Passing Down the Recipes: The Story of the Caramel Cake

Today is a big day in my life.

I made the traditional Caramel Cake that’s been passed down from Mrs. John Brown who was a friend of Great Grandmother Johnson (of Fuqua-Varina, North Carolina), and whose daughter, Kitty Lane, made for her family every Christmas.


It’s an ancient, treasured recipe that my daughters talk about all year long. They cannot wait for Christmas for the Caramel Cake!

I immediately realize the wisdom in writing down these recipes and recording the exact instructions from someone in the family who knows what she’s doing.

Grandma Kitty’s Caramel Cake is my daughter’s favorite, and she requested it for her birthday cake today for her 14th birthday dinner. But alas! I’ve never made the cake and have no training in this area of fine Southern Cakes! I do know that Sarah’s Aunt Kathy and Great Aunt B can make the Caramel Cake, but they are down South and not here with me in Pennsylvania.

So I call Grandma Kitty.

We spend a day texting and calling one another, including frantic exchanges before church about whether my caramel is “soft-balling.”

She sends this:

Caramel Cake

Thankfully, Grandma Kitty interprets this image with the following (and she gives permission to share this recipe, so enjoy!):

Mother’s Christmas Cake

  • 3 Cups Swansdown Cake Flour
  • 3/4 pound of butter
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 6 eggs
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp vanilla
  • 1 cup Pet Milk

Mother’s Caramel Icing

  • 4 cups brown sugar, packed
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 stick butter
  • 1 1/2 tsp vanilla

She writes: The cake recipe came from Mrs. John Brown a long time ago. Mother always made this cake recipe. You need to use 3 cups Sawnsdown Cake Flour; it comes in a box  near the other flour. It measures differently from just regular flour.  It calls for 1 cup of Pet Milk (evaporated milk not condensed). I grease and flour the pans very, very well or the cake won’t come out good. Mother always said you cream the softened butter and sugar a long time. When you think it should be done, beat some more. It should look very, very creamy before you proceed.  Add eggs, one at a time next, beating well after adding each egg. Add other dry ingredients to the flour and vanilla to the milk .Don’t put all the flour in at one time or the milk either. I always alternate  flour, milk, flour, milk and end up with flour.  Be careful when you add to flour and milk that your mixer is on the very lowest speed and you don’t want to mix it any more than necessary to get it altogether.  After adding flour, the cake will be tough if it is beaten too much. After the cake is done, it should show signs of the cake leaving the edges of each pan. Cool on rack for 10 minutes before trying to get it out of the pan. Then take a spatula or knife and run it very carefully around the edges to help release the cake from the pan. After this turn the cake upside down on plate and tap the bottom of the pan to release the cake.  

For the icing, I use 2 boxes of Light brown sugar. The recipe calls for 4 cups brown sugar packed, but I have found that 2 boxes is close enough. Put sugar and milk ( I use the balance of the pet milk left over from the cake and add regular milk to it to make 1 cup) in the brown sugar and stir and dissolve it very well before turning on the stove.  Cook and stir until it makes a soft ball in cup of cold water, I don’t know, maybe less than 3 mins.  Take off stove, put into bowl that has 1 stick of butter and 1 1/2 tsp of vanilla. Set this bowl into another bowl that has cold water in it.  Ensure while you are stirring the icing to cool that you don’t slosh any water from the bottom bowl into the icing or it probably won’t harden just right.   When spreadable on cake , take out of water bowl and start spreading on cake.  If the icing gets too hard before you finish icing the cake, you can add just a tiny bit of hot water and stir very well.  Not too much, you can always add more, but can’t take any out. Good luck and if you need me, just call. 

So my wisdom for today–my living with flair moment–is to capture the old recipes. Follow the ancient paths of wisdom, even in baking.


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