Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Labor of Love aka Mrs. Johnny's Caramel Cake

It's a labor of love.  No.  It's a symbol of love.

Mrs. Johnny Lott's caramel cake is quite possibly the best cake ever to grace a table or sideboard in Greene County.  Work intensive, its namesake long gone;  it cannot be bought.

Mrs. Johnny was one of those beautiful old ladies severely stooped by osteoporosis and too many years hard work that lived a life of Christian love.  She lived it.  She never spoke ill of anyone.  Seriously!  Growing up in our church as one of her youngsters I could never prod her into saying a bad thing about the worst of people (I thought they were the worst until I grew up and realized we were no different).  Her eyes would crinkle into a knowing smile and she'd tell me,  "Now you're going to have to ask somebody else, Missy.  I'm. not. sayin'." All the young ladies were Missy.  We only got called by our real names if mischief was brewing (and it often was).

Mrs. Johnny took the town's aging bachelor brothers under her wings, getting them to bathing regularly and going to church.  They're kind of simple and slow-minded;  men of personal integrity regardless of lack of hygienic skills.  Their daddy was a mail order groom and not from around these parts.  It's no big secret.  They'll tell you themselves (repeatedly).  Another story for another day.

Mrs. Johnny and her daughter, Phyllis, made this cake for ever person they loved in this community, which was just about everybody.  I don't know any folks of whatever creed and whichever color that never had one, they were just that generous with their time and skills.  The caramel cake wasn't made only in the event of a surgery or a death.  That first photo was the groom's cake for Joe and Jen a good many years ago.  They made all her grandchildren's groom's cakes.  Mine and X's also.  Nope.  Special family events, birthdays, church dinners and fundraisers all were provided Mrs. Johnny's caramel cake -- made with love.

The icing for Mrs. Johnny's caramel cake takes commitment.  And time.  And the ability to stand and stir.  Or sit and stir.  If you endeavor to make this cake you've got to know two things:  the icing alone will take well over half and hour to make annnnnd it will be the best thing you've made in a very very long time.  Even the mistakes are awesome!  If cooked too little and you make caramel syrup, store it in the fridge for whatever you'd use syrup on or do like I did and mix it with a big tub of Cool Whip for a creamy caramel filling.  If it cooks too hard, pour it on a buttered cookie sheet and have caramel bark.  The only way you have to throw it out is if you scorch the sugar while browning it.  Even then, the bitter edge is not UNappealing, just not as tasty.

A sad event occurred in my employers' family this week.  Their son, in his early forties, died from complications of chemical and viral pneumonia.  Down here we fix and feed the body of the mourning while spirit and soul are heavily burdened with the weight of sorrow.  I love my employers.  We're a little kin through the Haskell McLeod side.  I wanted to fix the very best I could to carry to them, dish and dessert.  The dish was a no-brainer:  three meat and four cheese lasagna.

But the dessert?  Y'all know my best and favorite is chocolate. I didn't want to carry a chocolate overload cake, lest it become identified with "oh, you brought one of those to us when A.M.J. passed."  Nope.  Not chocolate.  There could only be one other thing:  Mrs. Johnny's Caramel Cake.

The cake recipe itself used to be on the side of the Duncan Hines Butter Golden (or is it Golden Butter?) cake mix.  It's not on there any more.
See my cake orders on the shelf?  It's the only way to keep track of  them.  I tried a computer program and a bound planner.  No good.  Post it notes ROCK! To butter golden cake mix use one cup of sour cream, one fourth cup water, one fourth cup sugar, one third cup oil and four large eggs.   Mix until smooth and pour into greased and floured pans.  Beat and bang the air bubbles out so the cake will have a finely grained texture.

Close your eyes right here and imagine you're seeing the cakes go into the oven and come back out after thirty minutes or so perfectly baked and turning out of their pans.  It happened.  I didn't photograph it.

I made a batch and a half of the caramel icing.  I always like to have some left over to consume all by myself  share.  

You'll want to use a heavy skillet and a pot for this.  These are two of my favorites in the kitchen.  In the skillet put the 3/4 cup sugar.  The pint of half and half cream and 3 cups sugar go into the pot.  

Go ahead and get the sugar and cream cooking.  Cooking the syrup and (later) cooling the syrup take the longest time.  You can feel the granules of sugar on the bottom of the pan as you stir it.  I let it come to a little boil, stirring it for a few minutes afterward.  It'll get all foamy on top.  Be careful that it doesn't foam up!  This stuff will make the stickiest mess you'll never get clean.

Caramelize the sugar in the skillet on a medium heat.  I'm getting more and more coordinated with each post!  I was able to photograph the process (quickly) and show you how it goes.  The secret here is watching because once the process starts it moves along rapidly.  You can have scorched caramelized sugar about ten seconds beyond perfectly caramelized sugar.  Be ready to snatch the pan off the heat when it gets as dark as you want.

Are you dizzy yet?  I'm about half-way there...

 Oops.  Action photo...

See that foam?  That's ten seconds away from being RUINT!!!

