The drip of sticky sweet imperfection lingered on my fingertips as I stepped into the passenger side of my husband’s car this weekend, clinging to my glistening camel colored cake for dear life. It plastered a few strands of my tattered blonde hair to my chest. A smudge of it rested over my shoulder on my seatbelt. Shit.
I wasn’t all that surprised by the syrupy state of my Sunday self, to tell you the truth. I’d spent the entire weekend working on (and mostly failing at) a new recipe for a triple-decker caramel coated cracker jack cake, so, naturally, my entire house was covered in flecks of sugary, buttery goop. Even today, several days later, if you run your finger across my countertop it feels as if you’re running your finger along the backside of adhesive tape, skidding and stuttering every few inches against the still stuck on sugar smears.
But when my beautiful cake that I’d worked so hard for — that I thought I’d finally gotten just right on Sunday afternoon — began a slow drip onto my lap as we drove to our friend’s dinner party that evening, I wanted nothing more than to cry. The caramel icing slithered like a snake from the sides of the cake, melting onto the edges of the stand and then down to my hands and legs in a slow steady crawl. My heart sunk with each block we drove, with each drip to the hand. I couldn’t stand the thought of all of the hours spent working on it – all of the different iterations of batter and caramel and icing and cracker jacks – only to have it look like a cake that was made by a four year old.
It was slipping. It was messy. It was just weird.
But when we arrived at our friends’ house, my cake lopsided like the Leaning Tower of Pisa and looking sadder than ever, all of the imperfections of its exterior seemed to melt away too. We hid it in the refrigerator while we relaxed into the night with boozy tequila-laden cocktails followed by a gorgeous grilled steak salad. We played games and talked about books and dreamt of someday owning our own sailboats that we’d cruise around in.
And when the sun set and we finally got some relief from the scorching heat, we pulled out the cake, sliced it into several unreasonably large pieces, and passed them around the table. I held my breath as everyone dug into the first bite, nervous that they’d scoff at my sad looking cake. And then…pure contentment punctuated with chuckles at its sweet imperfections.
It didn’t matter that the poor cake was uglier than Shrek or that I could no longer comfortably run a hairbrush through my caramel-dotted hair. It was an evening for connecting, for sharing, and for playing; and the imperfect cake somehow filled the space with even more love and laughter and sugar highs than even the most grandiose cakes ever could.
Its buttery insides were just as fluffy and full of crumble as I’d hoped they’d be and its glossy caramel icing, which we all shamelessly spooned from the cake plate as we ate, was just as smooth and sweet—the perfect compliment to the playful crunch of homemade cracker jacks.
Of course, I can’t in good conscience promote a cake whose layers play slip and slide in the summer heat, no matter how wonderful I’ve come to think its imperfections are. So instead I’m leaving you with a slightly different version of the caramel cracker jack cake (with many helpful hints for avoiding my same mistakes below!), which comes in cupcake form and is far more structurally sound.
Just don’t forgo the wet napkins when you eat! It’s no less messy.
PS: I had a very attentive kitchen cleaner all weekend who kindly volunteered to lick up all of the spilled caramel and popcorn from the floor. Who needs a mop when you have a dog like Bourré?
A few tips from someone who failed miserably at many attempts at this recipe before getting it just right:
- Because this recipe is fairly labor intensive, I’d recommend doing the cracker jack portion the day before and storing it in an airtight container until you bake the cupcakes. Another option is to buy pre-made cracker jacks for your cake, but in my opinion, the homemade version is far better.
- I fell in love with this silky caramel icing, a recipe I found from Saveur, but find cupcakes are a better match for it than cake since it can be a bit on the “wet” side. How I ever imagined it would work with a triple-decker cake, I do not know. If you absolutely must have this in cake form, you can use the cupcake recipe above to make a sheet cake instead. However, I don’t recommend using this particular icing on a tall cake or one with multiple layers—because, well, see above.
- Be particularly careful with the temperature as you cook the caramel coating for the cracker jacks. My candy thermometer was off by about 40 degrees and it ruined the first two batches of my crackerjacks. I strongly recommend using the “water stage test” described in the recipe below in lieu of (or in addition to) the candy thermometer.
- Should you overcook your caramel when making the cracker jacks, it will harden into a very hard candy similar to a lollipop. Obviously, you don’t want that to harden in your saucepan, so have a small disposable cup or container at the ready to pour it into if necessary. It will harden in the cup/container and then you can pitch it out as a solid instead of pouring it all down the drain, which could potentially clog the drain. I’ve also found the best way to get stuck on caramel out of bowls, plates, and utensils is to let warm running water gently pass over them in the sink. Just rotate the pieces every few seconds and it should melt right off.
- If you get a bit overzealous, as I always seem to do, while you’re baking your cupcakes and you accidentally overfill them, they will likely spill over the edges while they’re baking and run into one another. That’s totally okay! To fix it, simply invert the cupcake once it’s cooled and use a biscuit cutter (or cup) to press around the edges and make an even (and reasonably sized) circle of the top. Once they’re iced, no one will even notice that they were overfilled!
