Aime’s Birthday Cake: sweet redemption

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It all started with a birthday. And a cake. A devil’s food cake, to be exact.

And, while this story has a moderately happy ending, it’s also proof positive that the Stones were, in fact, right:

You can’t always get what you want.

Let’s begin with the protagonists: Aime, King Arthur Flour’s digital marketing manager. And me, King Arthur Flour’s recipe fixer-upper and blogger, the self-styled Great and Powerful Wizard of Baking.

And the cake? Nina’s (Aime’s grandma) Devil’s Food Cake – with the emphasis on DEVIL.

As in, the devil’s in the details (scanty, in the recipe). And in, I had a devil of a time making this cake the way Nina did.

In fact, I never did truly succeed. But at the end of the day – well, several days, over the course of a week – I managed to make a cake that was, if not exactly a beauty-contest winner, at least tasted the way Aime remembers it.

Let’s start with the recipe. Several months ago, Aime lamented that she just couldn’t figure out her family’s favorite devil’s food cake recipe.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, certain that the Great and Powerful Wizard of Baking could easily set Aime on the path to devil’s cake heaven.

“The cake is really skinny. But that’s not the problem. It’s the frosting. I put it on the cake, and it slides right off,” she lamented.

“OK, let’s see the recipe,” I said.

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The recipe struck me as a bit roundabout and confusing – but surely the Great and Powerful, etc. could set things straight.

First, the cake. A single cup of flour for two layers is scanty, to be sure. So I increased everything by 50% (more or less), plus changed a few things, plus amended the directions… here, read for yourself –

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We’re going to start by preheating the oven to 350°F. Trust me – this is the easy part!

Put 1 1/2 cups whole milk (for best texture, use whole milk, not reduced-fat), and 3 ounces unsweetened chocolate in a saucepan set over medium heat. Cook, stirring frequently, until the chocolate melts. Pour the mixture into a bowl or measuring cup (to cool it more quickly than if it’s left in the saucepan), and set it aside to cool for a few minutes.

Next, stir together 1 1/4 cups granulated sugar and 5 tablespoons melted butter. Stir in 3 large eggs and 1 large egg yolk.

Why am I diverging from the recipe so precipitously? Shouldn’t I use 4 1/2 large egg yolks? Well, technically; but I don’t like ending up with a lot of unused whites, so I’m just kinda fudging it with whole eggs and 1 yolk.

With the mixer going, add the chocolate milk in a steady stream. If you don’t have a stand mixer, just pour it gently into the bowl, then beat to combine.

Add the following:

1 1/2 cups (6 1/4 ounces) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon espresso powder, optional; for enhanced flavor
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Beat briefly, just until fairly smooth.

So, what about dissolving the baking soda in water, as Grandma’s recipe directs? People used to do this, back when baking soda was harder/lumpier than it is today; no need anymore. And besides, I can see the batter is going to be thin enough, never mind adding extra water.

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Divide the batter between two greased (or parchment-lined) 8″ round cake pans.

Bake the cakes for about 25 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove them from the oven, and after 10 minutes, turn them out of the pan onto a rack to cool.

So far, so good.

But oh, my, the tide is about to turn. And I don’t mean just a full-moon tide; I mean TSUNAMI.

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My first go-around, I follow the recipe exactly, using 1/2 cup heavy cream, 8 tablespoons butter, and 1 1/2 cups brown sugar.

It strikes me that the directions sound very much like making fudge. So, rather than “bring to boil and cook 6-7 minutes,” as the recipe directs, the Great and Powerful Wizard decides to study some fudge recipes. All of which say, “Boil until the mixture reaches soft-ball stage, about 238°F to 240°F.”

I have a thermometer – it even has “soft ball” marked right on it. I can do this!

Fiasco #1: After bringing the mixture to 240°F, and doing exactly what the recipe says – including “beat the hell out of it!” – the icing wannabe thickens into a slimy combination of clay-like, grainy sugar and puddles of oil.

I give Aime a spoonful to taste. “That’s the taste!” she enthuses. “But not the texture.”

Back to the stove.

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Next go-around, I reduce the butter from 8 tablespoons to 2 tablespoons.

Beat, beat, beat the hell out of it.

Until all of a sudden: BAM. The darned stuff turns back to brown sugar! Kind of moist brown sugar (lower left).

