Friday, November 7, 2014

Countdown to Thanksgiving, Day 20 - Salted Caramel


Caramel, once mastered, is a skill you will not
regret acquiring!
It's Friday morning. I'm sitting in my office, in the back of my bungalow, up on the hill which overlooks Armourdale, the river, and a sprawl of trees, warehouses, and towering hotels in the distance, directly to the Northeast. I've got some leftover pasta from last night, and it is just perfect for these blustery mornings. I must say, the idea of being a Midwestern girl is becoming more and more romantic by the day. Kansas City certainly is growing on me. I sit out and look at the changing golds, greens, browns...and all I can think of(aside from this pasta, of course) is caramel sauce. Warm, buttery, fantastic, caramel sauce. All of it, just drizzled over something. Maybe apples.

I love caramel. I love those delightfully chewy and sticky caramel confections that Brach's makes. I also love those hard toffee candies that you can just let sit and melt in your mouth. Caramel is complex, interesting, almost indescribable to a person who's never experienced it before. It's what happens when heat is applied to sugar, and there's just something about it that's so autumnal to me.

Perhaps it reminds me of the autumn because of its deep golden-brown color. Perhaps it's because it's complex, and it's what happens when sugar "changes", or "evolves", if you will, and the leaves on the trees change, too. The difference is that it happens to leaves when it gets cold. It happens to sugar when it gets hot. Also, there's nothing so autumnal to me than warm poached pears drizzled in a hot, salty caramel sauce. Or sticky toffee puddings. Or even caramel apples.

Going with the theme of preparing for your ultimate Thanksgiving feast, I hope that this is argument enough to include caramel sauce in your meal somehow. Maybe with an apple crumble or apple cobbler, you could use the caramel powder I've recently discovered how to make? Just substitute it with half of the sugar you would normally use. I'll post a recipe for that one later(possibly tomorrow), but today let's just focus on caramel sauce and the fundamentals of that. I cannot stress how delectable a warm, homemade caramel sauce is, especially when poured over ice cream. The best part about caramel sauce is that you can make it at home, in large quantities, and just stock it in the fridge until you need it. If you have sufficient canning skills, you can also process jars of it by the batch and keep them in your cabinet, or give them to your neighbors as gifts. It is the season of harvest, of giving, and nothing says "I care" quite like a homemade gift. This is a basic caramel sauce that I use at work. You can take this sauce/base and use it to create whatever you wish. I'll put some variations in, too, if you'd like to get creative.

Salted Caramel Sauce

  • 4 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup light corn syrup
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp vinegar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 7 oz butter, unsalted
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • Kosher salt to taste
Find a heavy-bottomed pan and have a whisk ready. Have your cream and butter at the ready, too, since this is the kind of thing that goes fast. Measure your corn syrup directly into a heavy-bottomed pan instead of using a cup measure. Honestly, if it looks like half a cup in the bottom of the pan, it's probably fine. You don't have to be 100% exact with this particular one. Then add the water, vinegar, salt, and sugar, in that order. Cover your pot and put it on medium-high heat for 2 minutes, at least. After 2 minutes, check it. 

The sugar boils and dissolves into the water, and the lid helps to create steam, which washes the sides of the pan down for you, so you don't have crystallization to worry about. The vinegar also helps to prevent crystallization, but you don't want to really agitate the pan at this point. Just check on it every minute or so, leaving it alone. You can increase your heat as you boil, but don't go too far away. I would check on it every 2 minutes or so. My caramel at work takes about 10 minutes to get to the color I want, but your stove might be different. I also have a really sensitive sense of smell, so I seldom worry about burning it, as I can smell it. 

After some time of you diligently checking your caramel sauce, you should see it start to turn color around the outsides. It's generally safe, now, to give your sugar a tiny swirl, since the sugar crystals are now at a point where crystallization isn't really in the cards much anymore. You can lower your heat to medium, now, and keep an eye on it. The trick to caramel is having the confidence to let it become that nice, dark, gorgeous color. I personally like it to be a deep amber color, as I think it's a more complex flavor, but if you like the lighter stuff, by all means do it. This is your recipe, now, and you may use it as you wish. 

When the caramel reaches the color you desire, turn off the heat and add the butter. Stand back for a second and let it sputter, but keep your whisk at the ready. Its basically stopping the cooking process for you as well as cooling the hot sugar syrup. You must be very cautious, though, because this is a substance that's probably somewhere between 300 - 350 degrees F depending on how dark you had it. The worst part is that it sticks to you when you get it on your skin, which takes off layers. So don't be careless, please. 

When the butter has stopped sputtering, carefully stir with your whisk, nice and slowly. Add in your cream a little bit at a time. You can use cold, room temperature, or warm, but I prefer on the lighter side of cold. It helps cool your caramel faster, and though it will rise up and steam, it's better to have that, I think, than to have it expand too far and boil over with the heat. So, it's my advice to use cool-to-room-temperature cream for this particular juncture. Add in a big fat pinch of salt now, too, as you stir. When it's cool enough to taste, add more salt if you like. I like it when you can actually taste the salt in the caramel. It's a component, you see, in this stage, and not a stand-alone thing. 

Making a fancy brownie sundae is an option, too.
If you'd like to make it a stand-alone kind of thing, simply line a sheet pan with parchment paper or a silpat and omit the heavy cream for a fat tablespoon of creme fraiche(or just sour cream, the fattiest you have). Pour your caramel mixture onto your prepared pans and allow to cool before cutting. These can be individually wrapped in wax paper and left in a candy dish on the coffee table. If you leave the warm buttered caramel mixture in the pan, however, you can dip apples into it and make your own caramel apples. You can also pop the mixture between shortbread cookies while it's still warm (use a cookie cutter to stamp out the shapes, and some latex disposable gloves to help protect your hands) to really dress up some store-bought cookies.

Another way to dress up store-bought chocolate chip or sugar cookies using this recipe, omitting the heavy cream all together and reducing the butter amount to four ounces. The trick is to keep the caramel on a super-low heat so it keeps your sauce suspended in a liquid form. Carefully--and I do mean carefully--dip the bottom of the cookies in the sauce and place them on a parchment sheet to set. This creates a candy-like caramel coating on the bottom and gives it that little extra something special. 

Or, like I said, you can make this large batch of sauce and can it, and then give it to your neighbors and friends as holiday gifts. This stuff can say safe for weeks in the fridge, since it's so high in sugar and fat. I hope that this, at very least, gives you a stand-by recipe for your repertoire. 

Happy Cooking and Happy eating. And check out my syndicated blog at LookyLocal.com/KC!