Chocolate may be the go-to sweet for Valentine’s Day, but it’s time to show caramel a little love.
It’s been relegated to a supporting role in beribboned boxes of candy for too long. So this year, we’re letting caramel star.
Golden brown caramel is versatile enough to hold its own as a candy, plain or embellished with sea salt or a dip in chocolate. Tuck a softer version of its buttery sweetness between cake layers or use it to sandwich cookies. As a sauce, it gilds so many desserts.
It begins simply enough by caramelizing sugar – gently melting until it begins to turn golden brown – then adding milk or cream.
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“Transforming cloying white sugar into nuanced teetering-on-the-edge-of-bitter caramel is an example if what I love most about cooking,” writes Martha Holmberg in “Modern Sauces” (Chronicle Books, $35). “You can start with one thing and you turn it into another, much better thing.”
So why don’t more people make it from scratch? Perhaps there’s the fear of failing. The key to success, no matter the method: Ready all ingredients before you start cooking, then pay attention, especially as the mixture starts to color. In a matter of seconds, it can go from perfect to burned.
Should you mess up (i.e. the sugar browns too much so it has a burned flavor or it crystallizes and gets lumpy), dump it and start again, suggests Holmberg. Most importantly, she cautions, respect how very hot the caramel is and keep little kids, dogs and cats away from the stove when making it.
There is one other issue with caramel: How you pronounce it. Do you give the sweet confection three syllables – ker-e-mel or ka-ra-mel? Or do you trim a syllable and call it kar-mel?
Before you start arguing, consider this. Several years ago, Josh Katz, then a doctoral candidate in statistics at North Carolina State University, crunched data from a Harvard Dialect Survey, then created maps showing regional dialect variations in the U.S. for many words, including caramel. Those on the East Coast and South apparently prefer three syllables, while folks west of the Ohio River favor dropping an A for the two syllable pronunciation, according to Katz, who is now a New York Times graphics editor.
Argue if you like over how to pronounce it, but try it and give its prep your undivided attention.
Caramel-making tips from Holmberg and the Tribune test kitchen.
Caramels tend to foam during cooking. Use a saucepan larger than you might think for the amount of ingredients (at least three times the volume) to prevent boil-overs.
Do not use a pan with a nonstick surface; caramel temperatures are too hot for it.
Avoid dark saucepans, it will be difficult to judge color.
Use only heat-resistant utensils (spoons, spatulas, etc.)
Caramels scorch easily. Stir constantly during cooking, if indicated in recipe; moderate the heat.
Pay attention. Do not step away from the stove during cooking. The flavor can go from mellow to burned in an instant.
Judge caramel color by using a metal teaspoon to dip a tiny amount onto a white plate.