Maya Angelou’s Caramel Cake with Brown Butter Frosting

Maya Angelou

To be honest, a few weeks ago I wrote about Emily Dickinson for World Poetry Day. However, before I decided on Dickinson, I went back and forth about whether I should write about another famed female poet who loved cooking: Maya Angelou. When I realized that Angelou’s birthday was approaching, on April 4, and that April is National Poetry Month, I decided I would honor her today, instead.

She is probably remembered best by most as a poet, but Angelou lived a full and almost unbelievable life before she ever wrote a poem.

She was born in 1928, in St. Louis, as Marguerite Annie Johnson. At the age of four, she was sent along with her brother to Stamps, Arkansas, to live with her paternal grandmother, after her parents’ marriage fell apart. Her grandmother was a powerful influence on her life. Her grandmother owned her own general store, and provided Angelou with the stability she lacked when living with her mother.

After being sent back to live with her mother, she was sexually assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend. The man was later killed by family members, and Angelou became a mute for seven years, thinking she had caused his death by speaking his name. She lived with her grandmother again for the next several years. A friend of her grandmother’s, Bertha Flowers, was credited with exposing Angelou to great writers during this time, and eventually helping her overcome her muteness.

By the time she was fourteen, she and her brother were living with their mother again, this time in California. Before leaving high school, she had given birth to her first and only child, a son named Clyde. As a young woman, she supported herself with a series of jobs: She became a chef in a Creole restaurant, she was a prostitute and brothel madam for a time, she worked as the first black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco, and as a singer in a night club. She and dancer Alvin Ailey even formed a dance duo for a time. At this point, Angelou was still going by her birth name of Marguerite, or sometimes Rita, but it was during this period that her managers at the Purple Onion, a famous club in San Francisco, where she had been performing a calypso show, suggested changing it to Maya Angelou, a combination of her nickname, and a version of her former husband’s surname.

Five years later, Angelou moved to New York to be a writer, on the suggestion of novelist John Oliver Killens. In 1960, she helped organize Cabaret for Freedom, a fundraiser to benefit the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, after meeting Martin Luther King Jr. and hearing him speak. Her passion for the Civil Rights movement grew out of this meeting.

In the early 1960’s, she spent time in Egypt and Ghana, working as an associate editor and writer for local English-language publications. She and her son had moved there after meeting and beginning a relationship with Vusumzi Make, a South African civil rights activist. After her relationship with Make ended, Angelou was still living in Ghana and it was at that time that she met Malcolm X. They became friends and in 1965, she returned to the United States to help him create a new civil rights organization, but he was assassinated shortly after.

By the end of the 60’s, she was writing and singing to support herself and in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. asked if she would organize a march. This march would never happen, as King Jr. was assassinated on April 4th of that year (Angelou’s 40th birthday). Angelou was brokenhearted, but her pain led to the creation of undoubtedly her most famous work: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969.

The early 70’s proved to be a pivotal time for Angelou as a writer. She wrote music, scripts, and poetry. She dabbled in acting, she was nominated for a Tony for her performance in Look Away on Broadway, and made an appearance in the miniseries Roots.

In the 80’s, she became a professor at Wake Forest College, teaching courses until 2011. In 1993, she read her poem On the Pulse of Morning at Bill Clinton’s inauguration. She lectured extensively throughout the 90’s, and by the end of her life, she had written 7 autobiographies. According to her son, she was working on another at the time of her death in 2014, at the age of 86.

In honor of Angelou’s 90th birthday, I made her grandmother’s recipe for caramel cake. She wrote about this cake in her book, Hallelujah!, saying that it was a favorite of hers and one of her grandmother’s specialties. It was a favorite at the quilting bees hosted in the back of her grandmother’s store, and Angelou recounts a day when she was punished by a teacher for her voluntary muteness; after visiting the school to punish the teacher in turn, her grandmother made Maya her very own caramel cake to remind her of her love.

Maya Angelou Caramel Cake

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Caramel Cake with Brown Butter Frosting
Serves 8. Recipe from Maya Angelou’s book Hallelujah! The Welcome Table: A Lifetime of Memories with Recipes.

Ingredients:
Caramel sauce:
1 cup of sugar
1 cup of water
Cake:
1 stick of butter, unsalted and very soft
1 cup of sugar
1/4 cup caramel sauce (recipe below)
2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup milk
2 large eggs
1/4 cup sugar
Frosting:
9 tbsp butter, unsalted
12 oz confectioner’s sugar
6 tbsp heavy cream
2 1/4 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp salt

Instructions:

Caramel sauce: Heat the sugar over a heavy-bottomed skillet until it begins to melt and bubble, stirring occasionally. Once it is brown and bubbly on the surface, remove from heat and slowly add the water. Be careful, because it will bubble and spit as mix in the water. Set aside and allow to cool to room temperature.

Place two 8-inch rounds of parchment paper in the bottom of two 8-inch cake pans. Brush thoroughly with vegetable oil, or spray with cooking spray.

Cake: Beat the softened butter until smooth, add in the sugar in three batches, fully beating it into the butter each time. Then add the caramel sauce and beat until combined.

In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt.

Add the flour mixture and 1 cup of milk to the butter-sugar mixture in 3 batches, alternating between the two, and stirring until just combined between each addition.

And in another medium bowl, beat together the eggs until they’re frothy, between 2-3 minutes. Add the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar and beat until mixture is foamy and the sugar is dissolved.

