a birthday story, and a recipe: caramel cake with caramel buttercream frosting

Sixteen years ago today, I turned 24 years old. On that same day, around 2:30 in the afternoon, I sat with my boyfriend in the east stands at Florida Field, watching the end of the first half of the football game and anticipating a much needed trip to the bathroom that I would take during halftime. On that sunny, unseasonably cool day, we sat in seats number 1 and 2 on row 69 in section 37. I know this because I saved the ticket stub, an orange and white piece of cardstock with a thin blue border, a little bigger than the size of a movie ticket.

Florida was playing Auburn that day, October 19, 1996, and the Gators, coached by Steve Spurrier at the time, were undefeated and handing out routine beatings to opposing teams. It was a good time to be a Florida Gator.

My parents were at the game, as they always were on home game Saturdays, sitting high up in the southwest corner of the stadium, catty corner from us. I was living in an apartment off campus back then, finishing up my post-baccalaureate pre-med classes and working full-time to pay for them. Because I was a student, with an address that changed almost yearly while I was in college, I still received mail at my parents’ house. A letter had come for me, my father told me before the game, and he and my mom had brought it with them to the game for me to pick up. I made plans to meet them at the end of halftime.

I recall that bathroom trip vividly, even though nothing newsworthy happened in there. That bathroom break is mostly memorable for what came after, for what I almost missed. If I had spent any extra time in the bathroom, or perhaps stopped to buy a Coke from the concession stand, I would have missed the banner that flew over Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, the banner flying behind a small white plane making its last loop around the stadium before flying off to the west.

The banner that contained these words: “MERRY JENNIFER WILL YOU MARRY ME?”

The raucous voices of the students in our section, mostly dental students and their friends, grew hushed as Sam pulled a diamond ring out of his empty binoculars case. Earlier in the day, I had made fun of him for bringing his binoculars. What were we, 40? With no hesitation, I said yes, and cheers erupted around us.

The rest is a happy, blurry fog.

Drawing by my mother, inserted into my birthday card in 1996.

But that’s not entirely true. There was more.

Sam and I weaved our way through the throngs of orange-and-blue-wearing Gator fans carrying ice-filled soft drinks, hot dogs dripping with ketchup and bright yellow mustard, and overflowing popcorn boxes, slowly making our way to my parents’ seats. After hugs and congratulations, my mom pulled out the letter I’d by then forgotten about. Again, there was complete silence, the air itself seeming to still in anticipation. But maybe that was only in my head.

The letter looked official, and it was. I ripped open the envelope to find a letter from the University of Miami College of Medicine. I had been granted my first medical school interview. I looked up from the letter, up at my future husband, and I beamed, smiling the biggest smile of my life.

Sixteen years ago today, those two events — the banner flown high above a football stadium that led to my engagement to be married, and a short  but welcoming letter from a medical school — changed my life in the most unexpected and amazing ways.

Today, I turn 40. I have been married for more than 15 years now, to the same wonderful man who proposed to me on that gorgeous autumn day in front of 85,000 people wearing orange and blue. We have the most  marvelous children — two bright, inquisitive, and beautiful children who are my entire life. I’m a physician, doing what I love, what I feel I have been called to do, and that never fails to astonish me. If Miami hadn’t sent me that letter, given me that interview, followed soon after by an acceptance letter, and then by a full scholarship offer, I would be in a very different place today.

Today, I turn 40, and I am grateful for all of the events and people whose existence wove the complicated patchwork quilt of my life up to this day.

Today, I’m grateful for birthday cake, and 40 blazing candles, and hugs and kisses from my family.

Today, I turn 40, and I can hardly wait to see what life will serve up next.

Yield: Serves 10-12, or more.

Caramel Cake with Caramel Buttercream Frosting

This is not the traditional southern caramel cake, loaded with gooey, sweet caramel. Instead, it's more of a subtle interpretation, brown sugar in the cake caramelizing into lovely, moist layers of cake, topped by buttercream frosting flavored with caramel sauce.

Bottom line? It's a fabulous caramel cake, worthy of a grand celebration.


For Cake:

3 cups (12 ounces; 285 grams) cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1-1/2 cups (10.5 ounces; 300 grams) granulated sugar
1/2 cup (4 ounces; 110 grams) packed light brown sugar
2-1/4 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
4 large eggs, room temperature
1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup plain, whole-milk yogurt, room temperature

For Frosting:

1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons water
1/4 cup heavy cream
1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla
4-1/2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
4 cups (16 ounces; 480 grams) confectioners' sugar
1/4 teaspoon coarse salt


Make Cake Layers

Preheat oven to 350 degrees with racks in the upper and middle positions. Butter three 8-inch (or 9-inch) round cake pans, line the bottom of each pan with a round of parchment paper, then butter the parchment. Lightly dust the cake pans with flour, shaking out excess.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, on medium-high speed, beat together butter and sugars. Beat until light and fluffy, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add the eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Add vanilla, and continue beating the mixture for another 5 minutes.
Reduce mixer speed to low, then add flour mixture alternating with yogurt, in three batches, beginning and ending with flour. Mix just until smooth. Divide the batter equally among the three cake pans, rap the pans once or twice on the counter to get rid of any air bubbles.

Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of each layer comes out clean, about 20-25 minutes for 9-inch cake pans or 25-30 minutes for 8-inch pans, rotating cake layers about halfway through baking time. Cool layers in pans for about 10 minutes, then run a sharp knife around the edge of each and invert layers onto cooling racks to cool completely.

(Note: Layers can be made in advance. Bake up to 1 week ahead, wrap tightly in plastic wrap, store individual layers in a plastic freezer bag, and freeze. Thaw layers overnight in refrigerator the night before you plan to assemble the cake.)

Prepare Frosting

Make caramel mixture: In a small saucepan, over medium-high heat, bring sugar and water to a boil. Continue cooking, without stirring, until the mixture turns amber in color, about 6 to 7 minutes. Remove from heat and slowly add cream and vanilla, stirring well until completely blended. Set aside until cool.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, on medium-high speed, beat butter until smooth, about 1 minute. Reduce speed to medium-low and add salt, then slowly add confectioners' sugar. Beat until smooth, about 3 minutes. Add cooled caramel mixture, increase mixer speed to medium-high, and beat until the frosting is light and fluffy, about 4 minutes.

(Note: Frosting can be made ahead, up to 2 days, and refrigerated in a tightly covered container. For best results, let the frosting come to room temperature first, then beat on medium-low in stand mixer until light and fluffy again, about 3 minutes.)

Assemble Cake

To frost cakes, place 1 layer on a cake plate. With an offset spatula, spread top with about 1 cup of frosting. Place the second cake layer on top, and repeat. Place third layer on top and spread frosting in a thin layer over the sides and top of the cake. Chill briefly in refrigerator, until frosting is firm, then spread sides and top with the remaining frosting. You may end up with a bit of leftover frosting which can be used for additional decorating if you like.