Caramel Crunch Cake- I mean, Trifle

Happy Monday!!

What better way to start the week than with a yummy recipe, right?

Today’s recipe started after a visit to one of the local sandwich joints. They served this amazing caramel crunch cake that was delicious and not overly sweet. Typically defined as a “buttery vanilla cake with vanilla bean frosting and a layer of crunchy caramel”, it was decadent with a mildly sweet frosting that perfectly counterbalanced the sweet caramel.

At more than $40 a cake, I knew there was no way that I was going to be taking one home anytime soon, but I also knew that I could probably come up with a suitable replacement for when the craving strikes.

I scoured the internet (and Pinterest!) for recipes and couldn’t find a single one! I know that I can’t possibly be the only one who fell in love with this delicious masterpiece, but I’m apparently the only one who attempted replication? That can’t be right. It’s practically impossible to have an original idea on the internet. It’s all been done somewhere, at some point! Or so I thought.

This cake proved to be different. But, I was ready to roll up my sleeves, don my apron and dive in. After all, I’m confident enough in my baking skills to figure that I could handle this.

First? A caramel crunch layer. I anticipated that this would be the hardest part and I was right. Making the caramel isn’t the hardest part, but what to use for the ‘crunch’? Rice Krispies seemed like the most obvious choice, but then came the challenge of figuring out the caramel to Krispies ratio. And it also had to be a softer caramel– not one that turned wicked hard once cool.
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I’m not a candy-maker. But, after testing recipes I found one that was firm enough for the crunch, but soft enough to enjoy without breaking your teeth.

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Looks delicious- right? I crushed up the Rice Krispies with my hands so they weren’t quite as large. I cooked a beautiful golden caramel sauce…. beautiful. (yes, I called it beautiful twice.)

What good is a caramel crunch layer for a cake without the cake?

That was the easy part.

If you have a stand-by vanilla cake recipe- use it. I did. I also amped up the butter flavor by using some butter flavored extract. I know, it goes against my desire to use only the best ingredients- and never use ‘imitation’, but it was cheap and who doesn’t love the flavor of butter?

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Yes, I left out a trick- but isn’t this beautiful???

I swirled it with some caramel cake batter before baking. I just mixed some caramel sauce into some of the batter and swirled it into the cake! Super easy!

I’ll share my vanilla cake recipe below, as well as the caramel crunch layer recipe.

But- first- I need to tell you the importance of the cake layering process. I baked three- yes three- 9 inch round cake layers and let cool. Once cool, I began on the caramel crunch layer. It’s important not to make the caramel crunch layer until you’re ready to begin cake assembly. You need to pour the piping hot caramel crunch directly onto the bottom cake layer- and it sets up pretty quickly.
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And yes, there was a tiny bit of overflow- but that’s mostly because my caramel layer was too thick. Believe me- you want to go much thinner on your layer than I did. I believe the thickness of this layer was the reason that my cake eventually failed when cutting it into slices. Yes- this thick caramel crunchy goodness was the death of the cake. But, if done right- and I believe you can learn from my mistakes too- then it can also make for a fabulous cake WIN!

You’re going to want to let your crunch layer cool. At least half an hour. But that gives you plenty of time to make the frosting! A beautiful light and fluffy concoction that’s essentially a homemade marshmallow fluff. At this point you can use just a whipped topping or homemade whipped cream and it would be just as wonderful, but I opted to go the fluffy way.

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Ladies and gentleman– you can make marshmallow fluff without a fancy mixer! I don’t recommend it, but it’s possible if you have a substitute. I thought it’d be fine to just whip it up using my hand mixer and its boring beaters. I don’t have a fancy whisk attachment– but I DO have a fancy whisk attachment to the hand blender! The only warning- it may overheat. whisking this mixture of egg whites, sugar, vanilla, water, and cream of tartar takes about 15 minutes. Sadly, I had to sit there holding the stick blender for that entire time because you HAVE to hold in the ‘on’ button. I felt the motor part getting mighty hot during this procedure and was terribly afraid that I’d overheat the blender and then where would I be? Trying to whisk this vigorously for more than 15 minutes (it takes longer by hand)? I typically do whisk my egg whites and whipped cream by hand. Guess I was just feeling lazy.

