Caramel Apple Cake with Salted Caramel Buttercream

Believe it or not, this indulgent cake got its start in the healthiest of places—the produce section of the market.

Caramel Apple Cake |

There I was, walking along, minding my own business, buying cauliflower like the responsible adult I pretend to be, when I saw the cutest miniature Gala apples, about 2 1/2 inches across. Obviously there are many things they could be used for—stuffing the mouths of teensy pigs for roasting? Afternoon snacks for forest elves and other tiny creatures? Being bobbed for by small-mouthed toddlers at holiday parties? All good options, obviously.

Caramel Apple Cake |

But when I saw them, I immediately had a vision of them dipped in caramel, sitting proudly atop a caramel apple cake. I snatched them up, gave them a long, lingering look, and like a character in a soap opera, declared with steely resolve, “Oh, yes. You will be mine.”

Caramel Apple Cake |

Dipping them in caramel was a cinch, because I took the easy way out and used store-bought caramels. They can sometimes be hard to find throughout the year, but my local Target always carries the Kraft caramels around the holidays. They’re no match for homemade, but since I envisioned the apples as an edible garnish—instead of the main event—I was happy to take a shortcut.

Caramel Apple Cake |

All you have to do is unwrap the caramels, add a spoonful or two of water or cream, then microwave them until melted. My secret for getting good-looking apples is to shape them after they’re dipped. The caramel has a tendency to pool around the bottom and it looks sloppy, so once it’s partially set, I wet my hands and mold it back around the apple until it’s smooth and even. This method will be featured in my next book, The Obsessive’s Guide to Tweaking Details That Ultimately Don’t Matter. On shelves soon!

Caramel Apple Cake |

The cake, now, that was a labor of love. I actually made two versions. The first was a fairly dense cake, with apple butter and shredded apples, and was covered in a caramel cream cheese frosting. I thought the idea of the frosting was delicious, but it was a hot mess in reality. It had a terribly runny texture and no caramel taste—it was mostly slightly salty cream cheese. Paired with the heavy cake, it was heartbreakingly gross, and definitely not worthy of my cute mini apples. Into the trash it went.

Caramel Apple Cake |

Take #2 was much better. This time, the cake was light and fluffy, made with oil instead of butter, applesauce, caramel sauce, and a good handful of chopped apples. I would eat this cake on its own dusted with powdered sugar, it was that good.

Caramel Apple Cake |

But why eat it on its own when it could be slathered with salted caramel buttercream? I discovered this recipe a few months ago when I was working on some sandwich cookies. Those never made it past the experimental stage, but I couldn’t get the thought of the buttercream out of my head. This is one of those thick, fudgy, almost candy-like frostings that’s so good, you’ll want to roll it into balls and dunk it in chocolate. It’s very sweet, but the caramel flavor and the hit of salt keep it from being too cloying.

Caramel Apple Cake |

I know we’re all ready to hop aboard the Holiday Baking Express, but it is still technically November. So if you have it in you to enjoy one last autumn dessert, make it this one. You still have a whole month to bust out the gingerbread and peppermint. Viva la apples!

Caramel Apple Cake |

Note: The frosting between the layers melts into the cake over time, so this is best enjoyed within a few days of making it. It also freezes very well.

Apple Caramel Cake
yield: one hefty 9-inch cake
Cake recipe adapted from Whole Foods, frosting recipe adapted from Add A Pinch

Print This Recipe!

For the cake:
3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups packed brown sugar
3/4 cup canola or vegetable oil
3/4 cup unsweetened applesauce (not chunky)
3/4 cup jarred caramel dessert sauce (I used Trader Joe’s Fleur de Sel Caramel Sauce)
1 tbsp vanilla extract
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups buttermilk, at room temperature
1 apple, peeled, cored, and finely diced

For the salted caramel frosting:
3 cups granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1 lb 2 oz ounces butter, divided use
1 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp salt
3 cups powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract

For the caramel apple decoration:
3-4 mini apples (mine were about 2 1/2 inches in diameter, smaller is okay)
7 ounces soft caramels
1 1/2 tsp cream or water
Lollipop sticks, wooden skewers, or wooden popsicle sticks

To make the cake:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line two 9-inch cake pans with parchment paper, and spray the pans and paper well with nonstick cooking spray. (Note: these cake layers bake up high, so it’s best to use cake pans that are at least 2 inches high.)

