Rich sea-salted dulce de leche buttercream will wow your taste buds in this Salted Caramel Popcorn Cake (aka Crunch ‘n Munch Cake). Along with three brown sugar cake layers it supports a pile of caramel corn, honey-roasted peanuts, and dulce de leche drizzle.
The Tennessee Valley Fair ended last week, and I didn’t go for a bunch of reasons. It’s an end-of-summer tradition and a harbinger of fall. I love going to see the livestock shows and I never miss a look at the prize-winning pumpkin, but what I really go for is the food. I missed the funnel cakes, the smell of burnt sugar, snow cones, cotton candy, and the giant bags of caramel corn.
This Salted Caramel Popcorn Cake is my consolation. It’s three layers of brown sugar cake, topped with the easiest, tastiest salted dulce de leche buttercream. I crowned the cake with loads of caramel corn clusters with peanuts (a.k.a. Crunch ‘n Munch). It’s pretty much the caramel cake of my dreams.
The first thing I need to talk about is this salted dulce de leche frosting. Oooh, it’s so good. Easy, too! The recipe makes a big bowl, and it may seem like too much for an 8 or 9-inch cake, but it’s just the right amount for generous filling and those big swirls of frosting on top.
Bake up these tender cake layers made with butter and light brown sugar. The batter is so fluffy, and yields a delicate, slightly crumbly cake that doesn’t rise much. You might not even have to level it. It’s a nice vehicle for all that caramel frosting.
Cover the cake in a thick layer of salted dulce de leche buttercream, and pipe on some tall frosting swirls. I topped each swirl with caramel corn pieces.
Just a little heavy cream mixed and heated with dulce de leche will loosen it enough to make a nice drip/drizzle.
Also, how much caramel popcorn on top is too much? Asking for a friend. If I’d had another box of Crunch ‘n Munch on hand, this cake might’ve been twice as tall! Top the cake with a mountain of caramel popcorn and then drizzle the heck out of it with more dulce de leche.
Add pinches of coarse sea salt to the caramel for little explosions of flavor (seriously!). I used this homemade vanilla salt that I make around the holidays for Christmas gifts. It’s also really good on shortbread. But use whatever you have on hand! Or, if you’re looking for a good coarse salt to stock, this Celtic grey sea salt is tops.
This is an evergreen cake that’s appropriate for all occasions. However there’s still something quite autumn about it, even though it’s not pumpkin. And it’s not spiced.
Prepared dulce de leche is easily found at the grocery store in the baking aisle or in the ice cream toppings section near the frozen foods. I recently discovered n’dulce, (found with the ice cream toppings) which is what I used for this cake. It has that intense deep brûléed sugar flavor that translates so well in buttercream. It’s worth seeking out.
Salted Caramel Corn Cake
- 8 inch cake pans, 3
- large closed star piping tip
- Piping bag
Brown sugar cake layers
- 3 cups cake flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 3/4 cups full fat buttermilk at room temperature
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 3/4 cup light brown sugar
- 3/4 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
- 1/4 cup light olive oil or vegetable oil
- 3/4 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
- 4 large egg whites at room temperature
Salted dulce de leche buttercream
- 2 cups unsalted butter at room temperature
- 7 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar one 2 lb. bag
- 13.4- ounce jar prepared dulce de leche n’dulce recommended
- Milk or heavy cream for thinning the frosting
- 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
Brown sugar cake layers
- Preheat the oven to 350F. Spray three 8-inch round baking pans with flour-based baking spray (or grease and flour pans).
- In a large mixing bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder and baking soda together. Combine the buttermilk and vanilla extract in a glass measure with a pour spout.
- In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the brown sugar, butter, oil and salt. Beat on medium-high until fluffy, about 5 minutes. Scraped down the bowl using a rubber spatula. Add egg whites one at a time, mixing well between each egg addition.
