Food for the Soul
Caramel cake — a good ‘n’ golden Southern favorite
Story Jan Swoope | Photographs Birney Imes
Start asking about caramel cake around northeast Mississippi, and chances are the name Sallie Mae Watson will come up. For someone who once proclaimed she had no intention of growing up to spend her life in the kitchen, Watson is amused that she’s become rather famous for just that.
She never set out to become a caramel cake queen.
“My mother was very well-known for making them,” says Watson, moving about the cozy dining room of her home in the Strong community north of West Point. “I watched her make a million of them, I even helped deliver them, but I never made one in her lifetime.”
Then one day, a sister asked, “Pud” (Puddin’ is a childhood nickname, courtesy of Watson’s father), “do you think you could make us a caramel cake?”
“I said, oh, I don’t know, Ina. I’d have to think about it.”
Watson re-enacts the dialogue as if it happened only yesterday, instead of more than 40 years ago. Her homey inflections and smiling eyes charm the listener, as good storytellers tend to do.
Armed with her mother’s recipe, Watson made that first caramel cake — then another, and another, and another. As cakes made for church potlucks, baby showers, funeral feast sideboards and birthdays were shared, orders started coming in. They have never stopped. That’s what word of mouth will do. Caramel icing can be cantankerous to make, and folks had found someone who had the touch.
“They say the icing can be tricky, but I just think it’s a matter of making it over and over,” says Watson, serving a slice of cake to George, her spouse of 52 years. Their rural home sits across the road from the quaint, white farmhouse Watson grew up in, where her mother cooked full meals every day for her husband and six children. Theirs was a very close-knit family, Watson says. She wouldn’t trade the view of that childhood home from her front window for any other.
THE $600 CAKE
“Pud’s cakes have raised a lot of money,” George brags. He always calls her Puddin’ or Pud. She calls him Papa.
There was that time, for instance, that one cake separated a determined bidder from $600 during a medical benefit auction at Oak Hill Academy in West Point. Bidding was fast and furious before Watson’s signature dessert set some kind of sweet treat school record.
“And when she donated three caramel cakes for an auction at the Mississippi Soil and Conservation District convention in Jackson, people expected them to bring $25 or $30, but they averaged $100 or more each,” says George, who was chairman of the Monroe County district for several decades. He occasionally is called to kitchen duty when the orders stack up. That includes around Thanksgiving, when one customer alone annually orders 15 or so cakes.
Watson will tell you up front that she uses a mix for the cake itself. She prefers Duncan Hines Classic Butter Golden Cake Mix. Her specialty is the icing.
“If there’s a secret, I would say it’s in the timing. It’s having the caramelized sugar ready to go into the milk mixture as it’s coming to a boil,” she says.
Other caramel veterans agree: Icing can prove intimidating.
Sarah Hairston of Crawford and Sue Lummus Bailey of West Point have “retired” from caramel cakes, but they’ve notched up plenty in their lifetimes.
“Icing is the hardest part,” Hairston concurs. “You just can’t leave it. You’ve got to stand there and stir it up.”
“It’s hard to teach someone to do. It takes actually getting in there and doing it,” says Bailey. “Not many people make caramel icing any more. It’s going to be a lost art.”
Watson has no plans hang up her apron any time soon. Her caramel cakes are an extension of a culinary heritage tracing back to those hours spent at her mother’s side in the farmhouse kitchen across the road. They are also, in their way, an expression of gratitude.
“God has blessed me beyond measure all my life, and I thank him daily for placing me into two big ole wonderful families where I’ve been blessed with my siblings, a wonderful husband, three children and 11 grandchildren,” she says. Many treasured friends are considered family, too. It all makes for a grateful heart, she believes — and a happy cook.
SALLIE MAE WATSON’S CARAMEL ICING
Makes icing for a two-layer cake
3 cups sugar
1 cup milk (I use Pet evaporated milk)
1 stick oleo
1 teaspoon vanilla flavoring
A pinch of salt (optional; I don’t use it.)
• Put the stick of oleo in a heavy boiler and let melt. Add milk and 2 ½ cups of sugar and stir well. Cook this mixture on the stove on medium heat until it comes to a boil. (Time with next step.)
• At the same time you place the milk mixture on the stove, put ½ cup of sugar in a small, heavy skillet and caramelize on high heat, and then pour into the milk mixture as it is coming to a boil. Cook this mixture until a small amount forms a soft ball in a cup of water.
• Remove from heat, add vanilla and stir/beat until it cools and thickens. It will then be ready to ice two cake layers.