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THE ENTERTAINING ISSUE - November December Issue 2018

One Ingredient: Caramel

by Julie Van Rosendaal

There are few culinary transformations as delicious as that of sugar into caramel; high heat turns sugar from onedimensionally sweet to something altogether different, creating new flavour compounds and a nutty complexity. Caramel comes with an adjacent bitterness that depends on the depth of the caramel – the longer the sugar has spent over heat, the deeper, more intense and bitter-edged it becomes. Its flavour is so distinct, caramel is often referred to in wine and whisky tasting notes.

If you consider it an ingredient, caramel can be used as a sweetener, as you might use sugar, molasses or honey, incorporated into a cookie, cake or filling, or drizzled over a dessert to finish; in most sweet applications, it’s considered its own flavour, like chocolate or strawberry. And because people love the dichotomy of sweet and salty, caramel has become a famous vehicle for flaky salt. Salted caramel is so popular, it transforms everything from ice cream to granola bars into bestsellers.

Although caramel is simply sugar that has been heated until it caramelizes, it can be intimidating to make. As a starting point, there are two basic ways to do it: dry caramel is made by setting a pan of dry sugar on the stovetop and allowing it to melt; it will do this gradually, starting in spots that identify your pan or burner’s hot spots, and tends to go from white to dark quickly. Wet caramel is made with the addition of syrup (corn or Roger’s golden) and/or water to the sugar to help move things along. If there’s water in the mix, it will take longer to simmer the caramel, as the excess moisture must then cook off, but it can be easier to work with a liquid mixture that can more easily be moved around the pan, and is slower to darken and caramelize. Some recipes instruct the cook to stand at the pot, brushing down the sides with a pastry brush dipped in water, which will wash down any sugar crystals – it will, but will also slow down your caramel-making process as the added water will then need to be cooked off. Adding a few drops of lemon juice will help convince the mixture to stay liquid, and not crystallize around the edges.

If you want to get the hang of making caramel, sugar is inexpensive, and worth playing around with until the technique is no longer scary. Once you have a pan of caramel, cooked to the degree of darkness that coincides with the intensity of flavour you’re going for, it can be turned into chewy caramel candies or a pourable sauce by whisking in butter and/or cream, or into syrup by whisking in water. (You may choose to warm your liquid first; introducing something cold to the hot sugar will cause it to splatter, and if some of the candy solidifies in the process, more heat and stirring will melt it back into the mix.) Left alone and poured into puddles on parchment, you’ll have hard caramel candy. If it starts to smoke, you’ve likely gone too far: actual burnt sugar is a bit too bitter. And if things do go sideways and you wind up with a mixture that’s not the exact texture you were going for, I can almost guarantee it will still taste delicious.

Read One Ingredient in the digital issue of City Palate.