Fold the egg mixture into the batter until just combined. Divide evenly between the two cake pans and bake for about 25 minutes. Begin checking for doneness around the 22 minute mark. The center of cake should spring back when pressed with a finger and a toothpick inserted into the center should come out clean. Allow to cool in pans for 10 minutes, then remove the parchment and place on wire racks to cool completely before frosting.

Frosting: (I made 1.5x the original recipe for this frosting.) Brown butter in a pan over medium heat. You will know when it’s done when it stops hissing and smells nutty. Be careful not to burn it. Allow to cool to room temperature.

Place confectioner’s sugar, cream, vanilla, salt, and cooled butter into a bowl. Beat until the mixture is smooth and the sugar is fully incorporated.

Frost the cake as desired and eat immediately, or refrigerate until ready to eat.

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My thoughts on the cake are as follows: super simple to make, surprisingly moist, unsurprisingly delicious.

I will say, these posts always seem to pack a lot into a tiny space, but perhaps never more so than with this post–no one has had quite as full a life as Maya Angelou–so I hope I did her some justice. It’s been a real pleasure researching the woman behind the words.

Happy 90th birthday, Maya Angelou!

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Brown Butter, Salted Caramel Corn

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If you’ve ever been a tourist in Chicago, you’ve probably walked down State Street and noticed the smell of Garrett popcorn wafting through the air. (If you resisted stopping in to buy some, good for you, you’re a better person than most.) And while Garrett popcorn has been around for a long time, since 1949, caramel corn got its start in Chicago much earlier.

Frederick Rueckheim, originally from Germany, began making candy in Chicago shortly after the Great Chicago Fire. A few years later, his brother, Louis, joined him in Chicago. The two of them combined molasses-coated popcorn with peanuts to create a successor to the colonial treat of kettle corn, and the snack was officially presented to the public at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. (It should also be mentioned that the first popcorn machine, invented by Charles Cretors, was also debuted at the World’s Fair. His system unified the popping process, automating a job that was historically done by hand, and allowing popcorn sellers total mobility, which no doubt helped the Rueckheims.) Rueckheim trademarked the name Cracker Jack in 1896, and the same year an article about his new product appeared in the Chicago Tribune with the headline, “Do Not Taste It. If You Do You Will Part With Your Money Easy.” In the early 1900s, the lyrics of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” namechecked Cracker Jack, which had already become a staple at Major League Baseball games.

For this year’s National Caramel Popcorn Day, I decided to use a family recipe and make my mom’s caramel corn. (The alternative title for this post could be “Mom’s Super-Simple, Completely Addictive Caramel Corn.”) I remember, as a child, thinking that this recipe was the worst because after my mom poured caramel over the popcorn, I should have immediately been allowed to eat it. Instead, it had to bake for an hour. An hour! That’s like 4 days in Kid Time.

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Brown Butter, Salted Caramel Corn

Ingredients:
About 5 cups popped popcorn (About 3/4 or 1 cup, un-popped)
12 tbsp, unsalted butter
2/3 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup water
1/2 tsp salt, plus 1/2 tsp more sea salt for sprinkling
1/2 tsp baking soda

Instructions:

Pop your popcorn and add to a large bowl. If the popcorn fills your bowl completely, use two bowls. You will want enough room in the bowl to be able to stir in the caramel.

Preheat your oven to 200 degrees.

Add the butter to a saucepan and place on the stove over medium heat. Allow the butter to heat thoroughly. It will begin to sizzle and smoke a bit. It will turn a deep yellow color, before it turns into a light to medium brown. Turn off the heat.

Add the brown sugar, water, and 1/2 tsp salt to the saucepan and place over medium heat. At first, you will notice that the butter and water are separating. Stirring occasionally, bring the mixture to a slight boil. At this point you should see that the mixture is coming together. Stir for about 10 seconds while boiling, before turning off the stove.

Remove from heat and add in the baking soda and stir together. You will see the mixture foaming up and increasing in volume slightly.

Pour the mixture over your popcorn in the bowl. (If using two bowls, divide the mixture.) Stir together until the popcorn is covered by the caramel.

Spread out on one large cookie sheet, or two smaller cookie sheets. The caramel corn doesn’t have to be single layer, but it shouldn’t be piled up too far past the sides of the cookie sheet.

Bake for 1 hour, stirring the popcorn every 15 minutes. After the popcorn has baked for an hour, and is still warm, sprinkle the remaining sea salt over the top evenly.

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Salty and sweet, with a little crunch. You will probably be like me as a child and ask yourself, “Why do I need to bake this? The popcorn is now covered in caramel. It’s ready!” But, trust me. Baking it toasts everything together and gives the caramel a deeper flavor. Your patience will be rewarded. So easy. And a great snack. Word to the wise: Do not make this popcorn while you’re alone in the house. Rookie mistake. There you’ll be, standing at the oven, eating handfuls of warm caramel corn off the cookie sheet. This is only OK if you have somehow managed not to eat handfuls each time you stirred it during baking…if that’s possible to avoid. I did not test that part of these instructions.

It’s great to have a bowl of it around for a dinner party, or, if you can resist eating all of it yourself while it’s baking, it’s also a great little gift to give. Package it up pretty and make your friends think you worked all day on it. (If you have children, they will think this anyway.) Happy snacking!