More often than not, my dessert making is fueled by a serious “must-have-something-sweet-now” sugar craving. Which means I’m usually whipping up something quick and easy (like Nutella strawberry fools or brown butter rice krispie treats). But sometimes I crave the baking process almost as much as the delicious results. And sometimes that just so happens to coincide with a birthday, and a layer cake just begs to be made.
Fair warning: this chocolate caramel layer cake requires patience, some frosting skills (which I’m still working on, as you can see), and a candy thermometer. But you will be rewarded with chocolate cake perfection sandwiched with gooey salted caramel and heavenly brown butter caramel cream cheese frosting, plus the sweet satisfaction of making a layer cake from scratch, more compliments than you can count, and an extremely happy birthday girl.
Chocolate Caramel Layer Cake
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen & Martha Stewart
For the chocolate cake:
- 3 oz semi-sweet chocolate, finely chopped
- 1 1/2 cup hot coffee
- 2 cups white sugar
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 cups unsweetened cocoa powder
- 2 tsp baking soda
- 3/4 tsp baking powder
- 1 1/4 tsp salt
- 3 large eggs
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- 1/2 cup butter (melted)
- 1 1/2 cups buttermilk
- 1 tsp vanilla
For the salted caramel filling:
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 1/8 cup light corn syrup
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 tsp coarse salt
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cold and cut into tbsp-sized slices
For the brown butter caramel cream cheese frosting:
- 3/4 cup butter
- 8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
- 4 cups powdered sugar, sifted
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 1/4 cup caramel (reserved from filling, above)
Make the cake layers (you can do this a day ahead, if you like):
Grease two 10″ cake pans with butter, line the bottoms with rounds of parchment paper, and grease the paper. Preheat oven to 300°F. Stir chopped chocolate into hot coffee until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth and set aside.
Sift sugar, flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt into a large bowl and whisk to combine.
In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (or a large bowl with a hand-held electric mixer), beat eggs for about three minutes on medium-high speed, until slightly thickened and lemon yellow. Slowly add the oil, buttermilk, vanilla, and melted chocolate and beat just until the mixture is well combined.
Pour the batter evenly into the pans and bake in the center of the oven for 60 to 70 minutes or until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Let layers cool completely in pans, then carefully run a thin knife around the edges of the pans before turning cake layers onto racks or large plates. If making a day ahead, wrap well with plastic wrap and store at room temperature. Transfer to the fridge about an hour before you are ready to assemble for easier assembly and frosting.
Brown the butter for the frosting:
Cook butter in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until it begins to turn golden and smells a bit nutty. Transfer to a shallow dish (to increase surface area for quicker cooling) and bring to room temperature. Set aside while you make the filling.
Make the filling:
Pour sugar, corn syrup, and 1/8 cup water into a heavy saucepan over high heat. Cook without stirring for about 14 minutes, until caramel reaches a dark amber color. Remove from heat and carefully add the cream (mixture will spatter); stir until smooth. Return to heat, insert a candy thermometer, and cook until caramel reaches around 238 degrees, about 2 minutes (Martha was very specific about the temperature, but I think mine was more like 240 and it seemed perfect to me, so don’t panic if you’re off by a couple of degrees). Transfer the caramel to a medium bowl, stir in coarse salt, wait 15 minutes, then stir the butter in one tablespoon at a time. Set aside to cool completely at room temperature while you make the ganache and frosting.
Make the frosting:
Beat cream cheese and room temperature brown butter together with an electric mixer until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add sifted powdered sugar (important to avoid lumps!), vanilla, and caramel. Beat on low speed until just combined.
Assemble chocolate caramel layer cake:
Use a cake leveler or large serrated knife to level each layer. Reserve the top bits for decoration (I used a cookie cutter on these to make the stars on top) or nibbling on. Split each layer in half, so you have four thinner layers (Note: I actually used three to make the layer cake pictured above and made a separate smaller cake with the fourth, as the four-layer-cake wouldn’t fit in my carrier.)
Transfer one layer to a cake stand or serving platter and spread a layer of caramel on top, followed by a layer of frosting. Repeat with remaining layers, leaving top bare. Refrigerate until set, about an hour.
Frost with a “crumb layer” by placing a small amount of frosting on the cake and spreading it over the top and sides; this will anchor crumbs in place and give you a cleaner surface for your visible frosting layer. Place cake in the freezer for about ten minutes to set. Frost the top, then the sides using an offset spatula. Decorate the top with cut outs from your extra leveled-off bits and chocolate chips, or as desired.