Salted Caramel Chocolate Trifle

The first face to poke through the door of my classroom was that of an older woman. She was followed by one of my 7th grade students, who was followed by a white haired man. “Come in! Find a seat anywhere!” I called as I made last minute adjustments to the position of the projector.

Soon people were pouring into my room. They had arrived for Grandfriends Day, where Woodlawn students invited their grandparents (or grandpeople they’d “adopted”) to eat lunch with them and participate in their classes.

I’m going to go ahead and publicly admit that I was terrified of Grandfriends Day. What activity could I plan that both a 60-year-old and a 12-year-old might enjoy? We usually read novels or tackle projects that take weeks to complete. What concept could I introduce and cover in a meaningful way in 30 minutes?

Thankfully, I learned a trick at the beginning of my teaching career that always serves me well in these types of circumstances: when you’re scared of a new thing, get enthusiastic and give it an honest, earnest try. (This also works with baking, writing, and life in general.) So as the students and their grandfriends filtered into my room, I pasted on a smile.

Once they were all somewhat assembled, I took a deep breath and did something a little ridiculous. I turned on the projector and pressed play on this video (no, really, go watch it). Confusion turned into giggles as Maru the cat repeatedly attempted to gain access to a huge cardboard box. Young and old alike cheered when he finally sprang into its depths. I surveyed the classroom as they watched, concluding that funny YouTube clips were, indeed, a language that spanned the generations.

When the video ended, I posed a question: “What was Maru’s goal?”

“To get in the box!” the class cried in unison.

“Did he accomplish his goal the first time he tried?”


“How about the second?”


“Did he eventually get in the box?”


Their enthusiasm was cute. They were still riding the wave of cheer that Maru’s antics had created. I distributed sheets of notebook paper as I issued their assignment: “Write about a time when you, like Maru, had a goal you couldn’t accomplish right away.”

Some dove at their paper with ardor while others thoughtfully drummed fingers or pencils on the desk. A short ten minutes later, though, everyone sat staring at their finished anecdote. I asked for volunteers to share, wholly unsure about the quality of work I was about to receive. I needn’t have been concerned, though. I have great students and, it turns out, they have amazing grandfriends.

One man told of learning to drive a car with a manual transmission and repeatedly killing the engine before finally getting the hang of it. Another told of being determined to get his garden planted despite the rain that threatened to prevent it. A third detailed how he and his construction crew had created a machine that could drive 16 nails a second to accomplish their goals more efficiently.

Two women discussed taking a pottery class and working for months before they produced the bowl or vase they’d envisioned. My students relayed sports goals they’d attempted to accomplish: a back set in volleyball, a backflip in gymnastics. Finally, one of my students raised his hand and asked to read his grandfather’s composition.

His grandfather had worked with a veterinarian as a young man and decided to enter into that profession himself. His application to NC State’s veterinary program, however, was denied. Undeterred, he entered the college for agriculture instead, and — my student articulated the following with great pride — became the first person in his family to graduate from college.

We were all quiet for a minute before one clap — and then another, and then another — began a round of applause for this man’s accomplishment. It was one of those moments (you teachers out there will know just what I mean) when I thought, “Oh, this is why I teach.”

Some folks that day had reached their goal by pushing through the obstacles. Others had used trial and error, learning from their mistakes and adjusting their actions. Still others had created a tool to help them accomplish their objective. That man, though, had courage and flexibility I sometimes lack. Instead of getting discouraged, he changed his goal. He created a path for himself that wasn’t what he’d originally envisioned. The pride his whole family felt at his accomplishment was a testimony to his success.

I wish I’d had that much grace this week when making this Salted Caramel Chocolate Cake. Yes, I said cake, because that’s what this dessert was supposed to be.

My goal was to create a towering chocolate cake drenched in gooey salted caramel and frosted with a smooth, fudgy icing. I saw that goal crumble before my eyes, however, when I opened my refrigerator and found all 6 layers sliiiiiiding down like they were preparing to do the limbo. The skewers I’d added for support were leaning right along with the cake.

I could pretend I handled it well, because this is the internet. For all you know I’m a supermodel who, apart from saving puppies and keeping a perfect house, never loses her temper. In the spirit of honesty, however, let’s just say that there was a solid 30 minutes of angst in my kitchen Wednesday night.

