I created this first “Turtle Cake” in 1989 inspired by a gift from Alanna Chelmick
Alanna Chelmick, a grade seven homeroom student, gave me a recipe for Christmas, 1989, of a favourite family square. Spring form pans were just rearing their head on the Canadian prairie culinary scene way back then, and I took her recipe, turned it on its head, added a bit of this and that, and came up with a huge hit: The Turtle Cake. Irene Hrechuk was a colleague of mine at Kate Chegwin School a few years later and asked if she could have the recipe to publish in her book: Grandma’s Best. Those were the days when I used a cake mix and caramels. The recipe has evolved since then. After the publication of her book, it became very popular everywhere. I will take credit for that though, through Alanna.
At the time, I had no desire to publish any recipes. Now, I do. Irene knows the recipe is mine, and I told her the story of how I created the cake, but I am simply thrilled to let her put it in her book, to see how much it was enjoyed and how versions of it spread far and wide. Maybe it is like a child calling broccoli a tree, and someone else thought of a similar idea somewhere else. But, I have the history and the evidence for my story, right here.
Ladies and Gentlemen: This is it! My original turtle cake recipe, that I now call my Cheater Turtle Cake Recipe! For those of you who don’t bake, but want a sensational show stopping dessert for a party, this is the recipe for you! It uses a cakes mix, caramels, sweetened condenced milk…. you’ve got it. You just dump, pour, stir and bake. There’s still quite a bit of magic in the filling, but it is so easy to make. Have faith!
I now make all parts of the Turtle Cake from scratch. Kraft caramels became hard to find, and I got into making truffles and caramels and everything from scratch over the years, and I could no longer look myself in the mirror serving this listening to guests oooh and ahhh and then ask for the recipe. I was disgraced! So this is a story where the recipe actually gets better, again, and you can read the Homemade Turtle Cake and Homemade Caramel Sauce recipe here. I actually made both of the cakes and took them to a gal pal’s birthday party and served everyone a piece of each for a blind tasting. Which was best, and why? I was completely prepared for them to say this one: The Cheater Cake! However, only one gal our of 6 thought that, and she was wavering. The other 5 were totally on the homemade cake. Even I was surprised after so many years of serving them the Cheater Cake!
How it began? As a teacher of young children, it was so hard to watch the glum faces of some little ones at holiday time, as others brought in presents for the teacher, when they simply were not able. It hurt me, too. The solution? I mandated presents for the teacher! Everyone had to bring me one! It was to be the very best family recipe they had. The one everyone would ask for. And it had to be written in the hand of my student. Of course, not everyone bought into this mandated gift-giving over the years, but most students did. The younger the child, the more recipes I received. Alanna Chelmick was in grade 7 at Parkview Junior High and gave me her family recipe for Chocolate Caramel Pecan Squares.
I enjoyed reading every single recipe, made a few of them, and some have become family favourites. This is one of a few that has gone through a metamorphosis and lived another life, still encapsulating the memory of Alanna and her gift. I also translated the cake recipe to make it in my Thermomix. This is the Cheater Turtle Cake exactly as first made it and gave it to Irene. It is an excellent, simple and straight forward two layer chocolate cake or makes twelve chocolate cupcakes that can be mixed up in less than 2 minutes in my favourite kitchen machine! Simply scale in all dry ingredients, add wet ingredients and zap to combine. That’s it!
Cheater Turtle Cake: Mis en Place
The photo essay below is in order of the recipe that follows. After the cup of pecans, you can see the cake come out of the oven 15 minutes after it went in. It is not baked, but will hold the weight of the chocolate, pecans, caramel and the remaining batter. This amazes me. When baked, both layers are lovely and moist.
Cheater Turtle Cake: Making the Batter
Such a simple process: mix all dry ingredients together. Add the wet ingredients. Combine until smooth without over mixing.
Pour 1/2 batter into bottom of prepared spring form pan and bake 15 minutes until surface tension is taught enough to receive weight of fillings. Above, you can see how high the first layer of batter is in the spring form pan. While it is baking I make the Cheater Caramel Filling as it only takes 15 minutes to bake until the surface tension is taught enough to hold the weight of the filling. Making the Turtle Cake completely by scratch, I make the caramel first as it takes much longer to cool and become the correct consistency for the cake.
Cheater Turtle Cake: Making the Caramel Filling
As soon as the first half of the cake goes into the oven, start making the Cheater Caramel Filling. So Easy. So Delicious. I promise you.
Everything into a heavy pan over medium heat, stir until melted.
Meanwhile, get the chocolate chunks and the pecans ready to layer on top of the cake when it comes out of the oven.
When the timer goes, don’t rush, but move quickly. Be prepared. You don’t want the cake to cool. Keep it out of the oven only as little as possible while layering the goodies on it.
