Somewhere in a kitchen a long, long time ago a family tradition was born. That tradition is known as the caramel icing cake. A white cake, made from scratch, went into the oven. Meanwhile, on what was likely a wood burning stove, the icing simmered along. As the cakes cooled on a rack in that long ago kitchen, a watchful eye was necessary, as the icing could quickly turn from what candy makers call the soft-ball stage to hard-ball stage in the blink of a weary eye. Once the mixture reached the perfect consistency, a cube of butter was beaten into the icing with a wooden spoon, and it was time to ice the cake. This was no small task as our paternal grandmother dipped a knife into cool water in between every spoonful of icing dropped on the cake, and then spread it quickly yet gently so as not to tear the cake. It would have been easier with two sets of hands, and sometimes that extra set belonged to our dad.
The caramel icing cake made it into our family kitchen, and onto the table for birthdays. Dad made the icing and Mom baked the cake, but try as she might, according to him, her cake never measured up to “Mother’s”, which is of course, what every woman longs for her husband to say after she has stayed up late in the kitchen, after everyone else is in bed, to make the family cake. Again. Truth be told, the cake, his mom’s recipe of course, wasn’t very good. In fact it was downright dry. So……….. One year, our mom secretly bought a box of cake mix, the kind with pudding in it, baked the cake, and threw out the box before he was any the wiser. He probably complimented her on finally getting “Mother’s” recipe right. She probably just smiled. As they say, ignorance is bliss. So is caramel icing. It contains more sugar that you can imagine, and is so rich and sweet it actually hurts your teeth. But in a good way.
If it had been left up to me, the tradition would have passed into family history when the baker and the caramel icing maker passed away. Thankfully, my sister Margie picked up the baton, or in this case, the wooden spoon used to beat the butter into the icing. She learned how to make it along side our dad, and now she is passing it on to the next generation. As they make it alongside her, there is more passed on than just a recipe. Dumping the cake mix from the box, they remember that finding your own way instead of trying to measure up to someone else’s is a delicious way to live. Keeping a mindful eye on the frosting, never rushing it, checking it regularly, and recognizing when it is ready reminds them that patience and persistence pay off. Icing the cake together, they discover that many hands make light work. Of a cake, or almost anything else for that matter.
When it comes to the caramel icing cake, a few things will never change.
Always, always, always use a cake mix with pudding in it, and hold your head up high when you do.
Secure the layers together with tooth picks so they don’t slide apart when icing the cake.
Make a batch and a half of icing, because, well, just because. The family cake isn’t the place to skimp.
Hide it before the party, unless you want to find half of the frosting gone before ever lighting the candles.
The icing tastes as good on your finger as it does on the cake. Especially with your first cup of coffee in the morning the day after the birthday party.
One thing has changed.
Because the cake is simply the vehicle for the frosting, a cupcake will do just as well. Probably better. Less cake, more frosting.
This year, my niece Katie, Margie’s youngest daughter, made her first batch of caramel icing cupcakes all on her own for two-year old Harper Joy’s birthday party.
When it comes to the sweetness of family, a savored tradition is the icing on the cake.