Then somehow I flipped a switch. I stopped trying to restack the layers, grabbed a spoon and my trifle dish (thanks for my trifle dish, Joyce!), and started building this bucket o’ cake. As I worked, my mood improved drastically.

Not only was my trifle pretty, less fuss to frost, and easier to transport, but it was also going to taste every bit as delicious as the cake I’d envisioned. The satisfied faces of my family around the Thanksgiving table the next day confirmed that it was a success.

Your turn: tell me about a time when you had a goal you couldn’t accomplish right away.

Salted Caramel Chocolate Trifle

Recipe by: Adapted from Martha Stewart
Yield: About a billion servings. Or at least 10-15.

This is actually a recipe for a 6-layer salted caramel chocolate cake. Feel free to attempt the cake and keep the trifle as a backup plan in case it doesn’t work — or just make the trifle from the beginning! Either way, the dessert you end up with will be rich, moist, and covered in the most delicious salted caramel and fudgy frosting. By the way, if you’re scared of making caramel, don’t be — just make sure you use a candy thermometer, which takes the guesswork out of the process.

Cake Ingredients:
3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for pans
3 cups granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
1 tablepoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt
4 large eggs
1 1/2 cups low-fat buttermilk
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons safflower oil
1 1/2 cups warm water
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Caramel Ingredients:
4 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1/4 cup water
2 cups heavy cream
1 teaspoon coarse salt
2 sticks cold unsalted butter

Frosting Ingredients:
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons Dutch-process cocoa powder
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons warm water
2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
Coarse salt
1 pound semisweet chocolate chips, melted and cooled
flaked sea salt, such as Maldon

Note on scheduling: You can make the cake layers a few days in advance. Just wrap them and refrigerate them, and take them out and freeze them the day you’ll be cutting and assembling them (which will make them easier to work with). You can make the caramel up to three days in advance and keep it in the fridge — just let it come to room temperature for a couple of hours before using it. The entire cake can be assembled a day in advance and refrigerated, allowing its flavors to meld.

Make the cake: Cut 3 circles of parchment paper and use cooking spray as “glue” to adhere them to 3 9-inch round cake pans. Then grease the pans and the paper (I use Wilton’s Cake Release, but you could also use butter and flour). Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Sift the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and coarse salt together in a mixing bowl. Beat the dry ingredients on low until combined before increasing the speed to medium and adding eggs, buttermilk, warm water, oil, and vanilla. Beat about 3 minutes until the mixture is smooth. Divide it among the three pans.

Place the pans in the oven and bake until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out with just a few moist crumbs, about 30-35 minutes. Rotate the pans about halfway through so they’ll bake evenly. Let them cool on a wire rack for about 10 minutes before turning them out onto sheets of wax paper and leaving them to cool completely. Stick them in the freezer if you’re going to make a cake; if you’re going for a trifle, just leave them out.

Make the caramel: Slice your butter into tablespoon chunks and set it back in the fridge for later. In a large saucepan, gently combine the sugar, corn syrup, and water. Once you put it on the heat, you won’t stir it anymore to ensure that the sugar will not crystallize and give you grainy caramel. Put a candy thermometer on the pan and heat it over high heat (no stirring!). Once the mixture starts turning amber around 320 degrees, you can gently swirl it every now and then (not stirring!) to ensure the sugar caramelizes evenly. Heat it until the mixture is dark amber (350 degrees on your thermometer), about 14 minutes. Remove it from the heat.

VERY CAREFULLY and slowly, pour in the cream. The mixture will bubble up and spatter so just be prepared and stand back — flaming sugar is no joke! Once you add the cream, whisk the mixture until it’s smooth before returning it to the heat and cooking until it reaches exactly 238 degrees (I know it sounds weird, but apparently this is crucial for the texture), about 2 minutes. Pour the caramel into a medium bowl and add the salt. Let it cool for about 15 minutes before whisking in the butter 1 tablespoon at a time (you’re definitely going to want to enlist another set of hands here; otherwise your arm will fall off).

Make the frosting: In a small bowl, whisk together the cocoa and warm water. In a separate bowl, beat together butter, confectioners’ sugar, and a generous pinch of coarse salt until pale and fluffy. Gradually beat in the melted chocolate and the cocoa mixture. Let this sit for about 30 minutes before you use it.