Hmmm, guess I can’t multi-task while I’m doing this, I think. And try it again.

BAM! I’m standing there watching the glossy icing with an eagle eye, and doesn’t it go from “almost there” to completely and utterly crystallized in the space of, like, 2 seconds! It’s so hard, I have to laboriously scrape it from the sides of the mixing bowl (bottom right).

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Meanwhile, my poor cake is getting older by the moment. So I decide to crumble the sugary shards on top and leave it on Aime’s desk – with the suggestion that, once she’s done laughing at my pitiful efforts, she should discard the “icing” and drizzle some ganache over the top.

(Aime later told me she did NOT, in fact, discard the icing. “It actually softened up, and we ate it the way it was – it was delicious!” Nice kid, that Aime, trying to make her elders feel better.)

After recovering from my hissy fit, I decide to delve more deeply into the wonderful world of fudge. And come up with all kinds of tips.

Like, don’t stir the syrup or jiggle the pan while it’s cooking. Don’t add the butter until you’ve poured the syrup into the mixing bowl. And, “wash down the sides of the pan to prevent crystals from forming.”

Plus, adding corn syrup helps prevent crystallization. And, BE ABSOLUTELY SURE TO COOL THE MIXTURE TO 110°F BEFORE BEATING!

I take all of this advice to heart, and start again.

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I beat, and beat, and BEAT that icing, standing there watching it like a hawk every second. And after 10 minutes, it’s still the consistency of caramel sauce.

But it’s also kind of becoming a ball, if that makes sense. Discretion being the better part of valor, I decide enough is enough. Let’s just put the icing on the cake and see what happens.

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Think Vesuvius. It very… slowly… slides off the cake. Just like Aime said.

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And, as the icing in the middle slides, so does the top layer of cake. I notice this tectonic shift just before it’s about to topple sideways onto the plate. I instinctively grab it, to halt its progress.

You can see the result.

Sigh… Still, it does taste good. Let’s just leave it awhile and see if it that icing firms up.

A few hours later, I begin an email conversation with Aime:

Me: As the icing sits on the cake, it’s losing its glossiness/stickiness, and becoming matte, and just soft/fudgy. REALLY tasty!

Aime: Really??? Well maybe you got it!

Next day –

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Me: After 24 hours, the icing is PERFECT – “fudgy”/moist consistency, a tiny bit of graininess from the sugar, and absolutely delicious.

Aime: That’s EXACTLY how it’s supposed to turn out! It’s always best the next day. Once we actually forgot about the cake in the trunk of our car – it came out tasting even better than it did the day before. My dad is now convinced that storing the cake in the trunk is the key to a great tasting devil’s food cake!

Still, I wasn’t satisfied. No one wants to make a cake whose icing puddles at the bottom, leaving the thinnest layers of sweetness on top and in the middle.

After some back and forth, Aime suggests she give it a try.

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More digital communication. Including a picture from Aime’s aunt, Liz, of what the cake is SUPPOSED to look like.

Aime: I talked to Aunt Liz about the icing – here’s her feedback: She typically doubles the icing recipe – this makes more than she needs to ice the cake, but she thinks that the quantity in the recipe is insufficient.

She boils the icing for 10-12 minutes, significantly longer than the 6-7 minutes noted in the recipe.

She puts the icing directly in the mixer and beats at medium speed for what she said feels like another 10-12 minutes (I don’t think it’s nearly that long). She watches the icing every closely while it’s beating and checks the consistency by testing how drippy it is (like, if it’s going to fall off the cake). Once it feels like it’ll hold up she applies to the cake.

O…K… The Great and Powerful feels confident again!

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Rather than double the recipe and have leftover icing, I decide to increase it somewhat – but not the butter, which I decide to go light on, once again.

So – I combine 2 cups brown sugar, 2 tablespoons corn syrup, 6 tablespoons butter, 1/4 teaspoon salt (to balance the sweetness), and 1/2 cup whole milk.

I melt everything slowly, stirring frequently to dissolve the sugar.

I put a lid on the pan for 1 minute, just before it comes to a boil, to “wash down” any sugar crystals around the sides of the pan. The mixture simmers slowly, rather than boils vigorously; it actually takes 15 minutes to get to the soft-ball stage.

