongue right, and practice are the keys to a successful caramel icing

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Virginia Willis

Georgia-born French-trained Chef Virginia Willis’ biography includes making chocolate chip cookies with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, foraging for berries in the Alaskan wilderness, harvesting capers in the shadow of a smoldering volcano in Sicily, and hunting for truffles in France. She is talent and chef-instructor for the digital streaming platform Food Network Kitchen. Her segments feature authentic and innovative Southern cooking. She was the celebrity chef at the Mansion at Churchill Downs for the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby. Virginia has spoken at SXSW, cooked for the James Beard Foundation, and beguiled celebrities such as Bill Clinton, Morgan Freeman, and Jane Fonda with her cooking — but it all started in her grandmother’s country kitchen. Recently, her work has been inspired by her weight loss success story, Virginia has lost 65# and kept it off for over 2 1/2 years! “If a French-trained, Southern chef can do it, you can, too.” She is the author of Fresh Start; Secrets of the Southern Table; Lighten Up, Y’all; Bon Appétit, Y’all; Basic to Brilliant, Y’all; Okra; and Grits. Lighten Up, Y’all won a James Beard Foundation Award of Excellence in the Focus on Health Category. Lighten Up, Y’all as well as her first cookbook, Bon Appétit, Y’all, were finalists in the Best American Cookbook for the International Association of Cookbook Awards and were also named by the Georgia Center of the Book as “Books Georgians Should Read.” 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, People Magazine, Eater, and Food52 and has contributed to Eating Well, GRLSQUASH, Culture, 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, approachable spirit, and traveling exploits. Her culinary consulting company, Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc specializes in content creation, recipe development, culinary editorial and production services, cookbook writing, media training, spokesperson and brand representation, and public speaking. Virginia is on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Blue Ribbon Task Force, the Atlanta Community Food Bank Advisory Board, as well as the Community Farmers Market Advisory Board. She is a food and hunger advocate for No Kid Hungry and a premier member of the No Kid Hungry Atlanta Society. She a member of The James Beard Foundation, Chef’s Collaborative, Georgia Organics, and Southern Foodways Alliance.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Chef, I am born and a southern, soul food bred-momma. The next time you make this Caramel Cake🥰, I am standing on my tip-toes, singing, “Take Me with U” 🎤, as if I am the iconic Prince with The Revolutions, from his Purple Rain album. 🔥🔥 🎉 . It is beautiful, but me and baking flour can be a bit temperamental.

  2. Lori McLain

    Oh what great memories of caramel cake! The burnt sugar frosting just makes it so craveable and wonderful! I drooled all the way through reading this one!

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