This Southern Caramel Cake recipe is made with layers of homemade moist yellow cake with a luscious thick caramel icing made from scratch! It's rich and delicious and perfect for any special occasion!
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When it comes to a traditional caramel cake, the real star of the show is the decadent caramel icing that is cooked on the stovetop to slowly caramelize the sugars and evaporated milk. Shortcut versions use brown sugar and powdered sugar to mimic the result, but they just aren't the same as the real thing. This is the best caramel cake because it's made the old-fashioned way from scratch!
The homemade caramel icing is used to fill layers of tender yellow cake before pouring the rest over the top of the cake and frosting the sides with rustic, smooth swirls. No need to worry about fancy decorating or piping with this southern cake!
This cake is definitely a labor of love, but the end result is worth it, especially for caramel lovers, and the frosting is easier than it sounds.
If you haven't had a classic caramel cake before, there's a good chance you might have already heard of it. This traditional southern caramel cake has had a resurgence in its popularity ever since the bestselling novel "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett was released in 2009, followed by the movie adaptation in 2011.
The movie is set in Jackson, Mississippi and one of the main characters, a maid named Minny, famously makes her award-winning caramel cake more than once throughout the book. It's true that homemade caramel cake is very popular in the South and it's easy to see why!
What You'll Need
Scroll down to the recipe card below this post for ingredient quantities and full instructions.
- Flour - Regular all-purpose flour works just great for this cake, although you could substitute cake flour instead if you prefer.
- Sugar - Granulated sugar is used in both the cake and the caramel icing.
- Salted butter
- Vanilla extract
- Baking powder
- Evaporated milk - You can use heavy cream, half-and-half or even whole milk to make the caramel icing, but evaporated milk gives the richest, best flavor in our experience.
- Sour cream - This is the secret to super moist cake layers.
How to Make Caramel Cake
- Cream butter and sugar. In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter and sugar for 2-3 minutes until creamy and light. Stop and scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl.
- Add eggs and vanilla. Beat in the eggs and vanilla extract until creamy.
- Alternate adding wet and dry ingredients. Add ½ of the flour along with the baking powder and salt, then mix on low speed just until the batter starts to come together. Add half of the sour cream and milk, then mix again just until incorporated. Repeat with the remaining ingredients, stopping to scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl so everything is evenly combined.
- Bake. Divide the caramel cake batter evenly between two 9-inch cake pans that have been lined with parchment paper circles or sprayed with baking spray. Bake at 350 degrees F for 30 to 35 minutes until a toothpick or skewer inserted into the center of the cake layers comes out clean. Do not overbake or the cake will be dry.
- Cool. Let the cake layers cool for 10 minutes before turning them out onto a wire rack to cool completely. Level off the top of the cake layers with a cake leveler or serrated knife, if needed.
- Cook frosting. Combine sugar, evaporated milk, and butter in a large saucepan or dutch oven. Cook and stir over medium heat until the butter has melted completely. Reduce heat to medium-low and continue to cook until the icing reaches 240 degrees F. This is a long, slow process that may take up to 2 hours, but you don't need to stand by the stove the whole time. Just clip a candy thermometer to the side of the pot and make sure to stir the icing every so often so it isn't burning on the bottom.
- Cool icing, then beat until thick. Although the caramel icing will thicken considerably on its own while it cooks, you should let it cool for a bit before adding to your cake layers or a lot of it will run off. After letting it cool for 20 to 25 minutes, you can beat the icing either in a stand mixer with a paddle attachment or by hand using a sturdy wooden spoon until it thickens even more. This process helps cool the icing even further, while thickening it to a nice spreading consistency.
The caramel icing isn't difficult to make, but it does take time for the sugar, butter, and evaporated milk to caramelize and achieve that deep caramel flavor. I like to make it when I know I will be around the house for a couple of hours and can check on it every 10-15 minutes or so to give it a stir and monitor it's progress toward soft ball stage (240°F).