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Then I pour the hopefully perfect icing-to-be into the mixing bowl, and commence beating – again, taking it slow: medium speed on my KitchenAid.

I watch. And wait. And wait. Set my timer. Once I nail this, I don’t want to forget just how long it takes.

Gradually, the icing thickens. Then, at around 8 minutes, it starts to generate sticky little strings. Good? Bad? Who knows?

At 11 minutes, it’s definitely looking thicker. I stop the mixer; it settles down onto itself. Flowing; not spreadable.

And finally, at 11:38, the icing suddenly lightens dramatically in color and – hallelujah! – thickens. It’s perfect!

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I pick up the bowl and grab a spatula, ready to spread this lovely icing onto the cake.

And before my eyes – before the spatula gets within a foot of it – BAM!

The icing hardens. I spitefully pile it atop the cake anyway.

Aime: To clarify, is this what it looked like when you took the icing out of the bowl? I think you might have beat it just a little too long?

Me: Yes, I beat it too long, but it’s virtually impossible to tell what “too long” is – it looked perfect, and as I tried to scoop it out of the bowl, it literally went from perfect to rock hard in a matter of seconds.

Then – light dawns on Marblehead! Why not stick this recalcitrant icing in the microwave, and see if it softens up? I scrape the icing crumbles off the cake, into a glass bowl.

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And after 25 seconds in the microwave, success! The crystallized mess turns back to lovely, peanut butter-consistency frosting.

For about 15 seconds. As I madly spread it on both cake layers, the icing is already hardening.

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Still, I manage to SPREAD it onto the cake – rather than crumble it.

Aime: Stick it in the trunk, quick! That looks perfect!

Aime: You’re never going to forgive me for this, are you?

Me: Forgive?! This is the most fun I’ve had in ages! I will NOT be beat by a cake. Bread, maybe. Not cake. If it’s acceptable tomorrow, it’s a go – “Beat too long? Turned to concrete crumbles? Quick, the microwave!”

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Next day – OK, the icing didn’t revert to being perfectly smooth and glossy, like Liz’s.

But it did soften sufficiently to qualify as icing, rather than concrete casing.

Now, rather than put it in the trunk of the car, I’m going to mail the rest of this cake to Aime. After all, a USPS Priority Mail box is quite similar to a car’s trunk. It’s dark. It’s stuffy.

And it’s going places. From the home of the Great and Powerful Wizard of Baking, here on Cape Cod, to King Arthur Flour’s offices in White River Junction, Vermont.

Where Aime is celebrating her 20-something-th birthday Tuesday.

Happy birthday, Aime. I didn’t nail your grandma’s recipe. I would have preferred an epic nail – not an epic fail.

But, like Nina’s, this cake is made with care and love – which is why it’s a good example of our current King Arthur Flour initiative, Bake for Good.

Bake and share with those in need. Bake for neighbors. Bake for family.

And bake for one special friend, far from home on her birthday, whose grandma surely made her granddaughter this birthday cake, once upon a time.

Postscript: Looking for a printable recipe for this cake on our site? Sorry, there isn’t one. It’s too “iffy” to share with the general public, those unlikely to have read all of this background. But if, after reading this, you want to give it a try, remember: an eagle eye, swift hands, and a microwave are your best friends!

 

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel was born in Wisconsin, grew up in New England, and graduated from Brown University. She was a journalist in Massachusetts and Maine before joining the King Arthur Flour Company in 1990, where she's been ever since. Author or co-author of three King Arthur ...

comments

  1. Sallie Doeg

    OK. You loved our Memphis bucuits, Now take my advice and go to New Orleans. These ladies have got caramel Pralines down to a science. Y’all need to get out a bit more.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Sallie, send me a ticket – I’m there! I’ve been to New Orleans before – awesome place and yes, I even got pralines in the French Quarter… PJH

  2. Pat Harrington

    Chocolate fudge that becomes grainy can be rescued by kneading like bread dough. (Sometimes!). It becomes silken smooth by reconvert ing the sugar by a process I no longer recall. If it was then reheated in the microwave, maybe it would become spreadable.

    Reply
  3. Elisabeth Siek

    Dear PJ, I have never enjoyed a blog as much as I did just now reading your attempt to make Aime’s Birthday Cake. This goes down in the annals of great hilarious cooking literature IMHO!