In a bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt, and whisk them together. Set aside.

In the bowl of a large stand mixer,combine the brown sugar and oil, and whisk them together on medium speed until well-combined. Add the applesauce, caramel sauce, and vanilla extract, then mix well again. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.

Finally, with the mixer running on low, add a third of the dry ingredients. Once that’s mostly mixed in, add half of the buttermilk, then half of the remaining drys, then the rest of the buttermilk, and finally the rest of the drys. Stop the mixer when there are just a few streaks of flour remaining. Fold in the rest of the dry ingredients with a spatula, scraping the bottom and sides of the mixing bowl well. Add the diced apples and fold them in as well.

Divide the batter evenly between the two cake pans. Bake the cakes at 350 degrees for about 40 minutes, until the top springs back lightly when pressed and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Let the cakes cool at room temperature, then when they’re barely warm to the touch, invert them from the pans and let them cool completely. Wrap them well with plastic wrap and place them in the freezer for 30 minutes to firm up before cutting them and assembling the cake—otherwise, the somewhat heavy frosting will tear the light and fluffy crumb of the cake.

Once the cakes are firm (they do not need to be completely frozen), remove them from the freezer. Use a very long, sharp serrated knife to cut them in half through the middle, so that you have four cake rounds. If the tops are very domed, trim off the tops to make them even as well.

Place one cake round on a cardboard circle the same size as the cake. Spoon about 3/4 cup of frosting in the center of the cake, and use an offset spatula to spread it out to the edges of the cake. Top the frosting with another cake round, and repeat this process, until you have stacked all 4 cake rounds on top of each other. Place a generous spoonful of frosting on top of the cake, and use the spatula to spread it to the edge of the top in random, artful swirls.

Now get a good scoop of frosting on the edge of the spatula, and spread it on the sides of the cake, repeating until the sides are covered. While this frosting can be smoothed out with a hot spatula, I think it looks great with some rustic swirls from the spatula. Top the cake with a few small caramel-covered apples.

To make the salted caramel frosting:
Combine the granulated sugar, buttermilk, 12 ounces of butter, and baking soda in a large pot. It will bubble up a lot, so use a 6-quart pot. If you don’t know the size of your pots, make sure that the mixture has room to expand to at least 3 times its size. Place the pan over medium-high heat, and stir until the butter melts and sugar dissolves. Bring the mixture a boil, and insert a candy thermometer.

Continue to cook the mixture, stirring occasionally, until it reaches 240 degrees Fahrenheit (115 C). It will get dark brown and fragrant. Once at 240, remove the pan from the heat and pour the hot mixture into the bowl of a large stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Whip the mixture on medium speed until the caramel has slightly cooled and thickened, about 6 minutes. It might start to look a little grainy; that’s okay.

Add  the remaining 6 ounces of butter, the salt, and the vanilla extract, and mix well. Add the powdered sugar in 1/2-cup increments, mixing on well after each addition. Once all the ingredients are added, whip on medium-high speed for about 10 seconds, until it’s light and fluffy. Use immediately.

To make the caramel apples:
Wash the apples, and dry them extremely well. Twist out the stem, and insert the lollipop sticks or wooden skewers in the top of each apple. Line a baking sheet with foil and spray the foil well with nonstick cooking spray.

Unwrap the caramels, and place them in a medium microwave-safe bowl, along with the cream or water. Microwave the caramels in 30-second increments, stirring after every 30 seconds, until it’s completely melted and smooth. Holding an apple by the stick, dip it until it is mostly submerged in the caramel. If necessary, use a spoon to spoon some caramel over the sides of the apple. Let the excess caramel drip back down in the bowl, and use the spoon to scrape the bottom of the apple to get excess caramel off. Place the apple on the baking sheet and repeat until the rest of the apples are dipped.

If the caramel pools at the bottom of the apple a bit, and you want to tidy it, wait until it’s barely warm, then wet your hands, and shape it around the apple, smoothing it with wet hands until it’s round and neat. Store caramel apples in the refrigerator.


