by Julie Van Rosendaal
There are few culinary transformations as delicious as that of sugar into caramel; high heat turns sugar from one-dimensionally 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 be-comes. 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.
Gingerbread Caramel Corn
Make sure you use a saucepan or pot with enough room for the sugar mixture to foam up (it will about triple in size) when you add the vanilla and baking soda – this is what makes it light and crisp, and not so tooth-breakingly heavy. It doesn’t require a candy thermometer, which is a good thing if you haven’t found one in your stocking yet.
- 8-10 c. popped popcorn
- 1 c. packed brown sugar
- 1/2 c. corn syrup or Rogers Golden syrup
- 1/4 c. butter
- 1 T. molasses
- 1/4 t. salt
- 1 t. baking soda
- 1 t. vanilla
- 1 t. cinnamon
- 1/2 t. dry ginger
Preheat the oven to 250°F and put the popcorn in a big bowl.
In a medium saucepan, combine the brown sugar, corn syrup, butter, molasses and salt and bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat and boil without stirring, swirling the pan occasionally, for 4 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the baking soda and vanilla – it will foam up at first. Stir in the cinnamon and ginger and quickly pour over the popcorn; stir with a heatproof spatula or tongs to coat well.
Spread out onto a large rimmed baking sheet and bake for 30 minutes, stirring once or twice. Cool and break apart. Makes about 10 cups.
Burnt Sugar and Espresso Ice Cream
You don’t actually want the sugar to be burnt here, but dark enough to be on the verge of bitterness. It’s like a more sophisticated caramel that pairs beautifully with espresso. Adapted for a Canadian winter from The Sweet Life in Paris, by ice cream genius David Lebovitz.
- 1 c. sugar
- 1 c. heavy (whipping) cream
- 1-1/2 c. 2% milk
- pinch of salt
- 6 large egg yolks
- 1/4 c. strong espresso (optional)
Put the sugar into a heavy pot, such as a Le Creuset Dutch oven, and set it over medium-high heat. Let it sit until it starts to melt and liquefy in spots. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until it melts completely and turns deep golden.
Carefully pour in the cream and stir. The mixture will splatter, and the caramelized sugar will seize up and harden – stir to dissolve any hard bits. Stir in the milk and salt.
Beat the egg yolks with a fork in a small bowl. Slowly pour some of the hot caramel into the yolks, stirring briskly, then whisk the egg yolk mixture back into the caramel in the pot. Cook over medium heat until it bubbles and thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon – if you draw your finger through, it should leave a trail. Pour the custard through a sieve into a bowl and stir in the espresso. Cool and refrigerate. Once the mixture is well chilled, freeze in your ice cream machine according to the manufacturer’s directions. Makes about 6 cups.
Once you’ve made a batch of caramel sauce from scratch, you’ll be hooked – it’s unbelievably easy and delicious, and makes a perfect gift, packaged up in a small jar. Try adding vanilla bean, a cinnamon stick, a pinch of espresso powder (or ground beans) or chai spices along with the salt to change up the flavour. Then pour the sauce over vanilla ice cream and make yourself a caramel sundae of any flavour you want!
- 1 c. sugar
- 1/4 c. water (or thereabouts)
- 1/4 t. lemon juice (or a few drops)
- 1/2 c. heavy (whipping) cream
- 1 T. butter
- pinch of salt
In a heavy saucepan, heat the sugar, water and lemon juice over medium-high heat. If you like, stir just until the sugar dissolves.
Keep cooking, swirling the pan occasionally, until the sugar starts to turn golden. Have the cream and butter ready and pull the pot off the heat and add them immediately as soon as the caramel turns deep golden – it will spatter and steam. Stir until smooth – if there are any set chunks of caramel in the pot, they will melt back in. Stir in a pinch of salt. Cool completely and pour into a jar to keep in the fridge. Makes about 1-1/4 cups.
I like to sift the baking soda first, so that I don’t get any lumps in the toffee. Have a parchment-lined sheet at the ready; once you add the soda, it foams up fast.
- 3/4 c. sugar
- 1/4 c. corn syrup or Rogers Golden Syrup
- 1-1/2 t. baking soda
In a large saucepan, melt the sugar and syrup over medium-high heat. Cook, swirling the pan often, for 3-4 minutes, or until the mixture turns deep golden. Remove from the heat and quickly stir in the baking soda and pour the mixture onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Let sit until cooled, then bash into pieces. Makes about 1 lb.
Sour Cream Caramels
If you were at any point in your life hooked on those square caramels that are everywhere at Halloween, these are for you. We made them one day when we were out of cream, and sour cream is almost better, lending a subtle tang that tempers the caramels’ sweetness. And the method is particularly easy, especially if you have a candy thermometer.
- 1 c. sugar
- 1/2 c. packed brown sugar
- 1/2 c. butter
- 1 c. full fat sour cream
- 1/2 c. corn syrup or Rogers Golden Syrup
- 1 t. vanilla
- 1/2 t. salt
In a large saucepan, combine all ingredients except the vanilla and salt. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the mixture comes to a boil.
Continue cooking, without stirring, until a candy thermometer reaches 244-250°F, or a small amount of the caramel dribbled into ice water can be squished into a soft, pliable ball. Stir in the vanilla and salt and pour into a parchment-lined 8×8-inch pan. Chill until set, and cut into squares. If you like, wrap each in a piece of parchment. Makes 3-4 dozen pieces.