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Funny in retrospect for sure, Elisabeth – I have to confess I wasn’t laughing along about the third time in succession I tried that darned frosting, though! :) PJH

  4. Maureen McFarland

    That sure seems like a lot of work and aggravation to make something that sounds to me like a basic, simple penuche frosting.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      But without the confectioners’ sugar, Maureen. I took it as a challenge – but one of these times I’m going to see how it is with the added sugar… PJH

  5. judy lyon

    I’m going to try this. I had an icing like that at a Hotel in Hawaii and have tried ever since to duplicate it.
    I think this recipe is what I’ve been looking for.
    Suggestions:
    1. Don’t go all the way to soft ball stage – actually drips in water are sometimes more accurate. The crumbles may indicate overcooking.
    2. When you’re beating, the minute the surface of the candy changes from glossy to satin is when you should stop and spread quickly. That’s what you do with fudge. (If you keep beating and it was undercooked you will never leave the glossy point. If you over cooked you will get what you got – crumbles.)
    3. When my mother used to hand beat fudge, if it was getting too hard she would add a tsp or 2 of canned milk. If it never hardened she would add 1-2 tsp peanut butter and it would harden quickly. (When that old recipe was talking about “beating the heck” out of it, it meant beating by hand where you have more control and things don’t move so quickly. Hand beating, if done properly also incorporates more air into the candy. Of course, nowadays, I’m always in a hurry and beat with my kitchen-aid also. Another tip is to start beating before it is completely cool – not what I would call warm though. This speeds up the granulation process. When hand beating was done it was sometimes nigh to impossible to beat at all if the candy was cold. I remember my mother warming it back up slightly at times.)
    4. Current thinking is to add the butter after cooking, but I prefer the browned butter taste that comes with cooking it. To me it gives a fuller richer flavor.
    5. Don’t decrease the butter. For icing you’ll need the softening effect of the butter. The oil separating from the sugar is a sign you’ve over cooked the candy. This is a common problem with toffee too.
    6. As far as softening over night, sugar attracts moisture out of the air and, sadly, out of the cake. Hope you didn’t notice the cake drying out. Not much you can do about that except make sure you have enough fat to counterbalance.

    Hope this helps all of you. Judy Lyon

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Judy, Aime’s aunt actually suggested adding a bit of milk if it stiffened; I think mine stiffened irreparably, but then, I didn’t try the milk trick. And the PB tip is interesting, too – clearly your mom was an old hand at fudge! Thanks for all of this useful information – PJH

  6. Simone Cooper

    Looks and sounds like you were going for penuche frosting? It is ornery, but I’ve found several successful recipes on line. Most use also confectioners sugar. I wonder if that plays in?

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Simone, I know if I added confectioners’ sugar it would work – because, as you say, it would then be penuche frosting. I was just hoping to totally match the original – without much luck, as you can see. But thanks for the suggestion – PJH

  7. Libby Dodd

    Great story! Admirable perseverance.
    If the one icing was “perfect” the next day, after dribbling off the cake upon application, what if you made it and left it in the bowl for a while before putting it on the cake?

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Now that’s a thought, Libby – I’ll bet that would work. I need to take a short rest before I try it again, but I’ll definitely give that a whirl, thanks! PJH

  8. Caro

    This frosting looks like the classic caramel or penuche frosting for Spice Cake. The big difference is that it contains powdered sugar in addition to butter, cream, and brown sugar.

    Sounds quite yummy with chocolate cake, though.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      It’s definitely penuche-like, Caro, though sans the confectioners’ sugar. And it definitely goes VERY well with chocolate cake – give it a try sometime. PJH

  9. Jeanette

    I can’t understand how you shipped it! A frosted cake? THIS SIDE UP markings? Quick breads, cookies, scones, YES … but a frosted cake?!! Now that’s a skill :)

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Well, I sent it…. only time will tell what condition it arrives in, Jeanette! The frosting is fudge-like, not delicate, so I’m hoping it won’t smear or melt; and the cake is pretty sturdy, too. If nothing else, they can stick candles in the crumbs and eat it anyway! :) PJH

    2. hddonna

      Actually, I’ve had great luck shipping frosted cakes to my son who’s in the Army–even to Iraq and Afghanistan. Mine are not layer cakes, however. I bake my favorite buttermilk chocolate cake in a disposable foil pan, make a fairly stiff “fast fudge frosting” to ice it with, place plastic wrap directly on the icing, fill the space between icing and the plastic lid with layers of bubble wrap, then tape on the lid securely all the way around with shipping tape. That’s nestled into another box with plenty of padding. It always amazes his fellow officers, who can’t believe his mom sent that cake through the mail. Shipping this cake would present an interesting challenge, I admit. How did you pack it, PJ? (This comment ought to appear below PJ’s reply, but I don’t see a way to make it happen.)