Assemble the cake (or trifle): If you’re making a trifle, simply tear up the cake and alternate layers of cake and 3/4 cup of caramel in your bowl, using a spoon or offset spatula sprayed with cooking spray to help spread the caramel. Do a layer of frosting in the middle of the dish and another layer on top before drizzling with caramel and sprinkling with sea salt.

Alternatively, if you want to try the cake, freeze your cake layers until they’re firmer (this makes them much easier to work with). Use a long serrated knife to level their tops and cut each layer in half. Place one layer on a serving platter and spoon 3/4 cup of caramel on top, using a spoon or offset spatula sprayed with cooking spray to help spread the caramel. Place another cake layer on top and repeat the process, alternating layers of cake and caramel, leaving the top cake layer uncovered. For goodness’ sake, place dowels through your cake (I’d say at least 4), mark them at the height of the cake, remove them, and cut them down to size. Then replace them in the cake. I’d also wrap the entire cake tightly in plastic wrap before chilling it to prevent sliding. Refrigerate it until it’s set (about an hour) before frosting the top and sides of the cake and sprinkling with sea salt.

Serve the trifle or cake: I think this dessert is delicious no matter what, but it’s absolutely out-of-this-world if you heat a serving of it for about 30 seconds before spooning a big hunk o’ vanilla ice cream on top. I didn’t try this with a cake slice, so I don’t know that it’d hold together — another benefit of a messy trifle.

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Filed under cakes, other

31 responses to “Salted Caramel Chocolate Trifle

  1. I love hearing those “this is why i teach” stories… they get fewer and farther between as I get older and kids get ruder, but man, when they happen they’re awesome.
    I’d like some trifle too please 🙂
    Also, you must go to Bath & Body Works and pick up a toasted marshmallow candle. Trust me.

  2. ha, this one is easy and timely – I have NEVER made a tall layer cake that worked.

    yet. 😉

    this looks perfect as a trifle – and sounds amazing. and these stories made me smile.

  3. I had a similar cake issue recently and very nearly turned it into cake pops or a trifle. But I ended up trimming all the messy edges of the cake and rebuilding it and then refrosting and saving the whole thing.

    Nice save with this one!

  4. Wonderful post and gorgeous cake!! Congrats on the improvisation.

    My most recent failure-to-achieve has been my sourdough starter. It took 4 tries (3 failed, RIP) and a year to accomplish, but it finally happened for me. The turning point came when I posted my failure on FB and basically submitted myself to the scrutiny of people who had more knowledge of the process than I. It worked. I received tons of excellent advice and empathy and I have been serving up all varieties of sourdough baked goods for the past month! Sometimes success isn’t just measured with an “I” but also with a “We”.

  5. I *loved* reading the story of your classroom visit with the grandpeople and grandfriends. And what a nifty term for elders in a Family of Choice; I’m so going to steal this as I have no genetic children of my own but lots and lots of kids and am a grandfriend to a bunch. You did a fabulous job of bringing them all together with that video and assignment and what a wonderful, lovely cat that was. I laughed and groaned and cheered right here while watching it.

    Awesome, too, what you did with the sliding cake. I had a problem like that with an Irish chocolate cake (which has mashed potatoes in it and Bailey’s in the frosting) and wished I’d thought of the trifle dish idea. Definitely saving that idea for another time.

  6. Ok, so that looks amazing, even if it isn’t what you had planned! I actually think that trifles are even more fun to eat than regular cake so I’d definitely go that way. Hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving!

  7. This post was perfect timing for me Julie. I needed to this today…so much. and i could relate to a person in your class – the driver. manual transmission (and probably driving) isn’t my friend as of the moment. haha but you’re right. goals can change. And we all can’t be superpeople but we can try (and try and try and try)! 😀 thank you! 😀

  8. Lissi

    Thanks for the clever idea! I have a recipe for a lemon cake that sounds delicious; and I want to bring it to a gathering. Unfortunately, I’ve been told that it doesn’t hold up well once it leaves the fridge. Your brilliant cake save is going to be my solution, too! My friends don’t yet know it, but, they thank you, too!

  9. You have such a crazy awesome knack and passion for teaching, and it always amazes me. The first time I baked bread was a total disaster. Little by little I’m getting better at it, but I’m certainly no bread baking afficionado! Practice makes perfect!