Alright- so, I’ve mixed up the frosting and am ready to finish off the cake!
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All three layers together with a base coat. I always use a thinner layer of frosting on my cakes and let that set up before I add the final layers and finishing touches. It helps me get a smoother finished product.

After I finish frosting the cake- I wanted a caramel layer on top. Yum.

I also had left over crunch that I spread out thinly on parchment paper to crumble up for the top and sides of the cake.

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Not perfect- but I’m feeling pretty proud of myself at this point. I had used a piping bag and piped thick rings around the top of the cake, designed to keep the caramel in. Well……

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I learned very quickly that marshmallow frosting levees will NOT impede a caramelanche. Yes- an avalanche of caramel.

Okay- so the cake doesn’t look pretty anymore. I decided to let it set and try to salvage is later.

Apparently- the best option when dealing with a caramelanche?
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MAKE IT BIGGER!

Sounded like a good plan to me. But- that was only the beginning of the failure. How to cut into the cake that’s already kind of falling apart.

hmmm- one cut, two cuts, three cuts and it was all over. Literally. All over my hands, my forearms, my table….

A buttery vanilla cake that’s just not standing up to the thick, heavy caramel. Boo hoo. But this isn’t something I can serve to folks. If it was just my family it’d be one thing- but I was taking this to a ladies’ Bible Study at church. I couldn’t possibly walk in the door with that disaster. Nevermind that it was still tasty- it didn’t look appetizing.

What’s a baker to do? Throw the entire cake in the garbage and hope for a plan B? What was plan B? Was I just going to end up bringing a bag of chips? Heck no! These ladies know I can bake and wouldn’t expect anything less than homemade.

I already had chunks of cake on the plate. I had leftover caramel sauce and marshmallow fluff- so the natural option? Make it a trifle!

Using my hands- wearing gloves, of course- I crumbled the rest of the cake, crumbled the crunch layer (which was harder since the layer was too thick), and tossed it into a 13×9 pan (since I don’t have a trifle dish.). I topped it with the rest of the marshmallow fluff and caramel sauce.

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And you know what? It turned out better than expected! The trifle was actually much easier for the dessert table and everyone still loved it! I only brought home a small portion of it, and had friends tell me they heard others talking about it and saying how amazing it was.

I don’t want to get all philosophical on you- but part of me can’t help it. We don’t always get the outcomes that we expect in life. Sometimes it looks like a disaster, but it’s really just a blessing we haven’t seen clearly yet. Digging a little deeper- we can always turn the situation around and make it something great- possibly even BETTER than we had expected.

I think the truest challenge that any baker faces (or any person for that matter) is how to make something good out of a ‘mistake’ or apparent failure. I could have scrapped the cake and felt defeated, but then I would have missed out on the satisfaction of baking something that made others happy.

Okay- enough philosophy. It’s time to share the recipes!

(I know my caramel recipes are in metric. It seems inconsistent, I’m aware, but I found that these more exact measurements produce a better result in terms of the ‘candy making’)

Smooth Caramel Sauce:

Ingredients:

210 g of sugar
85 g butter
120 ml heavy whipping cream

Directions:

1- Heat sugar on moderately high heat in a heavy-bottomed 2-quart or 3-quart saucepan. As the sugar begins to melt, stir vigorously with a whisk or wooden spoon. As soon as the sugar comes to a boil, stop stirring. Do not move the pan. If you have crystallized sugar around the rim of the mixture in the pan- do not try to scrape it into the mixture- it will cause the rest of the mixture to ‘shock’ and become grainy. Resist the OCD and let it be!

2- Allow the mixture to boil for several minutes or until it is dark amber in color, immediately add the butter to the pan. Whisk until the butter has melted.

3-Once the butter has melted, take the pan off the heat. Slowly add the cream to the pan and continue to whisk to incorporate. The mixture will bubble up violently- so make sure that you are using a VERY large pan and use safety precautions to prevent the sugar from boiling over and burning you! This mixture is incredibly hot and can cause serious burns that will require medical attention, so practice safe sugaring!

4- Whisk until caramel sauce is smooth (those crystals of sugar you were concerned about earlier aren’t a problem anymore!). Let cool in the pan for a couple minutes, then pour into a glass mason jar and let sit to cool to room temperature. (Remember to use pot holders when handling the jar filled with hot caramel sauce.) Store in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. Warm before serving.

