Meet the poke cake. True to its name, it’s a cake you literally poke all over—then top with a gooey sauce that seeps into the holes, infusing the entire confection with extra flavor and moisture. Extremely satisfying to make, we dreamed up an autumnal version that involves a gently spiced cake, an apple cider caramel and fluffy, tangy cream cheese whipped cream on top.
Making caramel at home might sound daunting, but it’s not that difficult. Just keep in mind that you should have all your ingredients measured and ready before you begin (the process goes fast!) and that you must! not! stir! once the sugar syrup comes to a boil, or the mixture could crystallize. If you want to use store-bought caramel sauce, be our guest, but we promise the apple cider flavor is worth the effort.
Apple Cider Caramel
2 cups (454g) apple cider (not apple juice)
1½ cups (297g) granulated sugar
¼ cup (78g) light corn syrup
¼ cup (57g) water
8 tablespoons (113g) unsalted butter, cubed
¾ cup (170g) heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
Spiced Sheet Cake
½ cup (110g) vegetable oil, or other neutral oil
1 cup (198g) granulated sugar
½ cup (106g) light brown sugar
4 tablespoons (57g) unsalted butter, melted
3 large (170g) eggs
1 tablespoon (14g) vanilla extract
2½ cups (301g) all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon (8g) ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ cup (120g) buttermilk
Whipped Cream Cheese Frosting
8 ounces (227g) cream cheese, at room temperature
⅔ cup (150g) confectioners’ sugar
2 cups (454g) heavy cream
1. Make the apple cider caramel: In a medium, heavy-bottom saucepan over medium-high heat, bring the apple cider to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook until the cider has reduced to about ½ cup, 30 to 45 minutes. Transfer to a liquid measuring cup and set aside.
2. Wipe out the saucepan and return to the stove. In the saucepan, combine the sugar, corn syrup and water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring with a silicone spatula to help dissolve the sugar. As soon as the mixture comes to a boil, stop stirring. Cook, swirling the saucepan occasionally, until the syrup is medium-amber in color.
3. Remove the syrup from the heat and stir in the butter. Carefully stir in the cream and reduced apple cider. Stir in the vanilla (if using), ground cinnamon and salt until combined. (The caramel can be made ahead and stored in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. Rewarm in the microwave in 30-second intervals—until warm but not bubbling hot—before using.)
4. Make the spiced sheet cake: Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease a 9-by-13-inch baking pan.
5. In a large bowl, whisk the oil, sugar, brown sugar and melted butter until well combined. Add the eggs one at a time, whisking thoroughly to combine before adding the next. Whisk in the vanilla.
6. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
7. Add the dry mixture to the wet mixture, stirring with a rubber spatula to combine. Mix in the buttermilk and scrape the side of the bowl well to ensure the batter has no dry spots.
8. Pour the batter into the pan and spread it into an even layer. Transfer to the oven and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool completely.
9. Using a bamboo skewer, chopstick, fork or the handle of a wooden spoon, poke the cake all over. Pour about ¾ to 1 cup of warm (not hot) caramel over the cake, using a silicone or offset spatula to coax it over the entire surface.
10. Make the whipped cream cheese frosting: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the cream cheese and sugar on medium-low speed until fluffy and fully combined. Increase the speed to medium and slowly stream in the cream. Continue to whip the cream to medium peaks, scraping the side of the bowl as needed.
11. Spread the whipped cream on top of the cake. Drizzle more caramel on top, if desired. Serve immediately or keep covered for up to one day at room temperature or three days in the refrigerator.