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32 Responses to Caramel Apple Cake with Salted Caramel Buttercream
  1. Danguole says:

    Did you ever knoooow that you’re my hero?

    The twigs! So cute. Everything about this is amazing.

  2. Oh Mercy ME! That is one gorgeous cake!!! I could seriously just look at it all day and then cry a little when I had to cut it! Beautiful! So glad you liked my frosting. That stuff is ah-dictive!

    • Elizabeth says:

      Uh, your frosting is the best thing that’s happened in my life. I am OBSESSED. Thank you so much for sharing an amazing recipe!!

  3. shaz says:

    Would you believe it? Last week I found a bag of mini apples too. Briefly thought about dipping them in caramel but we just ate them all instead ‘cos I was lazy. But this salted caramel frosting is just crying out to be made! Thank you.

    • Elizabeth says:

      I can’t tell you what to do, but I CAN tell you that this frosting would be ridiculous on brownies or cupcakes…or cookies…or graham crackers. Just saying. :)

  4. That cake is stunning. I made an Italian meringue caramel buttercream for some cupcakes awhile ago, and it was amazing. I bet the caramel buttercream is amazing with this cake. I also eat crazy amounts of sugar and work it off through exercising. I’m so glad to have found your blog and someone who thinks sugar is totally a food group.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Yessss–sugar IS a food group and ridiculous exercising IS the answer! We are obviously soulmates and I am weaving your BFF bracelet as we speak. I’m adding your blog to my RSS reader!

  5. I want this right now! I’ve made mini caramel apples but never envisioned them to have such a cute life as you did. They’ll be remade though…and placed on this cake. I’m real excited about it.
    I just hope that frosting makes its way onto the cake and not all into my mouth!

  6. Casey says:

    jesus this is like the most epic cake i’ve ever seen. The caramel apples on top are to die for!!!!

  7. ela says:

    That is one gorgeous cake! Caramel is my weakness. How’s the texture of the Caramel Frosting, doesn’t it become gritty or sugary after a while? Or does it remain smooth even after a day? I love your blog, wish I discovered it before Christmas of this year. Thanks!

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thanks Ela! :)

      I think the frosting is just about perfect. It’s smooth and fudgy and pretty thick once it stands for a while. It does crust a bit, but as I recall it’s not as bad as the standard crisco/powdered sugar frostings. The only downside is that the frosting layers inside did melt into the cake after two or three days, but that might have more to do with the ultra-moist cake than the frosting itself. More of an excuse to eat it quickly!

  8. Joselyn says:

    I baked this cake for a friend’s bday… AND everyone loved it! Great recipie!!!!!! Tip for the non-bakers: the frosting is super runny at first so freeze it for 1-2 hrs and then put it in the mixer to get it fluffy and frosting like! (Their may have been instructions on that on the recipie but…). Anyways THANKS FOR POSTING AN AWESOME RECIPIE!

  9. Nadine says:

    Not living in the USA but rather in Australia, how may I get something acceptable for the caramel dessert mix you add to the cake mix? If I took sweetened condensed milik and boiled it in the top of a doub le boiler until it is caramelly, would that work too? More hard work, but worth it when you cannot get the original ingredients.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Hi Nadine, I haven’t tried it with caramelized condensed milk, but I imagine it would work! As long as you kept the texture fluid (ie, didn’t boil it until it was a really thick pudding texture) I think it would be fine. Also, maybe my description was confusing–do you have any sort of caramel ice cream toppings or sauces in Australia? Anything like that is fine. And finally, if you want to make actual caramel sauce instead of going the boiled condensed milk route, here’s my recipe for that:

      Please let me know how it goes!

  10. Rachel says:

    I can’t tell you how beyond excited I am to try this for my fall wedding. I just found your recipe, and I want to finally get off of Pinterest and go make it right now. Thank you so much! My only question is: Do you think there would be any approach I could try for an incredibly similar frosting- but one that would keep a white color? I’m so not a baker, so I might sound like an idiot. That’s fine. Haha. But any ideas?