- Decrease the mixer speed to low and add the dry and wet ingredients in three additions. Begin and end with flour. Stop mixing when just a few streaks of flour remain. Finish folding together the ingredients by hand with a large rubber spatula. This will ensure that your cake’s texture is even and won’t bake with tunnels (air holes) throughout.
- Place approximately 2 2/3 cup of batter into each of the prepared pans. Smooth the batter evenly with a rubber spatula and tap the pans on a work surface to release any air pockets. Bake cakes until golden and crowned, about 25 to 30 minutes. The cakes are done when a toothpick tester inserted near the center comes out clean.
- Cool the cakes in the pans on a rack for 5 minutes, then turn them out onto a wire rack to cool completely. Level them using a serrated knife or cake leveler, if needed (my cakes did not require leveling).
Salted dulce de leche buttercream
- In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whip attachment, combine the butter and confectioners' sugar. Beat on low speed, gradually increasing to medium as the sugar is incorporated. The mixture will be thick.
- When the butter and sugar are just combined with some streaks of sugar still remaining, stop the mixer and add the dulce de leche in three additions until thoroughly combined, mixing well after each addition. Beat in milk or cream 1 tablespoon at a time until the mixture is a spreadable consistency, about 2 tablespoons. Beat in the fine sea salt. Beat on high speed until light and fluffy.
- Scrape down the bowl and beat again to make sure no streaks of butter or sugar remain. Beat again if necessary. Cover the bowl with a damp tea towel to prevent the frosting from drying out.
- Place a cake layer on a cake board or flat serving plate. Top with 1 1/4 cups of buttercream; spread evenly. Repeat process with next cake layer. Place remaining cake layer on top. Frost the entire cake in a thin coat of the buttercream (crumb coat). Refrigerate until firm, about 15 minutes.
- Cover cake with a second generous, thick layer of the buttercream. Smooth the top and sides evenly using an offset spatula, a cake smoother, or a bench scraper.
- Place the remaining buttercream in a large piping bag fitted with a large closed star decorator tip. Pipe 8 large swirls on the top edge of the cake. Immediately place a caramel corn cluster on top of each swirl.
- In a microwave-safe bowl, combine the dulce de leche and heavy cream. Heat 30 seconds or until hot, and the mixture stirs together easily. Pick up the mixture with a spoon and it should all in a ribbon back into the bowl. If it doesn’t fall correctly stir in a little more cream. Heat again if necessary.
- Spoon or pipe the 3/4 of the caramel on top of the cake so that it drips down the edges. Top with handfuls of caramel corn, drizzling as you go with the remaining dulce de leche so that all layers of the caramel corn get a little of the drizzle. Sprinkle the peanuts on top. Add pinches of coarse sea salt to the caramel drip and drizzle.
- Serve slices of cake at room temperature. Store leftovers covered with plastic wrap in the refrigerator.
- Tender, light cake layers that won’t rise much during baking. You shouldn’t have to level these cakes, but if your oven runs hot it could force them to crown (rise in the centers). Go ahead and level them using a serrated knife.
- Lots of buttercream. The recipe makes a big stand mixer-sized bowlful, but it’s the star of the show and really wows as the filling and covering on this cake. If you’re not a big frosting fan you could halve the recipe. But my tasters loved the cake recipe written, as is.
- A thick drizzle. Some brands of dulce de leche thin better than others. Some may require more cream to achieve a nice ribbon-like consistency. My recommendation is n’dulce brand, which is well behaved and thins easily. If your drizzle doesn’t thin easily, experiment with a little more heavy cream and heat.
- Aaand, about the caramel corn’s crunch. Ideally, you’ll assemble and serve this cake on the same day. That way the caramel corn will remain fresh and crunchy. I used Crunch ‘n Munch brand caramel corn clusters, which has a thick coating of caramel that I feel has a little more longevity in the refrigerator that other caramel corn. Over time in the fridge, the caramel corn with soften and lose its crunch.