Celebrating autumn and all things apple with salted caramel cake
There are several things that signal autumn to me -- colorful leaves, apples, and pumpkins. Fall is my favorite season. I am guilty of loving everything pumpkin, yes this includes those coffee drinks, but I am also equally fond of all things apple. Warm apple cider, apple tarts and pies, homemade cinnamon applesauce, and caramel apples top my list. This cake is the perfect blend of almost everything on my list, and as an extra bonus, you can make it into the shape of a caramel apple for fun.
I am lucky, I have a friend who helps to support my love of apples through the apple tree in her yard, and every year she allows me to pick all the apples I want. This year I have made my usual favorites, but also needed to make a birthday cake, so why not a cake with apples and caramel?
Inspired by the caramel apple, I shaped the cake into an apple shape, pressing a long-handled wooden spoon into the cake to look like a stick. You do not need to do this and can use regular rounds, a 9x13, or even a large Bundt cake pans to enjoy this moist and flavorful dessert.
This ingredient list is unusual, including both applesauce and chopped apples, caramel and buttermilk. Not to mention a frosting that starts with making homemade buttermilk caramel! But what do each of these ingredients do in this cake?
Applesauce provides both flavor and moisture. I have used unsweetened applesauce as a substitute for some of the oil in cake recipes for quite a while. A cake made with applesauce is usually very moist. In most cases, the apple flavor disappears, but it helps to round out the apple flavor in this cake with the help of other supporting ingredients. Chopped apples add texture, more moisture and visual interest to a cinnamon and brown sugar-forward cake.
Why buttermilk? That's a good question. Buttermilk serves a dual purpose in baked goods by providing flavor while also being part of the leavening process. Buttermilk has more acid than regular milk, which will reduce the carbon dioxide released, inhibiting the leavening process. I have started noticing most cake recipes with buttermilk also list both baking powder and baking soda as ingredients. The baking soda is needed to interact with the acid in the buttermilk to create carbon dioxide, so the cake rises.
If buttermilk requires a special trip to the store, an easy substitute can be created by adding one tablespoon of lemon juice to a one-cup measuring cup and then adding enough regular milk to equal one cup. Allow this mixture to sit roughly 10 minutes before using it.
Last but certainly not least, the caramel sauce. This requires little to no explanation -- this adds flavor!
Let's talk frosting, specifically salted caramel frosting. This is a unique recipe in that it starts with a homemade buttermilk caramel. The buttermilk gives a little tang to this sweet amber treat. I wouldn't advise making this without a candy thermometer, as heating the mixture to exactly 240 degrees is essential to the texture of the finished frosting. My favorite type of thermometer is the stainless-steel variety that clips to the side of the pot. It has clear temperature markings, a heatproof handle, and a "foot" at the bottom protecting the bottom of the actual thermometer.
I have made this frosting recipe twice and find it to be a little difficult to spread and have ended up using my hands to mold the frosting on the cake, almost like almond paste or fondant. Be sure to use the technique in the recipe for creating a smooth finish.
Please don't let the frosting stop you from making this cake. Make your favorite buttercream instead, and add a little salt. There are several great recipes for salted buttercream frosting online.
Personally, I plan to make this cake again in my Bundt pan and think it will taste delicious with a little glaze drizzled over the top, made from apple cider and powdered sugar.
No matter what type of frosting you choose, make this cake! You will love it.
• Penny Kazmier, a wife and mother of four from South Barrington, won the 2011 Daily Herald Cook of the Week Challenge.