    3. The Baker's Hotline

      PJ allowed the cake to set, and then wrapped it in Glad Press and Seal wrap. She padded a Priority USPS box with newspaper, and nestled the cake in the paper. Despite all this care and good intentions, the cake arrived a little messy. PJ suggests not using her method unless you have a very forgiving recipient.~Jaydl@KAF

  10. Jaydee

    As a daily baker (it’s my passion) I enjoyed reading your trials and tribulations on this chocolate cake. Although I was looking for a happy ending, I was thrilled to see that even the best bakers do not always produce perfect cakes (or baked items). None the less, what we bakers do know is that it’s not how it looks but how it tastes that matters!

    Reply
  11. Dee S.

    Dear Great and Powerful, etc – LOVED reading your humorful ( my made up word meaning full of humor – why hasn’t Webster’s used this?!) account of trying to recreate this tasty looking cake. It’s a strong woman that will show the frosting sliding off her cake!! Thanks!!

    Reply
  12. Gambles

    Thank you so much for sharing that. My family came running to see why I was laughing so hard! PJ, your tone in your blogs is always enjoyable, but this one takes the cake – VERY stupid pun intended!

    Suzanne

    Reply
  13. Marti Garnett

    I haven’t had that good of a laugh in a long time. PJ, not at you as much as the memories that came to mind of my “experiments”. Anyone who bakes and is adventurous will have parallel stories to tell. However, you can tell them with the best. Thanks for sharing and enlightening my whole week.

    Reply
  14. Stuart

    As Aime’s uncle, Liz’s brother, and Nina’s son, the trick is to beat the icing until it’s the right consistency. My mother would beat it for what seemed like forever. This cake has been the traditional birthday cake in our family for at least three generations. Birthdays aren’t the same without it. It’s definitely worth the effort to get it right.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Stuart, it was the lack of experience that did me in. The knowing when the icing looks EXACTLY right, and then stopping immediately. Aime really did try to convey to me in words what it should look like; and Liz sent the picture; but I just couldn’t nail it. Another reader suggested I stop before it looks right, then let it sit for awhile, and maybe it’ll harden up enough to be spreadable; I could try that next time. And there will definitely be a next time – I’m sure no one wants this family tradition to end, including me! Thanks for chiming in here – PJH

  15. kjrisser

    As a semi-novice baker, I appreciate this particular blog. I may not tackle this one anytime soon, but it is so good to hear of the problems experienced bakers handle. I love this website and the hotline. I am getting ever more brave in my baking. Thank you PJ.

    Reply
  16. ramcclain

    I absolutely loved the description of making this, especially the icing. My grandmother and mother used to make the BEST caramel icing which they always put on “delicate white cake” (that is the name of the recipe). Occasionally the icing would flop, and Mother would say it was either “the weather” or “not holding your mouth right”………….Which was intimidating enough that I have never tried it. I know they ‘cooked’ the sugar, regular cane sugar, in a cast iron skillet, and then beat it like mad until it did like it was supposed to do. It was so good that I always ate the cake first, and THEN the icing.

    My daughter is a chef, and has tried their icing. I can’t remember if she was successful or not, but uses an ‘easier’ recipe which one of her customers gave her. She makes pralines to die for, and makes them almost effortlessly. I will ask her to post her experience with the old caramel icing recipe, and do not have the recipe right now to post. Would love to see your take of that icing recipe PJ.

    Reply
  17. Marilyn

    While I admit to loving to read cookbooks, I don’t think I have ever burst out laughing so many times while reading a recipe..or a process for a recipe. Thank you! Did Aime move during the process? I’m glad you persevered.

    Reply
  18. Aims

    I loved reading about the icing for this cake. All the up’s and down’s, spiteful piles, truckin’ it, dark / stuffy & going places. Thank you for All the chuckles this write up gave me. I really admire your persistence. The final photos / end result looks beautiful. WTG!

