Imagine a soft pudgy marshmallow. Naked and vulnerable. What would happen if you put that marshmallow on the surface of the sun? Exactly what happens when a kid plunks her baby-soft finger in molten hot caramel. How do I know? Don’t worry. I’m alright now.
That day, back in the late 80’s, I was making crème caramel. “Flan” in some parts of the world. “Caramel pudding” in others. It’s one of the two desserts that my grandmother always made to welcome us back to Sri Lanka. It was one of her specialties. In fact, for the better part of my life, I was under the impression that the dish was native to Sri Lanka. A Sri Lankan dessert that captured the hearts and palates of the world! If only.
In retrospect, crème caramel, with its hot sugar lava, is not the ideal dish for a short, clumsy human to prepare. But I was ten and wanted to cook like my grandmother. Who could resist that gorgeous, freshly-poured, sparkling caramel lining the bottom of the dish? Gooey and light, it looked delicious. Inviting. I dipped my tender little finger in for a taste. I came away whimpering, cradling my wound, and learning a valuable kitchen lesson.
Caramel is like meringue. It demands respect. The fact that I came away with just a burn blister on my right index finger is a miracle. I mean—I was probably wearing polyester. That little burn was the first in a long line of cooking wounds. It was a badge of caramel courage. And a vivid memory.
Caramel also demands care. It can go instantaneously from golden perfection to black. It’s hotter than a flaming ball of carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen gas. And it hardens in an instant. But mistakes are all a part of the process. And once you’ve made it a couple of times, you’ll know what to look for. It’s worth it. Homemade caramel is infinitely better than store-bought. It’s the easiest thing to make from scratch to take your desserts to the next level.
I could really pour homemade caramel over anything. Ice cream, cake, custard, broccoli. Whatever. This week, I made a simple marble cake for you. I just couldn’t decide between chocolate or vanilla, so I gave you both. Chocolate, vanilla, plus caramel. It’s a holy trinity of about-to-be-fall comfort. Bake this cake as a whole, as I did, or try it baked individually in ramekins. Either way, douse it in homemade caramel, and keep your fingers to yourself…until it’s time for dessert.
Marble Cake with Bittersweet Caramel
For the cake:
1/2 cup Dutch process cocoa
1 1/2 cups cake flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup milk, at room temperature
For the caramel:
1/2 cup sugar
2/3 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter and line an 8-inch-by-2-inch cake pan with parchment. In a large bowl, whisk together the cocoa and 1/2 cup hot water. Set aside to cool slightly.
2. In another medium bowl, whisk together flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar until fluffy, about 4 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat until combined. Beat in the vanilla. Add half of the dry ingredients, then the milk, then the remaining dry ingredients until the batter is smooth.
3. Transfer half of the batter to the bowl with the chocolate mixture and stir to combine. Transfer the chocolate batter to the prepared pan. Dollop the vanilla batter on top of the chocolate batter then use a butter knife to swirl the two together. Bake the cake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with moist crumbs, about 35 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool for 10 minutes, then flip the cake out onto the rack to cool completely.
4. Prepare the caramel: To a medium saucepot, add 2 tablespoons water. Add the sugar to the center of the pot and heat the mixture over medium, without stirring, until it begins to turn amber. Swirl the pan to spread the color evenly and continue to cook until it is deep, golden amber, about 6 minutes. Add the cream and the butter and cook, stirring, for another minute. (Be careful. It will steam and sputter.) Set the caramel aside to cool slightly.
5. When ready to serve, pour the caramel over the cake and each individual slice.