I do promise you that as long as you don’t do a side by side taste test, that this filling and Cheater Turtle Cake will knock the socks off of anyone you serve it to. Interestingly, the homemade turtle cake – the completely from scratch version – is considerably better. It’s one of those things. No one would know, but you. However, for me? I know. I make the completely from scratch homemade version only, now, and get so much personal satisfaction from it. Above, left: the homemade caramel filling. Above right: the cheater caramel filling.
Turtle Cake: Layering the Fillings onto the Cake
Surface tension taught: see above, left. Gorgeous! I feel like the Mad Kitchen Scientist I am! Add Callebault chocolate chunks. Be generous. Be careful to not break the surface tension of the cake: start with the weight of the filling on the outside and work in. I know I wrote the recipe for only a cup, but I cover the surface.
Cover with toasted pecans. Do the same with the filling. Start on the outside and work in. Be sure to cover the entire surface with the pecans.
Start in the middle only for a moment with the caramel, then circle around the edge and cover all.
Cake batter is last. Again, no rush. Slow and gentle works best.
The cake takes 50 to 60 minutes to bake at 350°F and the trick is to use a toothpick in the middle of this cake. It must come out clean. If not, the cake will fall in the middle on the top. This can be filled with nuts or a chocolate ganache icing, and the cake will still be delicious and not gummy on the inside. It does tend to dip in the middle unless that toothpick comes out clean; however, that has never really been noticed by anyone but moi. My motto: “If in doubt, don’t take it out!” Five to six more minutes will not dry out the cake. I dust it with icing sugar and press whole pecans into the side if I take it out of the form while still a little warm. The pecans will only stick to the filling on the side of the cake if the filling is warm. It is rich, so needs to be served with ice cream, whipping cream, or crème fraîche. I always add a sprig of mint. Cannot resist. Usually a berry, too.
Such a quiet and unassuming cake. No one would guess there was such a sumptuous filling awaiting inside.
A Canadian Foodie's Original Cheater Turtle Cake Recipe
This Cheater Turtle Cake is an ACF Original recipe from 1989 inspired by a past student. It is the best caramel chocolate cake recipe you will ever make out of a box.
Ingredients for Cake:
- One Devil's Food or very dark chocolate double layer cake mix
- 3 large eggs
- 1/3 cup oil
- 1 cup water
Ingredients for Cheater Caramel Filling:
- 2/3 can of sweetened condensed milk (usually Eaglebrand)
- 1/2 cup butter
- 50 Kraft Caramels , peeled
Ingredients for FIlling:
- 1 generous cup pecans , toasted
- 1 generous cup excellent quality chocolate chip chunks (like Callebault)
- 1 batch of Cheater Caramel Filling
Ingredients for Garnish:
- Icing sugar
- Mint leaves
- Whipped Cream
- More whole pecans , toasted
Instructions for Cheater Cake:
Pre-heat oven to 350F; place rack is in middle
Prepare 9 inch springform cake pan: butter and flour bottom
Place disc of parchment paper on bottom; butter both sides of it
Follow directions on box; pour 1/2 batter into springform pan (best to be less than half than more than half)
Place in oven; bake for 15 minutes (set timer)
Instructions for Cheater Caramel Filling:
Place all ingredients into small heavy sauce pan; heat, stirring regularly, until caramels are melted and all ingredients fully incorporated into a thick mass
Instructions for the Filling: (Layer ingredients as quickly as possible so cake doesn't lose heat)
Prepare the nuts and chocolate so they are ready when the cake comes out of the oven
Remove cake from oven at 15 minutes; surface tension should be taught
Starting with chocolate around outer edge of pan and in toward middle, sprinkle completely over cake until covered single layer
Repeat process with toasted pecans; stir caramel filling and pour along inside of pan rim in the same manner as the chocolate and the nuts, until completely covered with chocolate
Pour remaining cake batter over caramel filling, ensuring that it is completely covered with batter
Instructions for Baking the Cake:
Return cake to oven; bake another 50 to 60 minutes, until toothpick comes out completely clean in the middle: when in doubt, don't take it out.... best to not have middle sink (leave in 5-6 more minutes or up to 60 minutes)
Remove from oven and rest for 20 minutes on cake rack: set timer for 20 minutes
Instructions for Storing Cake until Service:
Cake must still be warm to push toasted pecans vertically against side of caramel filling; pecans of same size look best, spaced at regular intervals (work quickly)
For easy removal of cake from pan later, set cake on top of large sheet of plastic wrap with spring form bottom still in tact; wrap cake up sides (usually takes 2-3 sheets of wrap), even if still warm and set back into springform pan
Store in fridge or wrap completely and store in freezer
Serving the Cake:
Thaw completely, if frozen; remove springform pan
Set on serving tray or pedestal; dust with icing sugar
If there is a dip in the cake, fill with toasted pecans; dust with more icing sugar
Slice and serve with a sprig of mint, a berry, and whipping cream