Orange-Caramel Cake

This recipe is a variation on one shared with me by a kindergarten playground companion with whom I recently reconnected after recognizing her name in a database I was tending for our coincidentally mutual employer. I didn’t even realize at the time that she was still in the area, much less working for the same company, as I hadn’t spoken with her in more than 20 years. Fortunately, it didn’t take long to rediscover common ground in dessert, particularly a favorite birthday cake potent enough to spark a sibling rivalry.

It’s an unassuming orange-flavored yellow cake hiding coyly behind an extremely rich caramel icing, but the combination is more synergistic than I anticipated. By the time I had stirred the caramel for 20 minutes, I was convinced I should have gone with a chocolate. But once I took a bite of the finished product, I realized that the genius of the combination is as timeless as Abbott and Costello, Penn and Teller, and Smother and Smother. The antics on the outside bounce in and out of a wry, subtly bemused leading role like the stiff-sugary Lucille Ball screaming out the setups for the mellow, tangy punchlines of Ricky Ricardo. Taken together, it can be a sensory overload, but if approached in some moderation, it can be quite satisfying also.

To compensate for my forgetfulness at the store, I substituted some fresh orange zest and some orange liqueur for the orange extract I didn’t remember to get. I also used butter where I might otherwise have used shortening, gambling slightly with the degree of fluffiness, but ratcheting up the richness of the cake itself just a bit. For fun, I also used all organic ingredients (and cage-free eggs), not counting the Cointreau (I don’t know much about organic booze) and the powdered sugar in the icing (which I couldn’t find even at the store for total hippies).

Here’s the recipe, almost exactly as e-mailed to me:

1 1/2 cup flour
1 3/4 cup sugar
4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 cup milk
3/4 cup butter

Combine and beat on high for two minutes, then add:

3 eggs
3/4 cup orange liqueur
1/4 cup milk
About as much zest as you can scrape from roughly half of an orange

Beat another two minutes. Pour into (one or more) buttered, floured pans. Bake at 350Ëš for 30-40 minutes, until done.

Allow it to cool completely before frosting.

I went ahead and started on the caramel as soon as I put the cake into the oven, but it’s probably most efficient to wait until after the cake is out. You can make the icing while the cake is cooling, and then your icing is smoother when it’s time to apply. The temptation might be to start applying the icing before it’s finished, but it only got smoother and more icing-like the longer I stirred it, so you do want to be patient. I might also recommend using a stainless-steel saucepan, so that you can switch to an electric mixer when your arm gets tired. Mine was nonstick, which worked great for keeping the sugary mixture away from the pan, but it meant I had to burn calories cranking on a spoon with my arm.

Combine in a good-sized (medium) saucepan:

1 1/2 stick butter
1 1/2 cup brown sugar (mine was dark)
4 tbsp milk

Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring constantly. Once it’s boiling and everything has melted into a consistent goo, remove it from the heat and start adding up to about a pound of powdered sugar. Keep stirring, keep stirring, and keep stirring. After 15-20 minutes, it will be a smooth, caramel-looking (!) texture. By now your cake should be pretty much cool, so you can start frosting it up.

Tip: if you’re making a flat cake like I did, go straight for whatever icing texture you want for the top, but if you’re making a layered cake, start out with a slightly thinner icing for using between the layers, then add in a little more powdered sugar to stiffen it up for the outside. If the caramel starts hardening up and it’s more like Play-Dohâ„¢ than icing, stir in more milk.

As for the sibling rivalry: it seems there are no boundaries when it comes to the last piece of this cake, regardless of whose birthday it might be. A mere 20 minutes without supervision, and an unscrupulous sister may well steal the last bite away from the birthday girl herself. My advice: hide a piece away, right from the start.

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