This was my Southern grandmother's basic Little Yellow Cake when she wasn't getting fancy with a layer cake. The "little black dress" of cakes, it can be accessorized lots of ways, and she had four toppings she used for it at various times: caramel icing, chocolate icing, broiled coconut or streusel.
My husband prefers the chocolate icing, but I just had to have caramel. Some cooks shy away from making caramel because it's one of those things with a bit of a mystique about it. But, truly, it is so easy. Sometimes I start with regular granulated sugar, but this one is made with dark brown sugar and couldn't be easier.
The cake is a tender yellow cake that starts with the butter being cut, or rubbed, into the flour mixture as if making biscuits. Grandma was constantly making biscuits, so she always had buttermilk on hand. I don't always have it, so I just use milk soured with cider vinegar, as shown below.
This got me thinking about Grandma's kitchen (especially since I just wrote about My Kitchen). She had a tiny, and I mean teeny tiny, kitchen that was always neat as a pin. Never a dish in the sink or anything left on the counter. Her kitchen equipment was so limited, she would be goggle-eyed with wonderment to step into my kitchen. And yet her cooking was not limited. Go figure.
Grandma's Little Yellow Cake with Caramel Icing
(Makes one 9-inch/23-cm round or one 8-inch/20-cm square layer)
The Cake1 1/2 tablespoons cider vinegar
Enough milk to make 1 cup (8 fluid ounces/237 ml)
1 1/4 dip-and-sweep cups (6.25 ounces/177 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 dip-and-sweep cup (1.25 ounces/35 grams) cornstarch
3/4 cup (5.25 ounces/149 grams) sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (4 ounces/113 grams) unsalted butter, softened
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
The Caramel Icing1 cup (8 fluid ounces/237 ml) heavy cream
1/2 lightly packed cup (3.75 ounces/106 grams) dark brown sugar
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 Preheat oven to 350F/180C/Gas4. Grease well and lightly flour one 9-inch round or 8-inch square pan; you can skip the flour if you're going to serve it directly from the pan as I did this time. Measure vinegar into 1-cup glass measure; add enough milk to make 1 cup. Stir and let stand about 5 minutes while you proceed.
2 In mixing bowl, whisk together flour, cornstarch, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Cut in the butter as if making biscuits. Add soured milk, eggs and vanilla. With electric mixer, mix on low speed for 30 seconds to combine, then on medium speed for 1 minute.
3 Pour into prepared pan. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
4 Cool in pan on wire rack for 10 minutes. Remove from pan and cool on rack for an hour. Grandma usually just served this cake directly from the pan, and that's what I did here.
5 After the cake has been cooling for 45 minutes, put the cream, sugar and salt in a heavy-bottomed 1.5-quart saucepan and bring the mixture to the boil, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Then boil without stirring until the caramel registers about 232F/111C to 240F/115C on an instant-read* thermometer, about 10 to 12 minutes.
* You could use a candy thermometer that clips to the pan, but since I'm not a candy fan I don't have one of those. I use my Thermapen for everything!
6 Remove from heat, stir in vanilla and beat vigorously with a wooden spoon until smooth. Pour onto cake and immediately spread it to cover cake; the caramel sets up very quickly.