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Caramel cake is a Southern comfort, and it's a no-brainer to see why: tender yellow cake is smothered with caramel that sticks like chewing gum to the roof of your mouth. However, an accompanying warning label to see your dentist is in some cases warranted as it can veer into the tooth-achingly sweet.
This recipe preserves the basic elements of the cake but includes a few twists to balance the sweetness and add nuance to the standard vanilla flavor. The cake is made with cake flour to produce a fine-crumbed texture and uses brown butter, whose nuttiness stands up to the heady caramel coating.
While some versions of the cake are layered and iced with creamy caramel-flavored frosting, this construction is easier, made in a 13- by 9-inch pan and simply bathed with straight up caramel. Caramel is often made with white sugar: you can see the white sugar melt and turn mahogany, but this recipe calls for brown sugar. Visual cues are always important in cooking, but caramel making, whatever sugar you use, demands the use of a candy thermometer. What you're looking for is for the mercury to register 235°F, otherwise known as the soft-ball stage. At this stage, a spoonful of the mixture would turn into a pliable little blob when dropped into a bowl of ice-cold water. This caramel is accentuated with brown butter to mirror the cake, sour cream, and salt—sticky and rich, the ideal foil for a buttery cake.