The Sweet and Salty Cake: Chocolate Cake, Salted Caramel, and a Runaway Ganache

I have been making my way through Baked: New Frontiers in Baking since I received the cookbook from Tom for Christmas. One recipe that I had flagged as a future baking project was the Sweet and Salty Cake, a chocolate layer cake filled with salted caramel, frosted with whipped caramel ganache, and garnished with fleur de sel. I am a fan of salted caramel (you can read about my experiences making salted caramels here and here), which is becoming more and more mainstream. Late last year the New York Times dedicated an article to describing how the salted caramel trend has successfully made its way from an elite culinary obsession to the American mass market.

Last night Tom and I went to a friend's housewarming party, and I thought that it would be a good opportunity to try making the cake. From reading the recipe, I knew that it would take some time to make all of the components and put the cake together, so a leisurely weekend day seemed like the ideal time to take the recipe for a spin.

The chocolate cake is straightforward. The recipe (available online here) includes butter and shortening, as well as sour cream. The recipe is written for a three-layer 8-inch round cake, but I made it as a two-layer 9-inch round cake instead. (An odd observation: as far as I can tell, the online version of the recipe at and the printed version in the cookbook are nearly identical, except for one important detail. The online version instructs you to bake each 8-inch cake layer for 18-24 minutes. The cookbook version instructs you to bake each 8-inch cake layer for 35-40 minutes. Since I was baking only two 9-inch layers, I knew that the baking time would be longer since each pan had more batter, and it actually took me 53 minutes for my cake layers to finish.)

The salted caramel contains heavy cream, fleur de sel, water, sugar, corn syrup, and sour cream (I have never seen a caramel recipe with sour cream, but it worked here). The first time I tried making it, I burnt the caramel badly and set off the smoke alarm. The sugar, water, and corn syrup mixture makes it way slowly up to 300 degrees, but then heats up the final fifty degrees in a flash. It was also difficult for me to use my mercury candy thermometer to read the temperature, because the liquid level in the pan was very low and it just barely reached the bulb on the thermometer. The second time I made the caramel, I used a digital instant read thermometer and programmed it so an alarm would go off the moment the mixture reached 350 degrees. It worked like a charm, and the caramel mixture was quite tasty, with a nicely spreadable, but not runny consistency. I was able to coat the cake layers with the caramel with no problem.

The whipped caramel ganache frosting was a problem. The first step is to make more caramel, which is poured over a pound of chopped chocolate. Once the melted chocolate and caramel are stirred together and cooled, the mixture is beat in a standing mixer and a pound of softened butter is incorporated. The ganache was quite runny. Following the recipe directions, I spread 1/4 cup of salted caramel on the bottom cake layer and then topped it with 3/4 cup of ganache. When I then set the other cake layer on top, the top layer was sliding around because the ganache was not firm enough to hold it in place. I crumb coated the cake and put it in the refrigerator for 20 minutes to firm up a bit, which seemed to help significantly (I also put the remaining ganache in the refrigerator during this time). When I pulled out the chilled cake and chilled ganache and finished frosting the cake, it looked like it was going to hold together in one piece.

When we got to the party, I could see that the top cake layer had shifted a bit. Also, the location where the cake happened to be displayed was directly under a hot kitchen light, and I could see the ganache getting runnier and runnier through the night, to the point where I though the top cake layer might just make a run for it. But my final assessment of the cake is this: the chocolate cake was quite unexceptional and I've definitely had better. However, the salted caramel was delicious and the complex flavor of the ganache was terrific. The salt flavor was very pronounced, and as a whole, the dessert was quite unusual and something special. Guests really did enjoy the cake, even though it was a bit of a sloppy mess.

The next time (if ever) I make this cake, I will make a few adjustments. First, I will start making the salted caramel and the ganache earlier (probably while the cake is still baking) because otherwise it takes forever to make all of the components and to wait for them to cool if you don't start the caramel and frosting until the cake is done. It took me over 5 hours to make this cake (although this did include a dinner break and a few minutes for me to run to the store to buy more heavy cream after I burned the first batch of salted caramel). Also, to address the runny ganache problem, I would definitely refrigerate the ganache before using it to make sure it was a more workable consistency. It's also possible that my butter was too soft when I incorporated it into the ganache (the recipe instructs you to use butter that is softened but still cool); I took out the butter to soften when before I started making the cake batter; I had no idea at the time that I wasn't going to be finishing the frosting until almost 6 hours later.

As this cake came out, I was a little disappointed. But I can see the amazing potential there, and some day I hope to realize it!

Recipe: "Sweet and Salty Cake," from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito, recipe available online here.


Anonymous said…
I am requesting this as my birthday cake this year. This was my favorite cake I have had in the last few years.....delicious!
Anonymous said…
The layers on my attempt at this cake also slipped and the ganache slipped off the carmel at the edges of the layers. Because it is 20 degrees here I was able to cool the ganache and the cakes outside, bringing them in and out throughout the process. But surely, on a warm day this would be a bigger issue, and leaving the cake on the counter on a hot day would probably be a mess. I would probably skip the first caramel topping and simply make the caramel ganache next time.