Now that daylights savings time is a little more than a week away I feel we are finally in autumn. As much as I love Indian summer days, the crispness of fall puts me in the mood to bake. This is the time of year I get excited about caramel. I use it all year round but it really shines and shows all its complexities when it is paired with pumpkin, apple, pears and other fall flavors. It is remarkable something so much a part of the pastry palate is just sugar and water. Home cooks are reticent about making caramel but once you learn how to do it a whole pastry world opens up- crème caramel, caramel pot de crème, caramel ice cream, apple caramel bread pudding- the list goes on and on. And that doesn’t even include caramel sauce and all its variations- caramel coffee, caramel peanut butter, caramel chocolate, caramel apple, caramel calvados, caramel ginger, caramel pineapple etc etc.
Whatever you make with caramel you start at the same place- cooking sugar until it is an amber color. Most French (and some American) pastry chefs make a “dry caramel”. This is made without water. I avoid making dry caramel as it has a higher chance of cooking unevenly and burning. Adding water takes a few minutes longer (the water has to cook off before the sugar can cook) but it is much easier.
Caramel sauce is the Grand Dame of all things caramel. The first thing you do is gently stir together the sugar and the water in a medium heavy bottomed sauce pan. Avoid using dark colored pots as it is difficult to gauge the color of the caramel. You want to gently stir it because you want to minimize the amount of sugar splashed up on the sides of the pot. Cook the sugar over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved and no longer looks cloudy. Dip a pastry brush in water and brush the inside sides of the pan above the cooking sugar to eliminate any sugar sticking to the sides. (You can also put a lid on top of the pot for a minute. The steam will dissolve any sugar on the sides of the pot.)
Increase to medium high (or high heat if your stove isn’t that powerful) and cook, without stirring, until the sugar is amber colored. This will take anywhere from 3-8 minutes depending on how much you are making and how high the heat is. While it is cooking put your oven mitts on. The caramel will first start to get colored around the edges. At this point swirl the pot gently to evenly distribute the part that is more colored. Once it is a rich deep amber color, turn off the heat. (If you have an electric stove, remove the pot from the burner as the residual heat will keep cooking the caramel.) Acting quickly, pour in about 3 tablespoons of the cream. You want to add it right after you take the pot off of the heat as the caramel will keep cooking and getting darker even though the heat source is turned off. Be careful as the caramel will sputter as the cream is added. Once you have added the cream, using a wooden spoon or heat resistant spatula, stir it in. If the cream sputters a lot, stop stirring. Let the bubbles subside and then stir again. Carefully add the remaining cream. As you add more cream and the caramel cools down you can add it more quickly. Stir until combined. Let cool slightly (should still be warm) and whisk in the butter. This allows the butter to be emulsified into the sauce rather than melt in.
The trick is to get the caramel at just the right color. Too light and your sauce will be thin and more tan in color. Too dark and it will have a bitter taste. Once you have made it a couple of times you will get the hang of it.
Here’s one of the best pastry tricks I know. Cleaning caramel pots can be dfficult when the caramel sticks to the sides of the pot. For quick clean up fill the pot half with water and bring it to a boil. The hot water will dissolve the hard caramel. Similarly, if you burn the caramel and need it to stop cooking so you can get rid of it, add a couple cups of water, carefully at first, just as when you add the cream, to dilute it and stir to combine. This mixture can be poured down the sink.
Now that I have walked you through making caramel sauce here’s my recipe. Use your imagination to decide what to serve it with. Sometimes I don’t get past vanilla ice cream but who would argue with that as long as there are some warm toasted sliced almonds and bittersweet chocolate chunks.
What’s your favorite thing to serve caramel with?
Yield: 1 3/4 cups
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup water
1 cup heavy (whipping) cream
1 1/2 ounces (3 tablespoons) unsalted butter
Stir together the sugar and the water in a medium saucepan. Heat the sugar over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved. Brush the insides of the pan with a pastry brush dipped in water to eliminate any sugar sticking to the sides. Increase to high heat and cook, without stirring, until the sugar is amber colored, 3-5 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat. Wearing oven mitts, slowly add a little bit of the cream. Be careful as the caramel will sputter as the cream is added. Using a wooden spoon or heat resistant spatula, stir the cream into the caramel. If the cream sputters, stop stirring. Let the bubbles subside and then stir again. Carefully add the remaining cream. Stir until combined. Let cool slightly (should still be warm) and whisk in the butter. Keep refrigerated for weeks if it lasts that long.