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How to make a turtle cake with chocolate, pecans and caramel

Addie Broyles
Austin 360
This turtle cake is from Zoë François' new book, "Zoë Bakes Cakes."

Pecans, caramel, chocolate. Name a better combination of flavors. I'll wait.

Americans have been dipping pecans in chocolate and/or caramel for as long as we've had reliable access to sugar and cacao. In 1918, the Johnson’s Candy Company started making a nut-and-caramel mixture that they dipped in chocolate in a way so that it kind of looked like a turtle. They trademarked the word "Turtle," and before long, people were making these treats at home and calling them turtles, too. 

Johnson's Candy Company later became the DeMet’s Candy Company, which still has the loosely protected trademark. Folks far and wide use the term "turtle" to describe anything with those three ingredients. (It's worth noting that Lammes Candies, which has been around since 1885, sells chocolate-covered pecan caramels called Longhorns that first debuted in the 1960s during the Darrell K. Royal national championship years.)

I wouldn't know what a turtle was if not for Andy's Frozen Custard, the regional custard chain that started in Southwest Missouri, where I'm from, and has expanded in recent years into Central Texas. 

The combination of chocolate, pecans and caramel has become known as "turtle," named after a trademarked confection that was launched in 1918.

They specialize in all kinds of concretes, cones, shakes and sundaes, and a household favorite when I was a kid was the Ozarks Turtle sundae topped with hot fudge, caramel and roasted pecan and served with a cherry on top. 

I'll still spring for the turtle sundae if I find myself at an Andy's, and I would most certainly order a slice of turtle cake if I were at Cafe Latte in St. Paul, Minnesota. That's where Zoë François first tried this cake, and she loved it so much she included it in her new baking book "Zoë Bakes Cakes: Everything You Need to Know to Make Your Favorite Layers, Bundts, Loaves and More" (Ten Speed Press, $30). 

It's a decadent cake that's perfect for chocolate cake lovers and anyone like me who can't resist a handful of pecans and caramel thrown in there for good measure. The cake needs to cook completely before assembling, and you can make the ganache and caramel ahead of time. Peak pecan season is in the fall, but make sure you're using freshly cracked pecans or ones that have been properly stored in the freezer. Rancid nuts will ruin a dish like this. 

More:It's pecan season! What you need to know about Texas' native nut

Ask Addie: Help! I've lost my favorite spiced pecan recipe from 30 years ago

Turtle Cake

For decades, the turtle cake at Cafe Latte was voted the favorite cake in St. Paul, Minnesota. As a pastry chef, I couldn't deny its appeal and secretly wished I'd thought of it. Who doesn't love deep, dark chocolate cake with gooey caramel, ganache and toasted pecans? It is a messy cake that will make everyone super happy.

1 recipe chocolate devil’s food cake, baked in three 8-inch rounds

1 recipe thick caramel sauce (recipe follows), slightly warm

1 cup chopped toasted pecans, plus 18 whole toasted pecans

1 cup dark chocolate ganache (recipe follows), slightly warm

Coarse sea salt

If the cake layers are domed, trim them to be flat. Place one cake layer on a serving plate. 

Drizzle 1/3 cup of the caramel sauce over the cake and sprinkle with 1/2 cup of the chopped pecans. Drizzle 1/3 cup of the ganache over the nuts. Repeat with a second layer of cake, caramel, chopped pecans and ganache. Top with the final layer of cake, caramel and ganache. Finish with the whole pecans and a sprinkle of salt on top. 

Serve the cake immediately or store in the refrigerator, covered, for up to 24 hours. Serves 16.

For the chocolate devil’s food cake:

2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour 

2 cups granulated sugar 

2/3 cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder (sifted if lumpy) 

1 teaspoon baking soda 

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 1/2 cups hot strong coffee 

2 tablespoons rum or brandy 

2 eggs 

1 cup buttermilk 

1/2 cup mild-flavored oil (such as vegetable oil) 

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Generously grease pans and line with greased parchment paper. (Use three 8-inch round cake pans to make the cake in the photo, but you could also make in another baking vessel and adjust the baking time accordingly.)

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt until well combined. In a small bowl, stir together the coffee and rum. 

In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, buttermilk, oil and vanilla until well combined. Add the egg mixture and half the coffee-rum to the dry ingredients and mix with a spoon until smooth. Slowly add the remaining coffee-rum and whisk until totally blended and smooth. The batter will be quite thin. 

Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Gently tap the pan on the counter several times to release excess air bubbles. 

Bake until a tester comes out clean, about 30 minutes for 8-inch rounds or up to an hour for a larger pan. Let the cake cool completely before removing from the pan and inverting onto a serving plate. 

For the dark chocolate ganache:

2 cups heavy whipping cream

16 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped

In a medium saucepan over low heat, warm the cream until just simmering. Turn off the heat and add the chocolate. Swirl the pan to make sure all of the chocolate is submerged in the hot cream. Let sit for 3 minutes and then gently stir until smooth. 

Transfer the ganache to an airtight container and store at room temperature for up to 2 days, or in the refrigerator for up to 1 week. Gently warm the ganache over a pan of simmering water, forming a double boiler, to a pourable or spreadable consistency, depending on your needs. Makes 3 cups.

For the caramel sauce: 

1 cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon corn syrup

1/4 cup water

1/3 cup heavy whipping cream 

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 pinch kosher salt

Carefully place the sugar and corn syrup in the center of a medium saucepan, being careful not to get the sugar on the sides of the pan. 

Add the water by gently running it down the sides of the pan, washing any rogue sugar back into the center. Do not stir, but gently run your finger through any dry spots of sugar, allowing the water to flow into it. 

Once the mixture is all wet, set over high heat and bring to a boil, without stirring. 

Allow the mixture to boil until the sugar just starts to turn amber along the edge. You can now stir without fear of crystallizing. 

Continue cooking until the caramel just starts to smoke; be careful not to let it go too far. 

Using a whisk with a long handle, carefully and slowly whisk the cream into the saucepan. The caramel will sputter. (If you add the cream too fast, the caramel may seize and become hard.) 

Continue to cook and stir the mixture, until it eventually melts and becomes smooth. Add the butter and salt and whisk until smooth. Remove from the heat. 

Let the caramel cool for 15 to 20 minutes, until it becomes thick. Transfer to an airtight container and store in the refrigerator for up to 4 days. Before using, microwave for 20 seconds to loosen to a pourable consistency. Makes 3/4 cup caramel.

— From "Zoë Bakes Cakes: Everything You Need to Know to Make Your Favorite Layers, Bundts, Loaves and More" by Zoë François (Ten Speed Press, $30)