It was one of those I-have-to-bake-this moments.

Does this ever happen to you? 

I was paging through Saveur, my food magazine of choice, and there it was: A magnificent caramel cake, from a cover story on the glories of Southern layer cakes. It reminded me of a treat my made-in-Minnesota mom baked when I was a kid, although Judy is strictly a 9x13-pan kind of gal. 

Like mother, like son. I discovered, once again, that the layer cake is no friend to this klutz-prone baker. I took a stab at the recipe this morning, and man, that was one sad-looking cake. An embarrassment, really, so much so that I couldn't bring myself to photograph it. In the magazine, it was of course beautiful, mouth-wateringly so. Mine bears a passing familiarity to that food-porn version, in the way that Bradley Cooper and Jonah Hill are both movie stars.

My issues began when I discovered that our kitchen is equipped with just two 9-inch round baking pans, not the three that the recipe requires (at this point I should have trusted my instincts and gone the 9x13 route). Still, the cake baked up like a dream, light and spongy and fragrant, but with just two layers it was never going to be the towering confection depicted in the magazine. But still, cake is cake, right?

Preparing the caramel icing was a bit trickier, and that's not a comment on directions, which turned out to be exacting. It is one of those recipes that requires constant attention -- as in, standing at the stove, stirring, for more than a half an hour -- and author Ben Mims isn't just whistling "Dixie" when he suggests a candy thermometer, fixed to the side of the pan.

I couldn't find mine -- our kitchen's gadget drawer is as messy as my office cubicle -- so I relied upon an instant-read thermometer instead, and by the time the bubbling, getting-browner-by-the-second caramel icing had reached the proper temperature, it was too late. I'd burned it. Not enough to chuck it and start over (like that was going to happen; who keeps three cans of evaporated milk on hand?), but still. The curse was on.

Remember that part about yours truly and layer cakes? Because I'd planned on taking the finished product to the office, I skipped the cake pedestal idea (I once learned the hard way that they don't survive the drive downtown when resting on the wobbling floor of the car). Instead, I edged a large plate with skinny pieces of waxed paper -- which were going to catch the excess icing and prevent it from spilling onto the table -- and assembled the cake as instructed.

I left it to cool on the porch. When I returned a half-hour later, I discovered that the top layer had slid an inch or so off center, and the icing had set. Oh, and removing the waxed paper? Not so easy. Each slight tug caused the bottom layer to move around the plate. 

But you know what? It might look tragic, but the taste? Phenomenal. This exercise in humility may have not overcome my fear of baking layer cakes. But here's another lesson learned: Who cares if my sad little caramel cake induces giggles, or pity, or some combination thereof? This is one impressively great-tasting dessert. 

Oh, what the heck. Here it is. Go ahead and laugh. I'm trying to do the same.




Serves 10 to 12.

Note: From Saveur magazine.

For cake: 1 c. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for pans

3 c. cake flour, plus more for pans, sifted

2 1/2 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. kosher salt

1 c. milk, at room temperature

2 tsp. vanilla extract

1 1/2 c. sugar

4 eggs, at room temperature

For icing:

3 1/2 c. sugar, divided

3/4 c. (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted

30 oz. (3 3/4 c.) evaporated milk

1 egg

2 tsp. vanilla extract

1 tsp. baking soda Instructions

To prepare cake: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour three 9-inch cake pans, and set aside. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and salt and reserve. In a medium bowl, whisk together milk and vanilla extract and reserve. In bowl of an electric mixer on medium-high speed, cream butter and sugar until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition, and scraping down sides of bowl as needed. Reduce speed to low and alternately add dry ingredients in 3 batches and wet ingredients in 2 batches, beginning and ending with dry ingredients, mixing until just combined. Increase speed to high and beat until batter is smooth, about 5 seconds. Divide batter evenly among prepared pans, and smooth top with a rubber spatula; drop pans lightly on a counter to expel any large air bubbles. Bake cakes until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean, about 25 minutes. Remove from oven and let cakes cool for 20 minutes in pans; invert onto wire racks, and let cool.

To prepare icing: In a 6-quart copper saucepan or Dutch oven, whisk together 3 cups sugar, butter, milk and egg and reserve. In a small skillet over high heat, cook remaining sugar, swirling pan, until sugar melts into an amber caramel, about 2 minutes. Immediately pour caramel into milk mixture, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat; attach a candy thermometer to side of pan, and cook, stirring bottom constantly with a wooden spoon, until thermometer reads 232 degrees, about 40 minutes. Remove from heat and immediately stir in vanilla extract and baking soda; let sit for 1 minute. Using a hand mixer, beat caramel mixture on medium-low speed until the consistency of loose pudding, about 1 minute.

To assemble cake: Immediately place one cake on a cake stand and pour over 1/2 cup caramel icing; top with second cake and pour over 1/2 cup icing. Top with third cake and pour remaining icing around the top edge of cake and then over the center. Quickly spread icing over sides of cake; let icing cool completely before serving. Store at room temperature.