    Reply
  19. Katy

    I ab-so-lute-ley enjoyed reading this cake baking/ icing beating birthday cake encounter! Thank you for making me giggle, it made my day.

    Reply
  20. Scottie

    LOVED this post! My great-grandmother and grandmother made the exact same frosting. Similar proportions (half/half instead of milk) but they are flexible. Same situation as Aime’s family – only very few in the family still attempt to make it. My aunt and I are the only ones who still do really. It takes many attempts just as Stuart says to “know” exactly when to stop “beating the heck out of it”. Not sure about their family, but my grandmother beat this by hand. I’ll do many things my grandmother didn’t (like use a thermometer to make sure it gets to soft ball stage) but I think it is imperative to beat by hand. My grandmothers were strong farm women that made this frosting so I like to think of them as I do it like they did. The one benefit doing it this way is you can literally see it change from glossy to more matte and more importantly from dark to light. When it starts to lighten – stop. In addition to the microwave trick, my grandmother would sometimes add a little more half and half if she thought she wasn’t going to get it on before it started to harden. You can always try that. When all else fails, eat it like fudge. :) Thanks for sharing Aime’s story. This is the first time I’ve ever “met” anyone else who made it. I miss my grandmother…. I might have to go make some Caramel Fudge Frosting and think of her!

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Scottie, thanks for sharing this lovely story. And I think you’re absolutely right about beating by hand; I’m SOOO lazy, but I may have to try this, and even use a wooden spoon, to boot (as I’ve heard that advice, too). Thanks for connecting here – for your tips – and for carrying forward your family recipe to the next generation. I hope you have an “Aime” who’ll pick it up and run with it. PJH

  21. Cynthia from Santa Cruz

    I swear, that sounds JUST like me when I try to make an old, family recipe work out ( when nobody – still living – remembers how ) My great grandma was Hawaiian and wrote down her recipes in Pigeon. Several people have a “thought or memory” about a certain process and everybody can recall the taste and texture, but that’s as far as it goes! Here is an example: “Fold red towel 3 time – put you flour. Blue cup for sugar – not too much” What???
    I absolutely love your writing. It should be published into a novel, truly! I’d buy it! So very funny.
    Love, Cynthia

    Reply
  22. Fran

    Your icing recipe brought back memories. Not too long ago I tried a penuche icing. Same thing……cook ingredients, mix and you have a lump of sugar. I put the icing back in the pan and just warmed it enough to spread (kept the mixture warm using my NuWave unit). I accomplished getting the icing on the cake….it turned hard…..but the next day it was soft and tasted delicious on the cake.

    Reply
  23. FranNVA

    PJ – Thank you so much for the great story. I have loved your posts and the great ideas you come up with. I will have to try to make this cake…. just because. You know to see how it turns out for me. A good challenge with a worthy cause. Keep the great recipes and stories coming.

    Reply
  24. valtaylor

    I love this post! I am definitely going to try to make this cake. Or maybe I’ll just try to make the frosting. Some day when I’m snowed in or something….

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      As I said, Val, be prepared to keep an eye on it – so yeah, would be best when nothing tempting is going on around you! PJH

  25. Mia

    This may be my favorite post ever. I probably won’t ever try this because I never have enough lead time to make an icing 30 different ways. But a good read, and a nice reminder that even baking wizards have struggles sometimes.

    Reply
  26. Melody

    I grew up having devil’s food cake with a caramel frosting. As an adult, I tried to mix it up and make a frosting like this and was as frustrated as you…but not nearly as persistent. :) Instead, now I always make the family recipe (which tastes the same to me, but is MUCH easier and more foolproof to make):

    1/2 cup butter (I use salted butter)
    1 cup brown sugar
    1/4 cup milk
    1 3/4-2 cups powdered sugar

    Over medium heat, melt butter, add brown sugar. Bring to a boil over low heat and boil for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add milk, continue stirring until it returns to a boil. Remove from heat and cool. Beat in powdered sugar until desired consistency. To make thicker, add powdered sugar. If you want to thin it back out, add a little milk.

    We love it on chocolate cake and cinnamon rolls.

