Forgotten Southern Recipes

Is This Caramel Cake with Pecans the Perfect Southern Dessert?

The decadent treat from Virginia’s heralded Red Truck Bakery deliciously solves a small-town mystery

Photo: Johnny autry | Food Styling by Charlotte Autry

I hadn’t thought about caramel cakes until I heard about Mrs. Beavers.

I had been digging through my grandmother’s collection of recipes while resurrecting heirloom desserts for my rural Virginia bakery, hoping to find some kind of long-lost cake that needed a little light shone on it. But so far I was flummoxed.

Within a week, as it happened, a customer asked me if I could revive a cake beloved among the townsfolk of The Plains, a little burg up the road. “Mrs. Beavers, now gone, was famous for her caramel layer cake that still haunts us all,” he told me, providing a skimpy list of ingredients from family members uncertain about the preparation. I began searching through vintage cookbooks for caramel cakes, but the recipes glossed over the cake part—usually stating only to “make a simple yellow batter”—and focused on the mishaps of working with caramel, which tends to burn or harden quickly. I followed one of those recipes, not loving the cake’s dry results. But I was smitten with the richness of home-cooked caramel and yearned to upgrade this disappearing jewel. The key to the solution was another week away.

I had been shipping baked goods to friends in the fashion designer Billy Reid’s office in Florence, Alabama. Intrigued by our cakes, Reid began talking about an idea that would provide vital clues to the Mrs. Beavers cake mystery. “I have a memory of a recipe from my great-grandmother,” he told me. “She ran the high school lunchroom for thirty-five years in Kentwood, Louisiana, and baked cakes in the back of her house for weddings and who knows what.” The cake he pined for was one that her daughter—his grandmother—had continued to make. “It was sort of a caramel cake mixed with a cream-cheese-like pound cake. It had a slightly crusty top, and it dripped with a caramel coating. There may have been pecans.” He then asked, “Is that something you might be able to mess with?”

I rolled up my sleeves. In the bakery’s kitchen, standing next to Jan Pouzenc, my pie maker, I dipped into a bubbling pot of her caramel sauce, rich with cream and butter, destined for our salted caramel apple pies. I added the caramel to my cake batter, along with a fistful of pecans, and knowing how well caramel and apples play together, I poured in some apple juice to add another layer of flavor. I experimented with several recipe versions, brushing more warm caramel onto the cake so it soaked into the crust. Soon another UPS shipment arrived in Alabama. This one, Reid said, nailed it.

Employing what I’d learned, I returned to Mrs. Beavers’s caramel layer cake. Adding pecans created more interest, and with some cream cheese and awash with our caramel, inside and out, it surely wasn’t dry. Finally, I covered it with a thin coat of white frosting with additional caramel dripping from above. I’m happy to say that while it may not be Mrs. Beavers’s exact recipe, it has proved to be every bit the cake that her many admirers feared was lost.  

photo: Johnny Autry

This article appears in the August/September 2020 issue of  Garden & Gun. Start your subscription here or give a gift subscription here.


  • (Yield: One 9-inch, 2-layer cake)

  • For the caramel:

    • 3 cups sugar

    • 1 cup water

    • 2 cups heavy cream, at room temperature

    • 2 cups (4 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

    • 2 tbsp. pure vanilla extract

    • 1 tsp. kosher salt

  • For the Cake

    • Nonstick cooking spray

    • 2 cups sugar

    • ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

    • ¼ cup cream cheese, softened

    • ½ cup caramel

    • 4 large eggs

    • 1 tsp. pure vanilla extract

    • 2½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour, sifted

    • 2 tsp. baking powder

    • ¼ tsp. kosher salt

    • ¾ cup whole milk

    • ¼ cup apple juice

    • 1 cup coarsely chopped pecans

  • For the frosting:

    • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

    • ¼ cup caramel

    • 4½ cups confectioners’ sugar

    • 1 tsp. pure vanilla extract


  1. For the caramel:

    This calls for close attention; don’t wander off or you’ll burn
    the caramel. In a large saucepan over high heat, combine the sugar and water, brushing down the sides with a wet pastry brush to prevent sugar crystals from forming. Continue cooking on high heat; cook until the sugar is dissolved (don’t stir) for 20 minutes or until the caramel turns a deep golden tan but not too brown. Remove from heat; add the cream, butter, vanilla, and salt; and stir with a wooden spoon until thoroughly combined.

  2. For the cake:

    Preheat oven to 375ºF. Lightly coat two 9-inch round cake pans with nonstick spray. Line the bottoms with parchment paper cut to fit and spray the parchment with nonstick spray.

  3. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the sugar, butter, and cream cheese on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add 1/2 cup of the caramel and beat until combined. Add eggs one at a time and beat well; add vanilla and beat until
    just combined.

  4. Into a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Add flour mixture to the sugar-egg mixture in 3 additions, alternating with milk and apple juice, and beginning and ending with flour. Mix until well combined after each addition. Stir in pecans.

  5. Divide the batter evenly among the pans, smoothing it out with the back of a spoon. Bake for 30 minutes, turning the pans after 15 minutes, until the cakes start pulling away from the sides of the pans and a toothpick inserted into the center of the cakes comes out clean. Place a raised wire rack atop a section of newspaper or paper towels. Let the cakes cool slightly, then invert them onto the wire rack.

  6. For the frosting:

    In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the butter and ¼ cup of cooled caramel until fully combined. Add confectioners’ sugar and whip until smooth. Add vanilla and whip until fully combined.

  7. To assemble:

    With a serrated knife, trim off the rounded top of both cake layers. Invert each layer trimmed-side down onto the rack. Warm up 1 cup of caramel, and brush the top and sides of each cake layer; let the layers cool for 10 minutes.

  8. Set 1 layer on a cake plate. Frost just the top of the layer, then add the second cake layer, again trimmed-side down, and generously frost just the top. Thinly cover the sides with frosting, smoothing it as much as possible with an offset spatula. Refrigerate cake for 20 minutes.

  9. Slightly warm up 1 cup of the remaining caramel, and gently pour it over the top of the cake to cover, letting some stream down the sides (adding more if needed). Save any remaining caramel for another use.