Saturday, May 30, 2020

Grandma Marian's Caramel Frosting

Today is my maternal grandmother's 93rd birthday.  She fell and broke her hip in March and is now in a nursing home, and because of Covid-19 none of us are permitted to visit her.  She hasn't had her mind for quite some time, so she won't know it is her birthday, but we will celebrate with her when the restrictions are lifted.

For many years, Grandma Marian would bake an angel food cake for family birthday celebrations.  If it was Grandpa's birthday, she would lightly frost it with powdered sugar icing, and for Meme's birthday she would use seven-minute frosting, but everyone else got caramel frosting, and Grandma became a little famous for it.  Even today, I don't feel like I've had a birthday unless I've had angel food cake with caramel frosting.

Grandma Marian was an awesome cook, but it was a rare event that she would serve a meal that she was completely happy with.  Most of her meals were served with a healthy dose of apologies for foods that she did not feel were perfect--even though the rest of us thought they were fine. The same was true of her many, many birthday cakes.  I can't tell you how many times she would take the cover off the cake stand and say things like "This cake just didn't get as tall as it was supposed to" or "I don't know what was the matter with my frosting today; it just wouldn't set up right." Let me just assure you all that we scarfed down the cakes every time.

Sadly, Grandma's angel food cake baking days have been over for quite some time, so if there is a need for an angel food cake with caramel frosting, I'm the one who bakes it now.  And I just have to say that this caramel frosting is proof of Grandma's love for us for all the years that she made it because it is persnickety stuff.  I totally understand why she fretted about each cake.

I've seen this recipe crop up in many places and in many cookbooks, so it is not any kind of hidden family gem.  In fact, Grandma used the recipe from her copy of the Kitchen Klatter Cookbook, but she didn't follow the directions as they are written there.  I was probably in college when I had the good sense to arrange a lesson from her in how to make this frosting.  I had made it several times before that, but mine never turned out like hers, and I wanted to know why.  Now I'm going to clue you all in to her method too.

First, here are the ingredients you'll need:

1 cup light brown sugar
1 stick margarine (Grandma used Blue Bonnet)
1/4 c. milk
2 cups sifted powdered sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
2-3 drops Mapleine

1. Sift the two cups of powdered sugar and put them in a heavy glass mixing bowl.  Grandma Marian had two sets of the classic multicolored Pyrex bowls which she had received as wedding gifts in the late 1940s, and she always used the second largest green one.  I have my own set of those mixing bowls, so my green bowl is what you'll see in the second to last picture below even though I measured the sugar into a smaller red one to begin with.

2. Put the stick of margarine and the cup of brown sugar in a heavy-bottomed saucepan.  Now, some of you will be tempted to use butter instead of margarine, and that's fine.  I've done that many times, but to get the flavor and consistency that Grandma's frosting had, you need to use the Blue Bonnet margarine--and not the "light" stuff.

You can start cooking the sugar and margarine right over the firebox because you need to bring it to a boil; however, you won't be leaving it there.

3. While it is heating, I usually use my spoon to chop up the stick of margarine a little bit and stir things around a little.  Don't stir much, though, because you don't want it to get grainy.

4. Once this mixture comes to a full rolling boil, keep it boiling for exactly two minutes.  Don't leave it directly over the fire, though, because you don't want it to boil hard for that amount of time.  If you do, you'll end up with frosting that will crack into a million pieces later on.  In the pictures below, you can see the progression of the syrup moving away from the fire in the space of these two minutes.  Have your 1/4 cup of milk ready for the next step.

Boy!  I'm sorry about the state of my cooktop in these last two
pictures.  Marjorie is long overdue for a good polishing.

5. At the end of the two minutes, add the 1/4 cup of milk, place the syrup back over the firebox, and bring the mixture back to a boil.

6. As soon as it has reached a good rolling boil again, remove from the fire immediately.

Now things get interesting (hence the lack of pictures).

7. Pour a little of the hot syrup into the bowl of sifted powdered sugar and begin beating it together.

8. Continue to add the hot syrup a little at a time, beating after each addition.  You may need to beat quite a while.  It's a little like making homemade candy.

The original recipe directions say to add all of the syrup to the powdered sugar and beat until it is of spreading consistency.  However, Grandma never did that because she said that all of the syrup wasn't  always necessary.  She swore that the recipe varied every time.  Sometimes she added all of the cooked syrup, but more often than not she would have anywhere from a tablespoon to a quarter cup of syrup leftover.

9. Once the frosting is of the desired consistency, add a teaspoon of vanilla and the two or three drops of Mapleine.

10. Frost whatever you are going to put this on in kind of a hurry because it can set up fairly quickly if you are not careful.

In the picture below, the caramel frosting is spread on a pan of Rosalie's Spice Bars.  I shared that recipe on the blog way back in 2011 and promised that I'd share the frosting recipe at a later date.  I keep my promises, I guess, but not in a timely fashion.


  • This frosting can be thinned successfully with a little cream.
  • I've often used all of the syrup and added some extra sifted powdered sugar with very good results.
  • This yields enough frosting for a jelly roll pan of bars or the top and sides of a tall angel food.
  • Grandma saved any unused syrup in a little jar in the refrigerator and would later use it as ice cream topping.  Since there are four August birthdays in her descendants alone, there would be multiple little jars of syrup in her refrigerator during that month!
  • For my from-scratch recipe for angel food cake and directions on how to bake one in a wood cookstove, go to this link.
As frostings go, I think this one is a whole lot of work and stress, but it is really worth it.  Trust me.

Happy Birthday, Grandma!

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