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Recipes & Food Styling

Burnt Sugar Cake

Oct 25, 2020 | Cakes, Food Styling, Recipes, Spun Sugar

Burnt Sugar Cake

It wasn’t always so easy to get maple syrup. Westward American pioneers developed a strategy to get the flavors they’d grown to love while living in the East. To get the flavor of maple syryp, they “burnt” white sugar in a frying pan. A sticky, brown syrup was created, and they thinned it down by simmering it in water. One cup of “burnt sugar” syrup was added to a basic cake recipe.

In October 2013, I went to my Grandma Hinke’s house in Merrill, Wisconsin to rake up the leaves in her yard. As I bagged the leaves to set on the curb, Grandma said leaf-cleaning reminded her of Burnt Sugar Cake, which was one of her favorite family traditions while growing up in Ironwood Michigan. She could still recall the smell of people burning their leaves, and the time of year reminded her of Burnt Sugar Cake.

After I set the bags out at the curb, I sat down with Grandma at her kitchen table. She got out her recipe box to show me the well-worn, almost battered, index card with the recipe scrawled on it for Burnt Sugar Cake.

Grandma’s Burnt Sugar Cake cake recipe inspired a whole “Cake of The Month” series for the local papers that ran the following year. Throughout 2014, each month Grandma provided a different cherished family cake recipe to the paper and readers all over received the recipe online and in print.  

Last month, I received a text from someone saying that Grandma passed away. She was 101. I never imagined that our lives would be so affected by a deadly virus that would even keep me from celebrating Grandma’s life with others who loved her, but Covid-19 has forced a need for a whole new way of doing practically everything. To help deal with the realities of these uncertain times, I’ve been celebrating family recipes by baking and cooking. I’ve been experimenting with new ways to put modern spins on some recipes. When I made Grandma’s Burnt Sugar Cake today I used some of the sugar syrup to create candy leaves to sprinkle on top. 


Burnt Sugar Syrup
½-inch pieces
1/3 cup boiling water
2/3 cup cold water

Melt 1/2 cup sugar in skillet over low heat, stirring constantly until it turns medium-brown. Remove from heat. Add 1/3 cup boiling water, return to low heat; simmer and stir until smooth.

Add enough water to make 1 cup of syrup; set aside to cool to room temperature.


1½ cups sugar; ½ cup butter, softened; 2 eggs, separated; 2½ cups flour; 1 cup burnt sugar syrup; 2 teaspoons baking powder; 1 teaspoon salt; 1 teaspoon vanilla

Cream sugar, butter and yolks. Add 2 cups flour and beat for 5 minutes. Add burnt sugar syrup, baking powder, salt, vanilla and rest of flour. Add beaten whites last. Pour into greased (or buttered) 9X13 cake pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes.