Veronica Morris has "zero cooking background," but the Columbus nurse seems to be making up for it now. Caramel cakes have become her specialty, and that is largely a matter of serendipity.
"I just happened upon this recipe," Morris said. "The mother-in-law of a good friend of mine, Donna Manning, used to make them, and Donna passed it on to me." Success didn't come readily. "I tried and tried, and I finally got it," Morris smiled.
Making a caramel cake is often described as "a labor of love." That's because caramel can be tricky to conquer.
In a 2013 article on epicurious.com, Matt Lee and Ted Lee of The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen said, "Ask any Southern baker: Caramel cake can reduce a fully grown adult to tears -- and we don't mean happy tears, either."
Icing is the hurdle. It has to be just the right temperature -- warm enough to be pourable, but cool enough that it sets in place when spread with an icing spatula.
"It can be hard to get it real smooth and easy to manage and spread," Morris said. "You've got to be real careful when you're browning your sugar." She uses a cast iron skillet. "Yes ma'am, it's real easy to burn."
The LPN tested her first cakes on family and, before long, friends. Soon requests were coming in for cakes.
"I did take a lot of orders, but I have a regular-size oven, and it was overwhelming," she said. She's found a happier balance now, although holidays keep her oven at capacity.
"Oh my goodness, at Thanksgiving I think I did about 20 cakes," she said. She also makes one or two caramel sheet cakes weekly for Brother's Keepers Barbecue in Columbus. Morris has some help in the form of her 15-year-old son, Myles, who attends Columbus High School. When mom is baking, Myles often helps get supplies together and makes deliveries. In a way, he is responsible for inspiring his parent to recently branch out into birthday cakes.
"He wanted a birthday cake with a Polo symbol on it, and it was priced $100!" said Morris, who decided to make one herself.
While she isn't ready to divulge personal caramel cake secrets, Morris does share a couple of suggestions when using your favorite recipe.
She uses extra caramel icing as decorative trim on top of her iced cakes. If you'd like to do the same, the baker advises being sure to make enough icing for both jobs with one batch, because shades of caramel can vary due to slight variations during the sugar-browning process. "The color can be different on every batch you make," she said.
And the most useful tip she can pass on? "Always use real butter."
(Editor's note: For more information about Morris' caramel cakes, email her at [email protected])
LEE BROS. CARAMEL CAKE
Total time: 2 hours
For the cake:
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened, plus more for the pans
2 1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour, plus more for the pans
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups sugar
3 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup whole milk
For the icing:
1 1/2 cups whole milk
4 cups sugar
10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) butter
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
Make the cake: Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease and flour two round 9-by 2-inch cake pans. Pour about a tablespoon of flour into each pan and roll it around, tapping as you go, until sides and bottom are covered completely with a thin layer of flour. Tip pans, tap out excess flour.
In a large mixing bowl, mix thoroughly with a whisk the flour, baking powder, salt and baking soda.
In a separate large bowl, beat butter with an electric mixer until creamy, about 30 seconds. Add sugar in 1/2-cup measures, beating about 15 seconds after each addition and scraping down sides of the bowl if necessary, until the mixture has lightened in color and become fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the eggs and egg yolks, one at a time, and vanilla, beating for 15 seconds after each addition.
Add flour mixture to butter mixture in thirds, alternating with additions of the milk. To avoid overmixing batter, mix gently with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula after each addition, until ingredient is just incorporated. Beat until all ingredients have been incorporated, and then just a few strokes beyond. Divide batter between cake pans and spread tops evenly.
Bake until a cake tester or toothpick emerges clean, about 30 minutes. Remove from oven and let cakes cool in their pans on a rack for 10 minutes, then slide a thin paring knife around the edge of the pans, and invert cakes. Turn each cake again so its rounded top is facing up, and cool cakes completely on the rack.
Make the icing: Pour the milk and 3 cups of the sugar into a large, deep, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat, mixing with a whisk. Add the butter and the salt, whisking occasionally until butter melts. When mixture just simmers, cut heat, but keep over warm burner.
Pour remaining 1 cup sugar into a saucepan. Cook sugar over medium-high heat until it becomes a syrup, stirring every so often with a wooden spoon as it begins to brown, until sugar syrup is evenly amber colored, 5 to 8 minutes. Pour syrup into warm milk mixture, being very careful, as the caramel will bubble and sputter when it hits the hot milk. Turn heat beneath the pot to high and, whisking gently until all the syrup has completely dissolved into the roiling milk mixture, continue to cook to the soft-ball stage, about 238 F; this may take 8 to 12 minutes.
Cut heat beneath caramel and gently whisk in vanilla and baking soda. Dip a spoon into caramel, and let it cool to taste it. Season caramel to taste with salt, and pour into the bowl of a standing mixer (or use an electric hand-mixer and a large bowl). Beat on low speed as it cools, 15 to 20 minutes depending on temperature of your kitchen, until icing is creamy and thick (between 100 F and 105 F).
Remove bowl from mixer stand and let cool 5 to 10 minutes more, until icing is between 95 F and 98 F; it should fall off spatula in a ribbon that remains discernible on surface of icing for 10 seconds.
Set first cake layer on a rack set over a sheet plan lined with waxed paper. Have an electric hand-mixer and hot water nearby to blend a teaspoon or two into icing if it becomes too thick to spread. Pour enough icing over cake to cover top in a layer about 1/4 inch thick (if it drips over the edge in places, that's fine; this is an early test of whether it's going to set in place or not).
Top first cake with the second cake layer and pour the rest of the icing in stages over top of cake, letting it run down sides and using an icing spatula to guide the icing around cake as it drips, until entire cake is covered, for a traditional, classic look. (If you prefer the dramatic look of cake layers peeking out from behind a curtain of icing drips, by all means choose that route). If you need to reuse any icing that overflows into the pan, simply move cake on its rack temporarily, scrape up icing from waxed paper with a spatula and return to the bowl, replace rack over the pan, and continue to ice cake.
Once icing has set, using two spatulas carefully transfer cake from rack to a cake stand and let stand at room temperature beneath a cake dome until ready to serve. Only refrigerate if you plan to store the cake for more than two days.
(Source: The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen, Matt Lee and Ted Lee)