    Reply
  27. Anita

    Just made a similar icing from a 50 yr+ old recipe. However, first you melt together 2 cups brown sugar, 6 TCrisco and 4 T butter. Once melted, mix into melted mixture 1/2 cup whole milk. Boil mixture for 3 minutes. Remove from heat, cool slightly. Add 2-1/2 to 3 cups confectioners sugar and 1 tsp vanilla. ( It will not be runny/thin which probably is dependent on how long mixture is over the heat. Initially when melting mixture I had over heat probably longer than it should have been as I was thinking it would get thinner but it didn’t. — made a 9 x 13 cake and really patted the caramel mixture on the cake (while in pan). Looked fine, tasted great just didn’t and couldn’t spread the caramel frosting with a knife.)

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Whew! Sounds like you had some trouble also. Glad to hear it still tasted great even if it had to be patted onto the cake! Sometimes we just have to improvise. Elisabeth@KAF

  28. Michelle

    This reminds me so much of my family’s attempts to recreate my grandmother’s prune cake with caramel icing. I think we’ve experienced every result you described so well! And now I have some ideas for my next attempt – thanks!

    Reply
  29. Deb

    Ah yes, old recipes that Grandma used to make never seem to come out as well as they did for her. I suspect ingredients were slightly different, methods were always by hand cuz Grandma didn’t have a mixer and I think Grandma used to add stuff she never told us about because it was second nature to her and she never had to write it down. Then one day someone says hey Grandma, how do you make that cake? So she tries to write it down for you but alas, you can never get it right. I don’t know if Grandma just forgot or kept that ace up her sleeve. My Grandma made THE best salad dressing in the world – she told us how to make it but it was never ever the same. As frustrating as it is sometimes you just have to either make an imperfect replica or live with the wonderful memories :)

    Reply
    1. MaryJane Robbins

      That’s so true Deb. I’ve changed my mind a lot over the last few years about “secret” recipes. We hear so often from folks who wish they had Grammy’s recipes, I’ve vowed to write all of mine out for my family to have. Thanks for sharing! ~ MJ

  30. Robin H

    Very funny post! I once made a 7 minute frosting, put it on the 2 layer cake and put it in the fridge. Every time I opened the fridge the puddle on the plate was larger and there was less on the cake. We still laugh about it 25 years later.

    I’m just curious why you cut down on the amount of butter.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Robin, in retrospect, I shouldn’t have, probably – but I was distressed by my first attempt, which resulted in pools of butter surrounding grainy, hard lumps. I figured, “Oh, too much butter” – but now, after I’ve thought some more, I think I simply wasn’t heating/beating right. As for your 7-minute frosting – I’ve witched to a marshmallow based “faux” 7-minute frosting for just that reason! PJH

  31. Linda

    Funny you bringing up a caramel frosting. I just made a caramel pound cake with a caramel glaze for a birthday cake DUE to the fact that the recipient was frequently asking me about “all the caramel cakes” I had made when I lived in the South. I confessed I rarely if ever made them and I did not remember my family making them. I explained one of the “problems” with that kind of frosting is the speed required to make it, keep it warm enough but not so warm that it does the Vesuvius thing on you but not allowing it to cool too much so you can’t spread it and it locks on you. Which is what happened with the glaze even working as fast as I tried to work with it. I did use the microwave technique to relax it and managed to get it all on before locking again but THAT is why I don’t tend to do a lot of caramel glazes or frostings of that nature. HA. I commend you for being so determined and dogged about it and trying over and over to get it right. I’ve used the added milk or cream technique too and that works as well but the stuff is temperamental and I really don’t get into temperamental so much when frosting a cake. HA. Thanks for a great blog about it and your successes and frustrations. People are always saying “you must never have a problem as much as you bake”. Uh…wish that were true but occasionally it is “fun” to get challenged and rise to the challenge!! Thanks (and I might try that recipe even though you don’t recommend the challenge).

    Reply
  32. Rachel

    One of the best posts I’ve read lately. Baking can be full of mysteries and trouble but it seems a baker will persist and find some joy in recounting the event. Kudos!