Here comes one of the tricky parts:  stirring this very very hot caramelized sugar into the syrup, which has been on the low boil this entire time.  This stuff bubbles up like you'd never believe so pleeease be careful here.  
You've got to stir like crazy to keep this from boiling over at this point.  When all the caramelized sugar is stirred in, get ready to stand and stir some more. 

 Or sit and stir, like I do.
Mama says, "Mayree!  Don't sit like a fellow, with that chair turned around.  You look like a gal."  Apparently, back in Mama's heyday gals weren't nearly as nice as girls.  She doesn't want a gal for a daughter.

I use the soft-ball-in-cold water method for determining when the caramel is ready to be cooled and whipped.  Every candy thermometer I've ever bought has ended up out in the shed with The Fellows.  I quite buying them after the second one reappeared in the kitchen drawer with a crack in the bulb.  It's alright.  Water is much cheaper.
See that big roil?  The caramel syrup changes the boil when it's close to coming off the heat.
Nope.  Not yet.
See the finer bubbles?
Always keep the sides scraped down.  They say it'll keep the icing from seizing.  I don't know.  I was privileged to have Mrs. Johnny and Mrs. Phyllis coach me (in person and over the phone) while learning to make this and they said to do it.  So I do.
Tadadddddaaaaaaaa!  Soft ball stage!

Turn off the heat.

Add butter and vanilla.  These dose cups from liquid meds are wonderful for flavorings.  All the ones I have left over from my previous life as a child-care provider stay right in the drawer with the measuring cups and spoons.  It's very handy to have a tablespoon of vanilla ready in a size-appropriate container.  And environmentally friendly.
I need to make more pan coat too.

Can you smell the deliciousness of caramel, butter, and sizzling vanilla?  Ohhhhh my!

It's time to beat the icing now, cooling it to spreading consistency.  The first couple of times I made caramel icing I actually used a wooden spoon and beat it by hand.  Like Mrs. Johnny did.  Until I found out Mrs. Phyllis used the mixer.  Life is easier if you plow around the stumps...

I have three dish cloths under the pot, protecting the counter from the heat, a pot holder to **snicker** hold the pot with (duh).  I suppose the process of beating and cooling the icing could be shortened by having a bowl of ice or ice water or maybe even chilled cloths under the pot.  I don't know.  If y'all have a shortcut and it works, let me know.  

I turn the mixer on high.  And beat until the icing begins to make soft ridges, turning the speed down when harder and deeper ridges begin to form.  I'll show you, although it probably won't make much sense until you do it.

 OOOOOoooooo... almost there!

I can turn the pot on its side and the icing won't come out.  I've got about five minutes to get the cake put together before Mrs. Johnny's caramel cake icing becomes soft caramel candy that won't spread.
See how thick it is?  Yet spreadable.  I'm sorry, I don't have any more time for photos until after the cake is put together.

What's left in the pot?  Why!  This is:

MMmmmhmmmm... Do you smell what I'm cooking?  Are you picking up what I'm throwing down?  Roll it up and put it in the refrigerator for breakfast with a cup of your favorite hot coffee.  I promise:  it's good for what ails ya!

And here it is.  It's not the loveliest caramel cake I've made, but I'd also put together that lasagna, baked it and needed to get out to the bosses' home.

Here's the recipe and directions, straight out of our church cookbook for

Johnnie's Caramel Cake

Duncan Hines butter recipe golden cake mix
four large eggs
1/3 cup oil
1/4 cup water
1 cup sour cream
1/4 cup sugar

Mix cake mix with eggs, oil, water and sugar.  Beat until well mixed then add sour cream and beat until the cake batter is fluffy.  Have your pans ready.  Will bake 3 8" cake layers or 2 9" cake layers.  Heat oven to 375 and bake 23 to 28 minutes.

Caramel Icing
3 cups sugar
1 pint half and half cream
3/4 cup sugar to caramelize
1/4 stick butter (I use 1/2 stick 'cause I like to taste the butter)
1 teaspoon vanilla

Mix sugar and cream in 5 quart boiling pot and begin to boil, stirring it. Be careful;  it will boil over easily.  Caramelize the 3/4 cup sugar in 6 inch iron skillet, stirring so it will not burn.  Be careful in pouring into the cream mixture;  it will boil over.  It is best to turn the fire off.  Stirring constantly while cooking, use candy thermometer and cook to 250 degrees.  remove from heat and add 1/4 stick butter and 1 teaspoon vanilla.  Beat until creamy and still warm.  Spread on the layers and side of cake.

I'm so thankful I know how to make Mrs. Johnny Lott's Caramel cake.  It's a work of time and temperance; a symbol of great affection and deep devotion.  It cannot be bought.  Almighty, grant me the love and grace to make more of them...



  2. Thanks for sharing this recipe and the wonderful story and the wonderful lady behind it!

  3. I ran into the two Bachelors you were talking about in Piggly Wiggly after visiting Momma. They still recoginized me.
    Your stories are just wonderful, I felt like I was going to get the spoon and lick it before the cake was finished. Keep up the good work.

  4. I have tried to master a good caramel cake for years with no success. I just may have to try this one.:)

  5. I did it! I did it! YUMMMM, caramel fudge! maryb