Pecan Vanilla Cake with Caramel Glaze
August 11th, 2015
Sometimes when I need to zone out mentally and let my mind refuel, I make a cake. Lately, my mind has been swirling with the unpleasant adult-y things that I’ve managed to push deep into the back of my head for years: budgets, mortgage questions, insurance enrollments, work, dog vaccinations, stomach bugs and antibiotics, blahblahblah… Alongside the adult-y things have come very practical, plain meals that have been a means to an end. Peanut butter and jelly for lunch? Everyday. Cereal for dinner? Sounds good. Pizza from Costco for date night? Just kidding, Costco date nights are the best.
To remedy this awful inundation of monotony, I used a free afternoon to dust off the old cake turntable and put every last stick of butter in the house to use. Just me, the dogs, and the pleasant promise of delicious cake.
It was indeed the remedy. I put on a quotable TV show in the background (Firefly, I believe), and allowed myself to get lost in the blissfully lengthy process of cake-making. There were no thoughts of rising mortgage payments (WHY, property taxes???) as I sifted my dry ingredients together. I forgot about the crazy season at work while I mindlessly beat butter and sugar to a fluff while Captain Malcolm Reynolds soared through the ‘verse on Serenity. I didn’t think of perusing budget apps while I chopped and nibbled on crunchy pecans. I didn’t once fret over pageviews while I burned my first batch of caramel, then successfully made a second.
Thank you, sweet, fluffy therapy iced in sinful buttercream. You have always been and will always be that dearly-needed and welcome respite from reality.
Coming back down from a baking high is pleasant and painless because there’s always a fluffy, delicate treat waiting for you. In this case, my hunch for caramel, pecans and vanilla all muddled together in cake form did not disappoint.
I took my favorite Martha vanilla cake base and tweaked it just a bit, adding chunks of crunchy Texas pecans. The combination of nutty, aromatic pecans with buttery, flaky vanilla cake is the stuff of dreams. Liberally layer each section of cake with with a cool, creamy, decadent butter-based buttercream, and you’ll swoon over the amalgamation of intoxicating flavors.
To top it off, there’s caramel. It’s a basic, no-nonsense recipe, because the beauty of caramel is that a few simple, shining ingredients quickly come together to create an addicting sauce that any normal human being with taste buds loses their mind over. I accidentally let my first batch wander over to the dark side, literally. After it cooled a bit the boy dipped his finger in for a taste and quickly grimaced in disgust at the sour, burnt flavor. My bad, that one’s on me. Round two proved successful, and what we poured over the cake was salty, sweet, sticky, and sinful.
When it comes to show for a cake, I often fret over adding a glaze. What if it’s too thin and it acts like a waterfall and pools around the bottom of the cake? What if it’s too thick and it looks like an awkward second coating of frosting? What if it looks okay but tastes spectacularly bad?
You’ll have no such worries with caramel. Let it dribble slowly after pouring it in evenly over the top of the cake, then lose yourself in the beauty of its asymmetrical streaks of decadence.
We made ourselves only a little sick indulging on this beauty the evening after making it, so I left it to my coworkers to finish off the next day. Their kind words of affirmation through mouthfuls of cake made it clear this recipe belongs here. Make it for a grown up birthday, a summer potluck, or simply to escape reality for a bit and enjoy the buttery ride that is cake-making.
- 2 sticks of unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 1/2 cups white sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 3 egg yolks
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 1 cup coarsely chopped pecans
- 1 cup granulated white sugar
- 2 teaspoons water
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 stick unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 2 1/2 sticks of unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1/4 cup of heavy cream
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
- 1 lb powdered sugar
- 1. In a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy.
- 2. Add the vanilla, then the egg yolks and whole eggs one at a time until incorporated.
- 3. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt.
- 4. With the mixer running, add the flour mixture in increments, alternating between that mixture and the buttermilk. Begin and end with the flour mixture.
- 5. Gently fold in the chopped pecans until incorporated, but don't overmix.
- 6. Divide the batter between 2 prepared 8" cake pans. Bake for about 50 minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
- 7. Let cool completely before turning out of the pans. Once cool, use a large serrated knife to cut the domed tops off of each cake and discard. Then carefully cut each whole layer in half so you have 4 layers.
- 1. In a small sauce pan, mix together the sugar and water. Bring to a slow boil over medium high heat. Once it starts boiling, let it get to a light amber color, but no darker.
- 2. Once it reaches that light amber color, add the butter and quickly whisk to combine.
- 3. Once the butter is incorporated, remove from the heat and add the heavy cream and salt. The cream will make it bubble up pretty rapidly, so just whisk it carefully to combine.
- 4. Let the caramel cool to just a bit warmer than room temperature before using on the cake. You want it to be viscous enough to spread across the cake and drizzle down the sides, but not so much that it just pools at the bottom. If it feels to cool and hard, try putting it in the microwave for 8 second increments.
- 1. In the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, beat the butter until light and fluffy, then add the vanilla.
- 2. Add the powdered sugar in 1/4 cup increments so it has time to fully incorporate into the butter mixture. Once you've added about a cup and half of powdered sugar, add the heavy cream.
- 3. Continue to add powdered sugar until it reaches your desired consistency; I like my buttercream a little on the thick side, so you can hold a spoonful upside down and it won't fall, yet is still smooth and pliable enough to spread easily over cake.
- 1. Place one of the halved cake rounds on a cardboard cake circle on a cake turntable. Add a 1/2" thick layer of buttercream, then add the next halved cake round and continue until you have no more.
- 2. Use the icing that is peeping out from in between the layers to create a "dirty ice" or just a thin film of icing to capture any crumbs. You can also use a little bit of extra buttercream to achieve this.
- 3. To ice the rest of the cake, I like to use a piping bag with a 1/2" opening to vertically pipe an even amount of buttercream around the cake sides, then in a spiral on the top. From here, simply smooth out with an icing spatula or add your desired texture.
- 4. Once the caramel has cooled to room temperature, pour directly onto the top center of the cake. Use a spoon or icing spatula to gently move toward the edges, and let it drizzle down the sides a bit. Top with a few pecans as a garnish.
- You can divide the batter into 3 - 8" cake pans and bake for less time. I wouldn't halve these cake rounds unless you make an extra half batch of buttercream to compensate.