Apple treats of all sorts are on my mind these days, and may be the thing finally giving me those fall vibes I’ve been searching for. We celebrated a family birthday recently and cake with fall flavors was requested. I considering making the beloved apple pie layer cake but decided instead to play around with the idea of a caramel apple cake.

My goal was not to emulate the flavors of an actual caramel apple but rather highlight the classic flavor combo in a more subtle way. This end result is nicely balanced confection and makes for a perfect seasonal treat. The layers are made of vanilla brown butter cake, and the filling includes a light spread of caramel frosting along with sautéed apple filling. Caramel frosting coats the whole thing and a layer of vanilla bean caramel sauce drips down the sides in that messy pretty way only caramel can.

We loved how this particular combination of cake + filling + frosting turned out. The texture and flavor were on point, and nothing was too sweet or too rich. Let me know if you try this cake and how you like it. What apple things are you baking this fall?

  • Prep approx. 2 hours
  • Cook 40-60 minutes
  • Yield 1 8-inch triple layer cake

Ingredients

  • 1 batch vanilla bean caramel sauce, made and cooled
  • Maldon salt, for finishing (optional)
  • For the cake:

  • 240 grams (17 tbsp.) unsalted butter, at room temperature, divided
  • 360 grams (3 cups) cake flour
  • 1 tbsp. baking powder
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 396 grams (2 cups) granulated sugar
  • 5 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1¼ cups buttermilk, at room temperature
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • Apple cider or boiled cider, for soaking the cake (optional)
  • For the filling:

  • 1 lemon
  • 6 grams (about 4 medium) Granny Smith and/or Pink Lady apples
  • 28 grams (2 tbsp.) butter
  • 225 grams (1 cup) light brown sugar
  • 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • ½ tsp. kosher salt
  • For the frosting:

  • 5 large egg whites
  • 1 cup plus 2 tbsp. sugar
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 lb. (4 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 6 oz. vanilla bean caramel sauce

Directions

  • 01

    Before making the cake batter, first brown a portion of the butter. To do this, place 9 tablespoons (127 grams) of the butter in a medium saucepan or skillet over medium heat. Allow the butter to melt, then continue to cook until it turns brown and smells nutty, about 7 minutes. When the butter stops sizzling, the water has cooked out of the butter and the butter should be perfectly browned moments after the sizzling stops. Remove the pan from the heat and pour the butter into a clean bowl. Let cool before using in the cake batter.

  • 02

    To make the cake, heat the oven to 350° F. Grease and flour the edges of three 8-inch round cake pans and line the bottom of the pans with rounds of parchment paper. Set aside. In a medium mixing bowl, combine the cake flour, baking powder and salt. Whisk together and set aside.

  • 03

    Add the remaining butter along with the brown butter to the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on medium-high speed for 3 minutes, until light and creamy in color. Add the sugar to the butter mixture, ¼ cup at a time, beating 1 minute after each addition. Mix in the eggs one at a time until incorporated. Scrape down the sides of the bowl after each addition. Combine the buttermilk and the vanilla extract in a liquid measuring cup. With the mixer on low speed, add the dry ingredients alternately with the wet ingredients, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients and mixing just until incorporated. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and mix for 15 seconds longer.

  • 04

    Divide the batter evenly between the prepared cake pans, gently spreading the batter to the edges in an even layer. (I like to use my kitchen scale to ensure I have evenly divided the batter into thirds.) Bake 22-25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Transfer to a cooling rack to let the cake layers cool completely.

  • 05

    To make the filling, fill a medium bowl with cold water. Juice the lemon into it. This lemon water will help keep your apple pieces looking fresh. Peel and core the apples, then halve and quarter them. Cut each piece lengthwise into thirds and then crosswise into fourths, leaving you with 12 small pieces for every apple quarter. Place the pieces in the lemon water as you go. When you are ready to cook the filling, drain the apples. Combine them in a large saucepan or skillet with the butter, brown sugar, cinnamon and salt. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat, gently stirring as it heats up and the apples begin to release their liquid. Lower the heat and let simmer for 3-5 minutes, until the apples have softened some but are not easily crushed into applesauce. Let cool.

  • 06

    To make the frosting, combine the egg whites, sugar and salt in a heatproof bowl set over a pot of simmering water. Heat, whisking frequently, until the mixture reaches 160° F and the sugar has dissolved. Transfer the mixture to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat on medium-high speed until stiff peaks form and the mixture has cooled to room temperature, about 8 minutes. Reduce the speed to medium and add the butter, 2 tablespoons at a time, adding more once each addition has been incorporated. If the frosting looks soupy or curdled, continue to beat on medium-high speed until thick and smooth again, about 3-5 minutes more (don’t worry, it will come together!) Stir in the vanilla extract and mix just until incorporated. Blend in the caramel sauce gradually. Taste and adjust as desired.

  • 07

    To assemble the cake, place one of the cake layers on a cardboard round or directly onto a cake platter. Transfer about ½ cup of the caramel frosting to a pastry bag. It doesn’t really need a specific tip, but cut off the end to make a medium round opening, and set aside. Brush the top of the first cake layer generously with apple cider or boiled cider, giving it a minute or two to soak in. Gently spread a thin layer of the caramel frosting over the first cake layer. Pipe a border of the frosting around the edge to create a wall that will hold in the filling. Spoon about half of the filling into the center of the well, leaving excess liquid behind in the container, and use the back of the spoon to spread the apples to the edges so the filling makes an even layer. Top with a second cake layer and repeat this process once more, with the thin layer of frosting, piping around the circumference, and filling the center with the remaining apple filling. Place the third cake layer on top and gently press down to adhere to the filling and frosting below. Coat the outside of the cake fully in a very thin layer of the frosting. This is the crumb coat, and does not need to look nice. Once this is done, transfer the cake to the refrigerator or freezer to set the crumb coat, at least 30 minutes.

  • 08

    To finish, frost the top and sides of the cake with the remaining frosting. If you would like a decorative finish around the bottom, be sure to reserve some frosting in a pastry bag with the decorative tip of your choosing. Add detailing along the bottom as desired. Chill the cake to set the frosting, 30-60 minutes. When you are ready to serve the cake, spread some of the vanilla bean caramel sauce over the top of the cake and nudge it gently so that it drips over the edges. Sprinkle lightly with Maldon salt around the edges. Slice and serve.

  • 09

    Notes:

    • The photos above may look slightly different than your end result. I photographed my original version of this cake but ended up making some minor recipe and method tweaks for a better, more reliable recipe for you. Follow the directions and don’t worry about any visual inconsistencies.
    • This frosting is easiest to work with when it is freshly made, so I recommend making it just before you plan on assembling the cake. Once the cake is assembled, it will keep well in the refrigerator in a storage container.

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