- Finally, refrigerating the cupcakes (or sheet cake) before serving will firm up the icing, making them easier to bite into with getting the drippies; however, I prefer to serve them at room temperature. It’s messier, but sometimes messy is fun.
- 4 cups of popped popcorn, about 1 (3-ounce) microwavable bags or ¼ cup of unpopped kernels
- 1 cup of Spanish (red skin) peanuts
- 2 tablespoons of unsalted butter
- ½ cup of brown sugar
- 2 tablespoon of light corn syrup
- 1 tablespoon of molasses
- ¼ teaspoon of salt
- 10 tablespoons (1 stick plus 2 tablespoons) of unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 2 cups plus 2 tablespoons of cake flour
- ½ tablespoon of baking powder
- 1 teaspoon of kosher salt
- 1⅔ cups of sugar
- 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract
- 2 eggs plus 2 yolks
- ¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon of milk
- 3 ¾ cups of sugar
- 16 tablespoons (2 sticks) of salted butter
- 2 (12-ounce) cans of evaporated milk
- Preheat the oven to 250 degrees F.
- Combine the popped popcorn and peanuts in a large (preferably metal) bowl. Set aside.
- Add the remaining ingredients – the butter, sugar, corn syrup, molasses, and salt – in a saucepan and cook over low heat until butter is completely melted. Increase to medium heat until the mixture begins to boil gently. Continue to cook over medium, stirring frequently with the mixture still boiling gently, until a candy thermometer reaches 245 degrees, about 5-10 minutes. At this point, the mixture should form a hard, pliable ball if dropped into a cup of cold water—one that won’t flatten out if removed from the water and dropped on the countertop, but that’s flexible to the touch. I recommend using both the thermometer and the “stage test” with water just to be sure. (My thermometer was about 40 degrees off, which would have meant very burned caramel had I not done the water stage test!) Be careful while it’s boiling to not let the boil become too rapid—otherwise, the caramel may burn (quickly) and you’ll have to start over!
- Once the caramel is ready, pour it in a thin stream over your popcorn and peanuts and toss together either with a wooden spoon or your hands (careful – it will be hot!) until the caramel has coated all of the popcorn. Transfer the contents onto a rimmed baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes, mixing well every 5 minutes.
- Remove from the oven, allow to cool, and store in an airtight container at room-temperature until you’re ready to assemble the cake. (Up to 3 days.)
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Set cupcake liners (about 18-20) into a baking pan.
- In a medium sized bowl, sift together the cake flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
- In a separate medium sized bowl or the bowl of your stand mixer, beat 10 tablespoons of butter and 1⅔ cups of sugar on medium for about 1 minute. Add vanilla and eggs and beat for another 1 minute. Add flour mixture and milk in three separate batches, alternating between the two, and beat for 30 seconds between each addition.
- Divide the batter evenly between the cupcake liners, filling them roughly ⅔ of the way up the sides. Bake in the preheated oven for 25-35 minutes or until the tops of the cupcakes are golden and a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. (Note: once your cupcakes have gone into the oven is a good time to begin making the icing.) Set cupcakes aside on a cooling wrack for at least 20 minutes before removing them to assemble.
- Melt the butter in a medium sized pot over low heat. Add the sugar, increase heat to high and cook, stirring constantly, until sugar is melted and mixture is light brown in color, roughly 7-8 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-low and slowly stir in evaporated milk. The mixture will bubble up a lot when you do this, so be careful! The sugar may also clump together when the cool evaporated milk meats the hot sugar. That’s okay, just keep stirring and it will eventually all meld together. Stir constantly for 10 minutes. At this point the mixture should be smooth and silky. Continue to cook over medium-low, stirring occasionally (at least every 5 minutes) until icing reaches 240 degrees F on a candy thermometer. This will take some time, about 1½ hours, so be patient and just keep stirring. If you don’t have a candy thermometer, you can go off of time alone, though you’ll need to keep a close eye on it to make sure it doesn’t burn. Once it reaches 240 degrees F, remove from the heat and beat (use that arm strength!) with a wooden spoon until thick and glossy, about 25 minutes. A good “check” for whether it’s ready is to tilt the spoon a bit—the icing should move a little, but not run right off the spoon.
- Before you begin assembling the cupcakes, take a moment to break up any cracker jacks that have gotten stuck together. Spoon icing onto each cupcake and spread. Because this icing is slightly “wetter” than your standard buttercream, I find it useful at this point to place the iced cupcakes in the freezer for 10-15 minutes to get the icing layer to firm up.
- Top with cracker jacks in whatever way inspires you—just have fun with it!
Cracker jack recipe adapted from Top Secret Recipes: http://www.topsecretrecipes.com/Borden-Cracker-Jack-Copycat-Recipe.html