Caramel Crunch Layer:

Ingredients:

440 g sugar
125 ml water
125 ml cream
50 g butter
70 g Rice Krispies
Directions:

1-Put sugar and water in a saucepan over medium heat and stir until the sugar is completely dissolved. Turn to high heat.

2- Let the mixture come to a boil and DO NOT MOVE the pan or stir once it has started to bubble.

3-When the mixture reaches 356-374 degrees Fahrenheit,  and has turned a caramel color, add the cream and reduce the heat to low. The cream will cause the mixture to bubble up violently- so take precaution. Use a large sauce pan and safety equipment necessary (pot holders, gloves, etc). The mixture is dangerously hot!

4-Add butter and stir until melted.

5-Pour into a heat safe medium bowl with the Rice Krispies and stir well to coat.

6-Pour over the cake (or, if making the trifle- pour into a large sheet pan lined with parchment and spread thin).

7-Cool for 30 minutes minimum. (If using for trifle, carefully break various size pieces into a bowl)

Marshmallow Cloud Frosting (Marshmallow Fluff)
Recipe Courtesy Martha Stewart

Ingredients:

2 1/2 cups of sugar
6 egg whites, room temperature
1/2 cup water
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
1 Tbs. vanilla

Directions:

1-In a large heat safe bowl, combine all ingredients expect vanilla and whisk until foamy.

2-Set bowl over a large saucepan of barely simmering water. Whisk until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is warm to the touch- about 3-5 minutes.

3-Transfer the bowl (carefully) to the stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment.

4-Beat on high speed until stiff peaks form- about 12-16 minutes. The mixture will fluff up dramatically during this time, so it is important to use a large bowl. The mixture more than quadruples in size.

Buttery Vanilla Cake:

Ingredients:

3 cups cake flour
2 cups sugar
4-1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
2 sticks plus 2 Tbsp (9 oz) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1-1/3 cups milk
5 egg whites
1 Tbsp vanilla extact

Caramel Cake Batter:
1 1/2 cup of the mixed batter
up to 1/4 cup of the caramel sauce

Directions:

1- Preheat the oven to 350 deg. F. Butter the bottoms of three 8-inch round cake pans. Line each with a round of parchment and butter the parchment. (If making the trifle, you can pour the entire mixture into one large sheet pan lined and greased)

2- In a large mixer bowl place the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. With the mixer on low, combine well.

3- Add the butter and the milk and mix to blend. Increase the mixer speed to medium and beat until the batter is light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add butter extract.

4- In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites with the vanilla extract until you reach stiff peaks. Fold this to the batter in 2 to 3 additions, scraping down the bowl well and mixing only to incorporate. Divide the batter among the 3 prepared pans. (or large sheet pan for the trifle)

5- In a separate bowl, reserve 1 1/2 cup of the cake batter and add up to 1/4 caramel sauce (to taste). Mix well and drop by teaspoons into the cake in the pan(s). Using a knife, swirl the batter as desired.

6- Bake for about 30 minutes (approx 15 minutes longer for the sheet cake–please check after 35 minutes for doneness- it may depend on your oven), or until a cake tester or wooden toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Place the pans on wire racks to cool for 10 minutes, then invert the pans on the racks, remove the pans and the parchment paper, and cool completely, about 1 hour.

Assembly: Cake

7-Put one cooled cake round on your cake stand or plate. Top with the caramel crunch layer (recipe above). Let cool for at least 30 minutes while you prepare the frosting.

8-Once the caramel crunch layer is cooled, add the second cake round. Top with marshmallow frosting (recipe above). Add the third layer and coat the entire cake with the frosting.

9-Using the caramel sauce (recipe above) drizzle over the cake as desired, topping with caramel crunch pieces as desired. Serve slices with warm sauce drizzled over them and a dollop of fresh whipped cream.

Assembly: Trifle

7-Break or cut the cooled cake into bite-size pieces

8-Break or cut the crunch layer into smaller pieces- you’ll want them considerably smaller than the cake pieces.

9-Toss all together with half of the marshmallow frosting and caramel sauce.

10-Place into a large pan or trifle dish. (If using a trifle dish, layer the dessert: cake, crunch pieces, marshmallow, caramel and repeat). Top with remaining marshmallow frosting and drizzle with the remaining caramel sauce (if desired).

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