- Assembly. Level off your cake tops if you haven't already, then place your bottom cake layer on a serving plate or cake stand. Pour some of the caramel icing over the first layer and spread it out with a knife.
- Finish. Place the top layer of cake onto the caramel layer, then pour the rest of the frosting right onto the top of the cake. Use a knife to gently nudge the thick caramel icing to the edges of the cake. Spread it around the sides of the cake with rustic swooshes, then refrigerate for 30 to 60 minutes to help the icing set up before serving.
Yes, if you would like, you can either bake 3 thinner layers of cake or use a serrated knife to cut the two thick layers of cake into 4 layers, if you prefer. There should be enough icing to cover and fill a 3 layer cake, but if planning on 4 layers I would recommend making 1.5x the frosting recipe.
Absolutely! I would recommend adding 1 cup of chopped walnuts or pecans to the yellow cake batter.
Tips for Success
- Use room temperature ingredients. It makes a difference using room temperature butter, eggs, sour cream, and milk when baking cake layers. They will mix and bake more evenly and you will have flatter layers than if your ingredients are cold straight out of the fridge.
- Beating the icing. Don't go too far when beating the icing or it will cease to be pourable and can thicken into more of a frosting. It will still be delicious and you can thin the icing back out with a little milk if you go too far, but it's easy to get carried away, especially if you decided to transfer the hot caramel icing to a stand mixer.
- Prepared cake pans. I like to line my round cake pans with parchment paper circles on the bottom to make sure the cake doesn't stick. When the cake layers are done baking, You can just turn them out onto a cooling rack and peel off the parchment paper.
Keep any uneaten cake covered in an airtight container or with a glass cake dome on a cake plate to prevent the sliced cake from drying out.
You can wrap individual slices of cake with plastic wrap and freeze them for up to 2 months. Just thaw on the counter for a couple of hours before enjoying.
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Southern Caramel Cake
For the Cake
- 1 cup salted butter, softened
- 2 ½ cups granulated sugar
- 4 large eggs, room temperature
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 3 cups all-purpose flour (375g) or 3 ¼ cups cake flour
- 1 Tablespoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 cup sour cream, room temperature
- ¼ cup whole milk, room temperature
For the Frosting
- 1 cup salted butter, cubed
- 3 ¾ cups granulated sugar
- 2 (12-ounce) cans evaporated milk
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
For the Cake
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Line two 9-inch cake pans with parchment paper circles and spray with baking spray.
- Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs one at a time. Add vanilla and rum extracts.
- Add flour, baking powder, and salt alternately with sour cream and milk.
- Bake for 30-35 minutes. Cool in pans for 10 minutes before turning out onto a wire rack to cool completely. (Or bake in 3 pans for 23-30 minutes.)
For the Frosting
- Combine butter, sugar, and evaporated milk in a large saucepan over medium heat, stirring until melted.
- Reduce heat to medium-low and cook for about 1 ½ to 2 hours, stirring occasionally to make sure it doesn't burn, until the mixture reaches 240°F (soft-ball stage) on a candy thermometer clipped to the side of the pan. It should have thickened and turned a beautiful caramel brown color.
- Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla extract. Let the caramel icing cool for about 20 to 25 minutes before icing the cake so it can set up more. To thicken it even more, you can beat it with a sturdy wooden spoon for 20 to 25 minutes until it reaches a glossy, smooth, thick consistency that is spreadable or you can actually transfer the mixture to a mixing bowl and beat with the paddle attachment for more of a frosting than a caramel icing. If the icing gets too thick, add just enough milk to make it spreadable again.
- Frost the cake layers with the caramel icing, then chill to set.
- Storage: This cake will keep at room temperature for 3-4 days. You can also refrigerate it for 5-7 days, but plan ahead so it can come to room temperature before serving, otherwise the slices will taste stale.
Recipe adapted from Saveur.