Mama's Caramel Frosting

My mother has been gone a long time, but her recipe for caramel frosting remains on the refrigerator. She made it for every birthday cake. I learned to make it, too. It’s not terribly different from the “Caramel Ganache” in older versions of Joy of Cooking, except my mom usually made it with milk, not cream, which JoC calls for. It’s just as good, and even richer with cream, but given how much butter and sugar is in it anyway, the cream isn’t strictly necessary.

This recipe, in my mother’s handwriting, is just a shorthand for what it takes to make it. This version also reveals that she used cake from a mix, perhaps a true chef’s no-no. But I would argue that with frosting this rich the cake itself is a bit overwhelmed, so it doesn’t really matter if it is from a mix so long as the cake isn’t dry.

Here’s the recipe with a little more detail and instruction.

1 stick of butter (I use salted butter)

1 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed (we always used light brown, never dark)

1/4 cup milk (whole milk is best as skim tends to be too watery, but if you’ve got half-and-half or cream around, use it (!), but just know the icing will be a little thicker so use a “smidge” more half-and-half or cream than milk)

3 and 1/4 cup sifted powdered sugar (I’m lazy so I seldom actually sift, which means I make up for it in the mixing, not always to the best effect. My mother always sifted. And she was right to do so.)

Melt the butter in a medium pot or deep saucepan on medium heat. Just as it is completely melted stir in the brown sugar with a wooden spoon until it melts in. Keep stirring and regulate the heat. You want to bring it to a full boil for just 1 minute, then turn off the heat.

If you’ve made it in a big enough pot, you can add the powdered sugar right in which keeps everything warm and makes mixing a little easier, but if you’re using a Kitchenaid you’ll want to transfer the butter/brown sugar mix to a bowl for mixing. Make sure to get as much of the butter/brown sugar out of the saucepan as you can, quickly, to the bowl, before it cools and hardens a bit.

Mix in the powdered sugar, slowly. I usually start adding and mix with just my wooden spoon at first, and then add in the beater/mixers after it gets a little too thick. In any case, don’t dump all the powdered sugar in at once. Keep mixing and stirring until it is well combined. Then keep mixing until there are no bits of unmixed powdered sugar and it is completely smooth. This all needs to happen pretty quickly as the frosting will harden. If for some reason it gets absolutely too thick to work with, add a few teaspoons of warm milk to thin it out.

It should smooth nicely and be a light caramel color. Have your cake ready because you need to pour it on immediately while it is warm.  Pour and spread with your spatula.

The results might not be as pretty as buttercream or beautiful-but-tasteless fondant, but I promise you that after one bite, nobody will be complaining.

Originally posted in Just a Pinch of South, 2013

PBS's A Chef's Life

Photo from

I don’t normally watch cooking shows. Mostly because they make me hungry. But a Twitter friend turned me on to A Chef’s Life on PBS.

I don’t know Vivian Howard, the chef/star of the show. But I feel like I do. She grew up in Eastern North Carolina and has is in possession of an accent you want to just fall into and never leave. It warms my heart. She sounds exactly precisely like the kids who attended Camp Morehead with me. And that is a good, good thing. The Eastern NC accent is a particular accent that if you haven’t had the pleasure of drinking in deeply, you are truly missing out.

Vivian also escaped to New York City for a number of years and only returned home when her parents offered to help her and her (Yankee) husband start a restaurant. I didn’t know Vivian when she lived here, but I could have. And we would be friends. Right?

Before I get too creepy/stalkery about the whole thing, let me tell you the other three things that make the show for me.

First, I love that each ep features a particular ingredient. Now, they may mostly be a little stereotypically “Southern” but I don’t care. Let’s talk real strawberries, heirloom tomatoes, pigs, grits, and muscadine grapes. I’m just fine with that. Almost licked the TV screen.

Second, I love the farmers and older people who help educate her on how to prepare different ingredients. More of that North Carolina accent, please. And the salt-of-the-earthiness. I want to give out hugs.

Finally, there’s a dose of reality in this “reality” show. By that, we discover the first episode that their restaurant burns down and they have to rebuild. Their reaction feels real. And in each episode Vivian and her husband, Ben, well, they kinda bicker a little bit. No one throws any wine glasses, nor do they pretend a Martha’ Stewart level of having-it-all-together facade. Just some back and forth like normal humans do. Refreshing.

I also like the difference between how Vivian appears when she narrates and teaches in the “educational” portions of the show when she is wearing her makeup (she looks looks great) contrasted with the “documentary” portion when she is in chef’s mode (kinda, well, frumpy). Not only does this make me feel okay about writing this post in m’sweatpants, but also reminds me that my mother was probably right about the difference “puttin’ on your face” makes after a certain age. Sigh.

All that is to say, my future best friend Vivian didn’t pay me a dime to talk up her PBS show, but I’m doing it anyway, because I’m really enjoying it. Check it out online here.

(originally posted on Just a Pinch of South, 2013)

Pinky Part 3: Home Again

(This is the 3rd post in a series. Start here. Then read here.)

I awoke early this morning, donned multiple layers, and went on my rescue mission to get Pinky, my beloved bike, back.

I am happy to report that after a ride uptown in 8 degree weather with slush still on the streets, she is indeed home safely, only slightly worse for wear.

Joe, the building manager at 145 W57th, aka my nemesis, is on vacation in Florida, so there was no confrontation. I'd like those guys to pay to replace my u-lock, but I think that's not going to be easy. And probably not worth the trouble.

Anyway, for those of you looking for closure, I think this is as close as we shall get. Again, thanks for all of the interest!