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At Last! True Burnt Sugar


One of the most popular desserts around the turn of the century was burnt sugar cake, alias brownstone front cake or burnt leather cake. James Beard remembered it with great fondness, but when we tried to recapture his memory in cooking classes in Oregon, we flunked. For some reason, our cakes weren't like the ones Beard's mother had made when he was a boy.

The other day, while taking my morning trail walk, I was stopped by one of my trail friends. She asked if I had ever made a burnt sugar cake. She said she had her mother's recipe but had had no success recreating it, so she passed the recipe on to me.

Looking at the recipe and then through some very old cookbooks, I realized what we'd been doing wrong. We needed something called caramel molasses, which is no more than caramelized sugar diluted with boiling water and cooked briefly. This little addition produced a very delicate cake with a wonderful caramel taste that you couldn't achieve using brown sugar.

After learning to make this luscious caramel syrup, I've found many uses for it. Poached pears are wonderful in a sauce of caramel syrup and a little whipping cream. Caramel syrup is perfect with oatmeal on a Sunday morning. I'm even inclined to make up some batches and give them as gifts.


1 cup water

1 cup sugar

Heat water in small pan over medium heat.

In heavy-bottomed small saucepan, melt and caramelize sugar over high heat. (Using a pan with light-colored bottom makes it easier to see sugar changing color.) Stir sugar constantly.

At first, sugar will clump, but in a few minutes it will slowly begin to melt. Keep stirring, and soon sugar will begin to turn light golden color. Keep stirring so that sugar darkens without burning. When nearly done, color will change quickly, so be careful.

When sugar becomes dark caramel color, immediately remove pan from heat and add water 1 tablespoon at a time. Be sure to stand back as sugar will sputter and hiss first few times.

After hissing stops, add remaining water all at once. This process will take only about 5 minutes.

Reduce heat to medium, return pan to heat and cook, stirring, until thin syrup forms, about 1 or 2 minutes. Pour into jar and use as needed.

Makes about 1 cup syrup.

Each 1-tablespoon serving contains about:

48 calories; 0 sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 12 grams carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0 fiber.


1 1/2 cups sugar

1/2 cup butter, room temperature

2 eggs

1 cup cold water

2 1/4 cups flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup caramel syrup

Cream sugar and butter in mixing bowl. Add eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition. Add water and mix well. Add flour, baking powder and salt, beating until batter is smooth and well-blended. Beat in caramel syrup.

Divide cake batter between 2 greased (9-inch) cake pans. Bake at 325 degrees until toothpick inserted in center of cake comes out clean, about 20 to 25 minutes. Cool cakes in pans about 10 minutes. Turn out onto racks to cool completely.


1/4 cup butter

1 egg yolk

1 cup powdered sugar

1/4 cup caramel syrup

Beat butter until creamy and almost white, at least 10 minutes to ensure silky result. Add egg yolk and beat until mixed in. Add sugar, 2 tablespoons at a time, beating until all sugar is added and frosting is fluffy. (Rub a little frosting between your fingers; it should not feel gritty.) Beat in caramel syrup. Frost cake with frosting.

Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Each of 8 servings contains about:

556 calories; 501 mg sodium; 134 mg cholesterol; 34 grams fat; 77 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 0.10 gram fiber.

Simon Pearce pedestal and Asiaphile runner in photo from Geary's in Beveryly Hills.

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