    I usually make cake balls when cakes go awry…but next time I’m totally doing a trifle. This looks amazing!

  10. This is the same.recipe I tackled for Thanksgiving. It was the most time consuming and frustrating cake Ive ever attempted. The caramel was perfect while it was hot. When it cooled it became very grainy. It still tasted great and I used it anyway. There are changes I’d make with the frosting as well. As a whole the taste was great and my family loved it. What’s left is still standing and reminding me that I’m no Martha, but I gave it my all. Glad to see and hear that you found the perfect save. I will post mine soon. Thanks for sharing.

    • Oh no! Sorry to hear you had problems as well! My caramel and frosting were great — which is one reason I was ready to kill someone when the whole cake fell! Did you stir the caramel, perchance? That can make it grainy, I know.

      I feel ya on not being Martha — but you know, if it tasted great and your family loved it, I agree that it was a success! We’re still eating and enjoying my own imperfect version 😉

      Thanks, Sandra!


    I’m so glad you blogged about this! Love your story and love that you were willing to tell what the recipe was first going to be and then what it morphed into. I looks lovely and delicious!

  12. This is just amazing! Damn these beautiful photos, now I’m starving!
    Don’t mind me commenting more about the recipe than the post, because I’m a chocolate fanatic 🙂 though I like your story very much, you’ve bought me with this recipe I haven’t seen yet.

  13. Erin

    OMG! It makes my mouth water! 🙂 It looks delish!
    I will totally try to make this even though I probably will EPICLY FAIL!!!!

  14. How beautiful! I love any salted caramel dessert. A trifle takes it to the next level. And I loved reading your story as well.

  15. Well, many beautiful creations are the results of failure! Think of Tarte Tatin (tarte a l’envers = upside down tart).
    The photos of the resulting trifle are super appetizing! I actually like a recipe that is as good when it fails as it is when it succeeds, it’s so convenient 🙂

  16. not sure what’s better in this case, the post or the recipe. yours is one of the few blogs where i often think that! 🙂 of course, both are amazing! thank you for sharing!

  17. Lindsay

    Not only does your trifle look AMAZING, but your story touched my heart and was what I needed to read today. I recently moved 1,500 miles across the country to be closer to my family, but as my bank account dwindles and the job market continues to look bleak, I wonder what in the world I was thinking! However, it’s great to hear how others changed their path to reach their goals. My original vision isn’t developing but I’m going to think about changing my goal, like that boy’s grandpa.

    And in the meantime, I may just try to create that trifle. 🙂 YUM!

  18. I supply teach and, unfortunately, those teachable moments and responses are even rarer. However, your trifle looks lovely and was enjoyed by all so it’s a win-win situation all around. 🙂

  19. Noelle

    Holy cake-y deliciousness. This looks awesomely good. I know what I’m making for Christmas! (And practicing one before then, just to be safe! 😉 )

    As for my goal… it was baking. The first thing I ever baked was a batch of chocolate chip cookies. I didn’t know they were supposed to look ‘raw-ish’ on top when they came out of the oven. Little 8 year old me was devastated and I bawled my eyes out. But god bless my big sister – she hugged me, ate the first sheet of cookies that were horrible little coal bottomed lumps of rock and made me try again, showing me when to take them out. Now I’m considered the baker/cook of the family and my sister claims she can’t bake/cook. But I kept trying because she told me I could do it. And I believed her. I’ve stumbled along the way and had some horrible disasters. (We just won’t talk about that burnt chicken. Or the burnt sausage. Or the cake that never baked in the middle no matter what I did.) But I’ve kept going and had some amazing successes. All because my sister made me believe I could bake some chocolate chip cookies and go from there. 🙂

  20. Hallie12409

    I saw Salted Caramel Chocolate…and knew you were talking about the Six Layer Salted Caramel Chocolate Cake from Martha Stewart! I read about it on The Bitten Word, and thought to myself, “How can I come up with an excuse to make this?”

    Luckily my husband’s birthday is this weekend, and I’m making it for him! It’s seriously the #1 reason we are looking forward to his birthday. We are driving down to my parents, so I am going to make the cake layers and caramel cream Thursday night before we head down Friday (they will be stored in separate containers, of course).

    Then I’ll make the frosting Saturday morning, and hopefully by Saturday night we will have a delicious, spectacular cake. If not, it will be the most delicious disaster known to man.

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