When I was a kid, I was mad for Twix candy bars. What’s not to like, right? Shortbread, caramel, and chocolate. I couldn’t get enough. Even today, my mom has bags of candies in my grandmother’s closet to give out to the mailwoman, the handyman, and the kids at her church. And when she’s not looking, I plunder the closet and loot all the Twix.

So, it was inevitable I’d make a cake with two of my favorite flavors. (If you’re a fan of my podcast, Talking With My Mouth Full, you know I’m a massive America layer cake aficionado.)

But what I’m not enamored of is American buttercream frosting. I often find it gritty, and over time, it gets weirdly crusty. Blech. That’s a direct result of using mountains of powdered sugar. So, I set out to create a frosting that had the smooth suppleness of French buttercream coupled with the punch of flavor (but not the sweetness) of American frosting. In other words, no powdered sugar.

That was no easy task. I failed time and time again in every possible way. The caramel was either soupy or rock solid. If I cooked it too little, it was pale and muted. If I cooked it too much, it tasted burnt. Then there were the experiments with how much butter to use. Too much, and it was like eating a stick of fat; too little, and it had no richness.

Frankly, I was about to throw up my hands and go the confectioner’s-sugar route. Then I tried one more time. That was my Goldilocks moment. The frosting was neither too slack nor too firm, neither too bland nor too overpowering. To borrow her words, it was just right.

From there, it was a quick leap to finishing the dessert, as I used my favorite chocolate cake recipe of all time—Hershey’s chocolate cake—with a few embellishments of my own.

I hope you enjoy it!

David Leite's handwritten signature of 'David.'
david caricature

Why Our Testers Loved This

The testers swooned over this rich chocolate cake with caramel frosting because it was “moist and fluffy.” They were also delighted with the “easy assembly instructions” and no-fail method for making caramel frosting.

What You’ll Need to Make This

Ingredients for chocolate caramel cake--chocolate cake, sugar, butter, salt, and heavy cream.
  • Chocolate cake–This recipe uses my favorite cake–Hershey’s chocolate cake recipe, which is infused with coffee to amp up the flavor of the cake.
  • Granulated sugar—Many caramel recipes call for superfine sugar, which you can make at home by blitzing granulated sugar in a food processor. But why go through the expense of buying or making it? I’ve had great success with plain ole white sugar.
  • Unsalted butter–I prefer to use unsalted butter since the salt content can vary from brand to brand in salted butter, but if you need to use butter that contains salt, reduce the salt in the caramel to 1/4 teaspoon, and don’t add extra salt to the frosting.
  • Vanilla Extract (not pictured)–Vanilla adds a roundness to the caramel flavor and lends a subtle richness.

How to Make Chocolate Caramel Cake

Sugar melting to become caramel; hot caramel bubbling in a skillet.
  1. Melt the sugar for the caramel in a large light-colored saucepan or skillet, which will help you monitor the sugar as it melts and changes color. Cook until a dark amber color.
  2. Carefully pour in the warmed cream a bit at a time.
Cubes of butter melting into caramel in a skillet; a person sprinkling salt over caramel in a skillet.
  1. Whisk in the butter and vanilla extract, if using.
  2. Sprinkle the salt over the caramel and whisk until smooth.
Caramel sauce in a glass mixing bowl; whipped caramel in a glass mixing bowl.
  1. Pour the caramel into a large bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Cool for 3 to 4 hours until completely room temperature.
  2. Whip the caramel until light and airy, 5 to 7 minutes.
Cubes of butter added to a whipped caramel in a mixing bowl; finished whipped caramel frosting in a glass bowl.
  1. Plop in the butter cubes a few at a time, and whip.
  2. When all the butter has been added, continue whipping the buttercream until smooth and satiny.
  3. Frost the cake and devour!

Common Questions

Why did my frosting curdle and separate?

(See video above) Ah, the eternal frosting dilemma. Buttercream will curdle and separate because of temperature issues, specifically when the fat (butter, in this case) is too cold. Both the butter and the liquid (caramel, here) need to be at warm room temperature (68° to 70°F | 20° to 21°C) for them to create a smooth satiny mixture.

If your frosting curdles, you can do one of two things:

1.) Run warm water over the outside of the mixing bowl to take the chill off and continue beating, or

2.) Just let the mixer beat away for 15 to 20 minutes. Eventually the butter will warm up due to friction, and it will all come together.

