Last week, I ventured into the new territory of making caramel candies–Apple Cider Caramels, to be exact. The experience taught me two things: leave yourself plenty of time and never underestimate the value of paying for pre-cut candy wrappers.
I’m not entirely new to caramel, however. I used to sell a nationally-known food brand at home demonstration parties and one of our products was a caramel sauce. When I parted ways with the company and finished eating up the remnants of my sales kit, I wasn’t sure what to do without that caramel sauce. I never bought it in the store before–the stuff in the ice cream aisle never really captured my heart–but this was different and I liked it, if only for a few recipes a year that I made that required caramel. So I sucked it up, did a search online, and discovered the world of burning sugar on purpose.
Let me clarify: we’re not talking turning it into a blackened goo welded to your pan. But the browning process that occurs is a burning of the sugar, much akin to what’s done with granulated sugar and a torch on top of the crème in crème brûlée. You add in some butter and cream for …well, creaminess… and voilà! Caramel sauce at home! It’s the temperature that the mixture boils to that makes the difference between caramel sauce, soft caramel squares, and hard caramel candies. So once you’ve mastered the sauce, you’re not far from figuring out the other confectionary variations.
David Lebovitz has some great tips on making caramel at home, utilizing both the dry and wet methods (dry being that you start with just sugar; wet involves a small amount of water in the beginning to make it easier not to burn, but it also takes longer because you have to wait for the water to evaporate before the caramel process will go on). The most important tip is that you should give it your undivided attention. Distraction=disaster.
While there isn’t really a magic recipe (all being a variation on pretty much the same 3 ingredients), I decided to go with the Vanilla Caramel Sauce recipe from In Jennie’s Kitchen. The first time I tried it, I had problems (like David Lebovitz warned about) because I ran out of white sugar and had to use some raw cane sugar. The “impurities” in the raw cane sugar made it taste a little funky and it was harder to tell when it was done since the color was caramel-y to begin with. Yesterday, I tried again, using the vanilla sugar I “made” (you put dry, scraped vanilla bean pods into a jar and pour sugar on top, letting it sit so the flavor and fragrance disperse throughout the sugar crystals). The thing is that while it’s easy to make caramel sauce, it’s also easy to turn perfectly burnt sugar into overly-burnt sugar: the two are only mere seconds apart. So learn from my mistakes and pay attention. And if you’re concerned about missing the mark of perfection, go with the wet method instead of dry–it’s a little more forgiving.
Smitten kitchen’s ridiculously easy butterscotch sauce is another tasty variation–one that I found to be even easier to make, with more consistent results. I prefer the taste to straight caramel sauce, too. If you haven’t made caramel sauce before, you may want to start with this, then the wet method for regular caramel, working your way up to the dry method.
Regardless of which sauce you make and whether you’re enjoying it on cake, cookies, brownies, ice cream, or straight from the spoon, there’s one thing you can do: forget about the calories because you made it at home. No label=no calories, right? 😉 Dig in!