    • Elizabeth says:

      Hi Rachel–Somehow this comment got filtered and I just saw it. Sorry! I don’t think there’s a way you could make this specific frosting and still have it be white. It definitely caramelizes and turns brown during the cooking process. I think your options are either to make it with a white frosting on the outside (although you could still use the salted caramel inside the cake!) or try to see if you could cover it with fondant. I’m not sure how well the fondant would hold up over this particular frosting, but it might be an option!

  11. Lori G says:

    How many packaged caramels is 7 oz?


    • Elizabeth says:

      Hi Lori,

      It’s about 24 of the square caramels (like Kraft makes). If you have a 14-oz bag you can just eyeball it and use half the bag–it doesn’t have to be super precise. Hope this helps!

  12. Krystal says:

    This cake looks absolutely amazing!! Does it need to be refrigerated or can it sit out? Thanks!!

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thanks Krystal! I would refrigerate it, just because I think that might help the frosting in between the cake layers last a little longer (as I mentioned in the post, the moisture in the apple cake tends to cause the frosting to sort of dissolve into the cake over a few days. Still tastes amazing, but doesn’t look as good when sliced.) I do think it’s best eaten at room temp, though, so let it sit a bit after you take it out of the fridge before enjoying it. :)

  13. Fredda says:

    Is it possible to make this in a bundt pan? I’ve been given strict orders that I MUST make a bundt cake for a family dinner. Can you believe it!!!! Can’t sway them no matter what I say or do. Grrrrrrrrrrrrrr

    • Elizabeth says:

      Hi Fredda,

      Yes, I think this cake would work well in a bundt pan! I haven’t tried it so I can’t advise you on the cooking time, but I think the texture would be great, as long as you don’t fill the pan too full and grease/flour it well–all the usual bundt pan tricks. :) You might also want to cut the frosting recipe in half, otherwise you’ll end up with way too much. Another option is to use this brown sugar frosting, which is meant to be poured on (instead of smoothed on) and might go better with a bundt, while providing sort of the same flavor:

  14. Marquisha says:

    Please tell me where you found the mini apples! I have been looking for these everywhere!

    • Elizabeth says:

      Hi Marquisha! I just found them at my regular supermarket (Super King Market in Pasadena). I’ve also seen them in Trader Joe’s, but it seems to be pretty hit or miss. I wish I had a better answer for you, and good luck finding them!

  15. Mandy Lynne says:

    Made this tonight for my Bday cake (along with my favorite Saunders style bumpy chocolate cake) and I have to say I am impressed. WOW.

    I’ve always been afraid of any type of candy making that requires a thermometer (I don’t own one)so the frosting was a little intimidating initially but I am SO SO SO glad that I went ahead and made it. Watched it carefully while it was cooking and could pretty much tell when it was ready. I could seriously just eat it straight up with a spoon before the powdered sugar was even added….Actually, I kind of envisioned myself plunging face first into it. LOL.

    Cake turned out excellent and moist, house smelled fantastic while it was baking.

    Needless to say my birthday isn’t even till tomorrow and the hubby and I cut into the cake tonight. Rich, decadent and different! THANK YOU!

    • Elizabeth says:

      Mandy Lynne, that is awesome!! I’m so glad it worked for you and that you enjoyed it. And HEY, happy birthday!! Hope you had a great one!

  16. Valerie says:

    The Print Recipe button is not working on the Caramel Apple Cake….:(

    • Elizabeth says:

      I know–the service that does my recipe index/printing function is having problems this morning! I’m hopeful that they’ll be up and running again soon.

  17. Margo says:

    I just made this tonight for my daughter’s birthday. I couldn’t wait until tomorrow to try it, so I smeared a bit of the leftover frosting onto my cake scraps. Yum! This recipe was exactly what I was looking for, and I can’t wait to show it off a bit at tomorrow’s party. Thank you!
    Margo recently posted…‘Twas the Day Before NaNoWriMo

  18. Kaley says:

    Made this cake for a get together we were having and everyone loved it. I thought it was even better when the icing started melting into the cake. The only issue I had was when my thermometer broke halfway through the Carmel process. Had to grab a grill thermometer to finish it up.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Hi Kaley, I’m so glad you enjoyed the recipe! I agree–when the frosting melts into the cake, it’s even more amazing (but then, I love super-moist cake, so…). Thanks for the feedback!

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