The easiest way to avoid any problem is to make sure the caramel and butter are completely, 100% at warm room temp.

Can I make this in advance?

You can prepare the cake layers up to 5 days before serving, and the caramel frosting can be made and refrigerated up to 2 days before using. I recommend assembling the cake the same day you’re serving it, but leftovers will keep for up to 3 days in the fridge.

Can I freeze this cake?

You can freeze the cakes and frosting separately for up to 3 months. Wrap the cake layers well in plastic wrap, and store the frosting in a freezer-safe airtight container. Bring both to room temperature before assembling the cake. You might have to re-whip the frosting to make it light and fluffy again.

How is This Frosting Different from American Buttercream?

American buttercream frostings use lots and lots of confectioner’s sugar, which, to me, is gritty and overly sweet. This caramel frosting is similar to European buttercreams. A sugar syrup is made (in this case, homemade caramel) to which butter is added. The caramel provides the sweetness, which is complex and nuanced. Because there’s cream in the caramel, it whips up like a dream and needs only one stick of butter as compared to the two, three, or even four of American frostings.

Helpful Tips

  • Wear an oven mitt when adding the cream to the melted sugar if caramel making is new to you. It can get steamy.
  • Store leftover cake under a cake dome in the fridge for up to 3 days.
A slice of chocolate caramel cake on a plate, with the rest of the cake in the background.

More of our Best Chocolate Cake Recipes

Write a Review

If you make this recipe, or any dish on LC, consider leaving a review, a star rating, and your best photo in the comments below. I love hearing from you.–David

What’s better than a moist chocolate cake slathered in homemade salted caramel buttercream? Adding a scoop of vanilla ice cream to make it a great birthday cake. Next time, I might pour caramel over the top of the cake for an extra kick of flavor.

–Tucker P.
A chocolate caramel cake on a cake stand with a section cut from it.

Chocolate Cake with Salted Caramel Frosting

5 from 1 vote
This stunning dessert is made with two layers of rich chocolate cake that's filled with salty-sweet caramel buttercream frosting.
David Leite
CourseDessert
CuisineAmerican
Servings12 servings
Calories308 kcal
Prep Time1 hour 15 minutes
Cook Time45 minutes
Total Time6 hours

Ingredients 

For the salted caramel

  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 2 ¼ cups heavy cream, warmed
  • 3 tablespoons (1 ½ oz) unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch (13-mm) cubes
  • ¾ teaspoon table salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the chocolate cake

For the salted caramel frosting

  • 1 recipe salted caramel, (above)
  • 1 stick (4 oz) unsalted butter, at warm room temp (68° to 70°F | 20° to 21°C), cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • Sea salt, if needed

Instructions 

Make the salted caramel

  • Make sure you have all the ingredients for the caramel at the ready.
  • Spread the sugar evenly in a light-colored saucepan or deep skillet, which lets you monitor the sugar's color change, and crank the heat to medium-high.
  • As the pan heats, shake and swirl it often so the sugar heats evenly. Avoid stirring for the moment.
  • Once the sugar begins to clump, stir with a heatproof spatula. The sugar will go through various stages—all of them scary-looking! At first, it’ll look wavy, then chunky, then hopelessly like a pile of tan pebbles. Keep cooking.
    Sugar melting to become caramel in a skillet.
  • Once melted, let the sugar turn amber (think of the color of an old penny) without stirring. Watch closely to prevent burning.
    Caramel sauce cooking in a skillet.
  • CAREFULLY pour in the cream a bit at a time, whisking continuously.

    ☞ TESTER TIP: The caramel will bubble furiously, so stand back while drizzling in the cream.

    Caramel sauce bubbling in the skillet.
  • Boil the caramel for 1 minute, whisking until any stubborn hard bits of caramel melt.
  • Slide the pan off the heat and whisk in the butter, salt, and vanilla, until smooth.
    Cubes of butter added to caramel sauce in a skillet.
  • Pour the salted caramel sauce into a heatproof bowl and let it sit at room temperature for an hour. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and leave it on the counter for 3 to 4 hours or overnight.
    Caramel sauce inside a glass mixing bowl.

Make the salted caramel frosting

  • Whip the room-temperature caramel in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, or with a handheld electric mixer on medium-high speed, until fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes.
    Whipped caramel frosting in a glass mixing bowl.
  • Beat in the room-temperature butter, a piece at a time, until smooth and supple. (If your frosting curdles, see the FAQ above.) Add a pinch of sea salt, if desired.
    Cubes of butter added to whipped caramel sauce in a glass mixing bowl.