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      We’re all in the same boat at one point or another Rachel, right? And sometimes that boat is sinking! :) PJH

  33. L Tianen

    I loved your story! I have made a simple chocolate fudge frosting for brownies for years that can develop similar issues (it also has no powdered sugar). It is 6 T milk, 6 T butter, 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar & 1/2 cup of Semi-sweet chocolate chips. One copy of the recipe says to bring the milk, butter and sugar to a boil and boil for 30 seconds. Another copy says to boil for 3 minutes!? Over the years it has come out hard and sugary, oily (as in the slide off the cake variety), and a thin mixture that never sets up. I found that I need to boil it for the 3 minute time and add a bit more chips. Like many others suggested, when it moves past creamy to sugary, I add a bit of extra milk. When it comes out too thin and I don’t have time to wait, I simply pour it over the brownies. Since they are in the pan, no need to worry about it dripping off the cake.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Yet more evidence that baking is as much art as science, right? Throw in some good karma, and you’re most of the way there. Thanks for sharing here – PJH

    1. MaryJane Robbins

      I completely agree, this one had us in stitches! I need to get PJ a “Great and Powerful” t-shirt! ~ mJ

  34. Rachel Lindstrom

    I don’t use confectioner’s sugar for penuche (the recipe I have spells it pinoche). It only calls for brown sugar, butter and milk.

    Having said that, I have had it turn into thick hard sugar a couple of times, and I didn’t think I did anything different from when I made it and it was wonderful and caramel-y.

    Thanks for this great post!

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Thanks for letting us know, Rachel, that even a seasoned penuche (pinoche?) maker runs into a brick (or concrete sugar) wall sometimes! :) PJH

  35. Amber S.

    This post has intrigued me since I read it and I’m dying to attempt it myself soon. Today I was looking around at other random cake recipes online and I came across a cake on Martha Stewart’s site called Dolley Madison’s Layer Cake, it’s an old recipe that has caramel icing. The recipe is almost identical to this one except with more cream and less butter. The directions say to cook in a double boiler for 20 minutes until thickened. You don’t beat this icing, but I’m wondering if it might work to follow that recipe and then beat the h*ll out of it to get the correct consistency. I plan on trying it soon and see what results I come up with. Thank you for a delightful challenge, this blog has made my month!!!

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Amber, I’ll be interested to hear how this turns out for you. I realize the recipe is an old one – but didn’t suspect it was “Dolley Madison old”! Let us know if you manage t beat the h*** out of it without it turning to sugar. Good luck – :) PJH

  36. Gambles

    I hesitate to post this as I am not a fan of pointing to other website recipes, but after reading your whole blog to my mother who watches Food Network all day, she came in all excited that Trisha Yearwood made an almost identical recipe yesterday called Lizzie’s Old Fashioned Cocoa Cake w/ Caramel Icing. The cooking technique and ingredients are similar though it has a touch of baking soda. I KNOW I am no where near the skill level of the Great and Powerful so I won’t be attempting the recipe from Aimee. This whole thing does have me quite curious though.

    Trisha did use a stand mixer. I had determined the people that pointed out the hand mixer of yesteryear were on the right track and that is way above my physical ability…… I’m terrified to try any version of this concept, but I’m not sure if I will be able to stop myself from picking one and trying at least once.

    PJ: You have given yourself one problem though. I don’t think it will ever be possible to top this blog though I greatly look forward to seeing you try.

    Reply
  37. Bridgid

    Sallie Doeg, you owe PJ an apology. Not only was your comment rude, but you clearly don’t know her background as a cookbook author.

    Reply
  38. BBKB

    I grew up with what we called Brown Sugar Candy, box of brown sugar and a can of canned milk, stir and cook till soft ball stage, always use the water technique, you can add nuts and peanut butter if you like. My mom also made the frosting for my eldest brothers birthday cake and placed sliced bananas on the frosting, she was a really great baker. We did not have the recipe for the frosting, I figured it had to be slightly different than the candy, this looks like it. Adding confectioners sugar is not the same, it doesn’t even taste the same, we never added corn syrup either. I have never made the frosting but I have certainly had my share of problems with the candy though most of the time it turns out great. Once when I was a child my grandmother under cooked the candy and said we could just spread it on bread, of course that didn’t appeal to me at all. Brown Sugar Candy and Bread Pudding, important items for holiday meals growing up so many years ago.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      It’s wonderful that you have such fond memories of your childhood sweets! Even if this isn’t the exact recipe you were looking for, maybe it can serve as a good starting point for you to tweak toward what you remember. I actually really enjoy rediscovering some old family favorites that way. Best of luck on your search and happy baking! Jocelyn@KAF

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