Treat Time: Caramel Drip Apple Cake

Ellie shared her first Thanksgiving with us in 2018. I spent days leading up to Thanksgiving making the dessert, a stupendous recipe I had seen on Epicurious.com. All week as I baked each of the components, the kitchen smelled of spices, nuts, apples and caramel. A visually stunning cake, it rested on the far end of the dining table during our meal.

Thanksgiving is the toughest day for dogs, with the aroma of roasting turkey filling the home for hours. This holiday meal lasts longer than usual, as we go through our rituals of giving thanks, carving the bird, and circulating the many side dishes. The agony just goes on and on if you’re not invited to the table. For a dog new to the ritual, there’s also the uncertainty that anything good will come its way by the end of the meal.

After dinner, we cleared the table of the dishes from the main meal and were chatting in the kitchen while making coffee for dessert. That magnificent cake stood alone on the table. One of our guests, standing closest to the dining room, suddenly asked “What’s that crunching noise?” Running back into the dining room, we saw Ellie, standing on a chair, delicately licking the cream cheese frosting and munching loudly on a candied walnut, pure joy on her face.

Which is to say that this is a dessert we all find irresistible. The cake is moist with apple, livened with warm spices and toasted nuts, sandwiched by a luscious cream cheese frosting and a layer of crunchy, caramelized walnuts. Swathed in the creamy frosting and topped with more of the candied walnuts, a caramel drip adorns the cake to take it right up to the edge of excess. The cake has a lot going on, but each part is easily made, and you can prepare it bit-by-bit in advance so that you’re not overwhelmed on the day of the feast.

You’ll be amazed at the result, which is fragrant, tasty and visually arresting. You’ll create a memory for you and your guests, even if your dog doesn’t try to take the cake.

Caramel Apple Drip Cake with Candied Walnuts

This recipe is from Epicurious, long one of my favorite online cooking resources. I’ve included the steps to do in advance, in case you’re time strapped on the day you want to serve it.

Ingredients

For the cakes:

  • 1 cup raw walnuts
  • 2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • ¾ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 3 medium apples (Gala, Honeycrisp or Pink Lady are suggested), peeled and cored
  • 1 cup buttermilk at room temperature
  • 4 large eggs at room temperature
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • ¾ cup (packed) dark brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • ¾ cup vegetable oil

For the candied walnuts:

  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 cups raw walnut halves

For the caramel sauce:

  • 2/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon light corn syrup
  • ½ cup heavy cream
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Pinch of kosher salt

For assembly: Cream cheese frosting (recipe to follow, or your own favorite recipe)

Equipment needed

  • 2- 8” round pans
  • Rimmed baking sheet
  • Saucepans and bowls

Make the cakes

Preparation: toast walnuts and prep the pans

Preheat oven to 350F. Spread walnuts in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Place on a rack in the center of the preheated oven and toast until you can smell the aroma, 5-8 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool for at least 5 minutes.Grease the 2 cake pans and line the bottoms with parchment paper. Lightly grease the parchment.

Make the cake batter

Whisk in a medium sized bowl: flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, baking soda and nutmeg. Remove ½ cup of this mixture and place in a food processor with the toasted walnuts. Pulse this mixture until it becomes a fine flour, then add it back to the bowl of dry ingredients.

Place the buttermilk in a bowl. Grate the apples coarsely and add them to the buttermilk.

Using either a stand or handheld mixer, beat the eggs, granulated sugar, brown sugar and vanilla on high speed until pale and thick, about 5 minutes.

Reduce speed to medium-low and gradually stream in oil. Add the dry ingredients in 3 additions, alternating with the apple-buttermilk mixture, ending with dry ingredients. Beat until smooth after each addition.

Divide the batter between the two pans. Lightly rap the pans on the countertop to remove air bubbles.

Bake cakes

Bake the cakes in the preheated oven for 40-45 minutes. A cake tester (you can use a piece of spaghetti – no fancy tool required) inserted into the center should come out clean. Place pans on wire rack and cool them for 10 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of each pan, then invert the cakes onto the wire rack. Let cool completely.

At this point, you can wrap the cakes in kitchen wrap and freeze them until needed, or in the fridge if you plan to use them in a day or so and have the space available.

Make the caramel sauce

You can make the sauce up to 2 weeks in advance.

Place the cream in a small saucepan and warm it gently over a low heat. Once it comes to a simmer, reduce the heat just to keep it warm, or remove from heat if that’s not possible.

Place the sugar in the bottom of a medium saucepan with the corn syrup. Add 2 tablespoons of water to the center of the pan; carefully swirl the mixture to wet the sugar. Place on the stove and turn the temperature to high heat. Do not stir.

Cook until the mixture turns a medium amber in color (about 6 minutes). Remove from heat, and carefully whisk in the cream, stirring from center outward, until well combined. Stir in the butter. Add vanilla and salt and stir to combine. Transfer to a heatproof container and let cool until thickened.

You can keep this in the refrigerator until you’re ready to top the assembled caked.

Make the candied walnuts

Line a rimmed backing sheet with parchment paper. You won’t have time to do this once the walnuts are sugared.

Spread the granulated sugar in a thin layer in the center of a large dry skillet. Without stirring (you can swirl the pan occasionally), cook over medium heat until the sugar is melted, about 10 minutes. Quickly stir in the walnuts, continue stirring and cook for about 1 minute until nuts are coated and melted sugar is chestnut brown.

Scrape onto the prepared baking sheet. Separate the nuts into individual pieces as they start to cool. Once they are cooled, transfer half to a food processor and coarsely chop. Reserve the chopped and whole candied walnuts.

Make the cream cheese frosting

See recipe below or make your own. You’ll need about 4 ½ cups minimally.

Assemble the cake

Using a long serrated knife, level the domed tops of the cakes. Position the knife parallel to the cake surface from one edge. Keeping the knife level, cut off the tops of the domes so that the cake is mostly level on the top.

Spread 1 tablespoon frosting in the center of the serving platter. Place 1 cake, top side down, on the platter. Spread 1 ¼ cups frosting evenly over the top. Top with the chopped candied walnuts, distributing them as evenly as possible.

Place remaining cake (top side down) on top of the filling pressing down slightly. Spread top and sides with 2 cups frosting. Chill 30 minutes to let set.

Spread remaining frosting over top and sides. Chill 30 minutes to set. If you refrigerated the caramel sauce, bring it to room temperature.

Place a spoonful of caramel sauce on top of cake near one edge. Using the bottom of the spoon, spread it out and very gently press a little sauce over the edge. Move around the perimeter of the cake, repeating this, until the entire cake has drips. Flood the top of the cake with the remaining sauce. Chill at least 30 minutes to let the glaze set. Decorate top and sides of cake with whole candied walnuts.

Cream Cheese Frosting

This recipe makes 4 ½ cups frosting. You can use your own favorite recipe, but you’ll need this amount of frosting for the cake.You can make the frosting in advance and refrigerate it for up to 5 days or freeze up to 1 month.

Ingredients

  • 2 8-ounce packages cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 1 cup (2 sticks or 8 ounces) unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract
  • 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 1/3 cups powdered sugar

Instructions

If the powdered sugar is lumpy, you can sift it to make it easier to produce a smooth frosting. Using an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat cream cheese and butter until smooth, about 1 minute. Beat in vanilla and salt. Reduce speed to low and beat in powdered sugar gradually. Once there is no dry sugar visible, increase speed to high and beat for another 2 minutes until light and fluffy.

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