Assemble and frost the cake

  • Place one cake layer on a turntable or cake plate. Plop about 3/4 cup of frosting on top and spread to the edge.
    Whipped caramel frosting in a glass bowl.
  • Crown with the second cake layer and plop 1 1/2 cups of frosting on top. Spread the frosting thinly over the top and sides of the cake with an offset spatula to create a crumb coat, which, as its name suggests, seals in crumbs!
  • Slide the cake in the fridge for 20 minutes to set.
  • Finish decorating the cake with the remaining frosting. Then…devour!
    A chocolate caramel cake on a cake stand with a section cut from it.

Notes

  1. Protection–Wear an oven mitt when adding the cream to the melted sugar if caramel making is new to you. It can get steamy.
  2. Temperature—It’s crucial that the caramel and butter are at room temperature before making the frosting; otherwise, you’ll have a curdled mess on your hands!
  3. Storage—Leftover cake can be stored under a cake dome in the fridge for up to 3 days.

Nutrition

Serving: 1 sliceCalories: 308 kcalCarbohydrates: 35 gProtein: 1 gFat: 19 gSaturated Fat: 12 gMonounsaturated Fat: 5 gTrans Fat: 0.1 gCholesterol: 59 mgSodium: 158 mgSugar: 35 g

Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.

Tried this recipe?Mention @leitesculinaria or tag #leitesculinaria!
Recipe © 2024 David Leite. Photos © 2024 David Leite. All rights reserved.

Recipe Testers’ Reviews

Salted caramel is one of my favorite things to make, and friends are always happy to see a new spin on it. Last holiday, they enjoyed a dessert with caramel sauce and to their surprise, they went home with their own container to enjoy.

Frosting? I couldn’t wait to make it. The dry caramel method is easy to work with, and the results are fantastic, just using simple ingredients. When making caramel, it will always bubble up when the cream is added. I highly recommend using a large, high-sided saucepan to provide plenty of surface area if you don’t have a deep skillet.

What to slather it on? Chocolate cake, of course! It’s a perfect pairing with this frosting, which is sweeter than buttercream and perfect for caramel lovers. It’s a great special occasion dessert.

This tasty, versatile, and relatively simple-to-make frosting will elevate any cake! Use it on your easiest chocolate cake to turn it into something special.

This salted caramel frosting is one of the only frostings I’ve ever eaten that actually tastes like salted caramel and isn’t too sweet. It pairs beautifully with so many different desserts, or you can enjoy it spoonful by spoonful on its own!

We ate it on a banana chocolate chip layer cake, and next time I make my favorite chocolate stout cake I plan to top it with this. This recipe involves a little bit of waiting time, but it’s worth it and pretty foolproof (if you’re patient enough!).

The dry caramel that serves as the foundation for this frosting was a joy to make. Be ready to stand at the stove for 10 to 15 minutes as the sugar melts and caramelizes, but the great news is that this caramel literally cannot crystallize on you! Watch the color of the sugar closely as it cooks so you can stop the caramelization at the level you’d like. I made this twice to experiment with different degrees of darkness of the caramel, and both were delicious!

One recommendation – using a shallower, wider saucepan or high-sided skillet rather than a standard deep saucepan will help the sugar melt more quickly and make your life easier.

The temperature of the caramel and the butter in the final steps of bringing the frosting together is crucial – make sure they are both around 70ºF to ensure that the frosting doesn’t curdle. If it does, you can try heating up a little bit of the mixture in the microwave for a few seconds and then returning that to the mixing bowl and continuing to beat, or hold your hands on the side of the mixing bowl while the mixer runs to gently transfer some of your body heat to the mixture. Just keep beating until it comes together (which may take a little longer than you anticipate!).




About David Leite

I count myself lucky to have received three James Beard Awards for my writing as well as for Leite’s Culinaria. My work has also appeared in The New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Saveur, Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Yankee, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, and more.


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Recipe Rating




2 Comments

  1. 5 stars
    What’s better than a moist chocolate cake slathered in homemade salted caramel buttercream? Adding a scoop of vanilla ice cream to make it a great birthday cake. Next time, I might pour caramel over the top of the cake for an extra kick of flavor.