I think I’ve turned into a little old lady. I was definitely 23 on Friday, but over the weekend I seem to have fast-forwarded about 45 years and turned 70. As I’m writing this (which, by the time this post publishes itself, means yesterday evening), I’m curled up in a blanket on the sofa, drinking herbal tea (chamomile and spiced apple, no less) and listening to the howling wind and rain lashing the windows. My excuse is that it’s been a cold day. That kind of cold that doesn’t actually feel that bad at first, but that slowly creeps into your bones and camps out there all day, no matter what you do. Spending a good 5h at the aquarium getting splashed by my eagle rays possibly didn’t help (they were being treated for a parasite infection – they didn’t enjoy it too much and made that quite clear, but it had to be done).
Luckily, I had some utterly divine salted caramel sauce waiting for me at home. Before surrendering myself to my blanket-and-sofa situation, I sautéed up some apples and drizzled them with the caramel. They didn’t quite solve the cold-in-my-bones issue, but they tasted heavenly. So good that I may or may not have guzzled them all up before I remembered to take a photo… Woops. Caramel sauce is a fairly basic thing to have in your cooking repertoire, but I’d actually never tried making any until a few of weeks ago. Not because I was scared, but it just never came up as something I needed for a recipe or dessert. I can’t even remember why I decided that I was going to make caramel sauce, but uhm, my first attempt didn’t really work (luckily it wasn’t a life or death situation). At all. And nor did my second.
I don’t tend to deal very well with kitchen failures, much less two in a row, especially when I don’t know what I did wrong. I’d chosen the recipe from Pierre Hermé’s Larousse des desserts, a book which I tend to consider the bible of such things and which has never let me down before. Caramel sauce isn’t supposed to be difficult either, and I’ve managed recipes with the full three whisks of difficulty, and this one only had two, so what was wrong with me? Was I a doomed caramel failure? Had I lost my ability to cook without noticing? Would I ever regain it? (When a recipe goes wrong sometimes I stay zen, but usually I start to assume that I’ve magically lost all my cooking/baking abilities.) So I turned to Mr Google and happened across this and this by David Lebovitz, which I found informative and reassuring because I felt like I had a better idea of the process of what I was trying to do. I also found a few alternative recipes. The downfall of the Larousse recipe was that it gave limited indication of what to look for: “place sugar in saucepan, heat a little, moisten with some of the water, cook until amber, then add the rest of the water and boil on a higher heat until it’s a good colour.” That’s the actual recipe… and having never made caramel, it didn’t really give me enough to go on. I ended up with a crusty mass of sugar at the bottom of the saucepan instead of caramel. Twice. I was so elated when my attempt with a new recipe actually worked that I let it cook for slightly too long and burnt it. Thankfully, my fourth attempt was a success!
Now that I’ve successfully made caramel sauce, I think I could probably follow the Larousse recipe because I understand the process a little better and know what’s supposed to happen. The whole process is supposed to have taken 10 mins (chef’s minutes obviously, but still) but after 20 mins of heating the sugar without anything happening, I just added the water and I think I had the heat a little too high so the mixture boiled before all the sugar had dissolved and it crystallised. To save you any frustration, I’ve made a step-by-step photo guide of the process, which you can find at the bottom of this post after the recipe. You can jump straight to the success part without the string of failures beforehand. I know, I totally took one for the team on that. But now that I’ve learnt how to make this basic version, I’ll be doing some experimenting… Caramel sauce is exceptionally versatile – you can use it in cakes, over cakes, on pancakes, on ice-cream, over sautéed fruit, on crêpes, on waffles, etc. Or just eat it with a spoon straight out of the jar. It’s so luscious that it’s a little difficult not to…
Basic salted caramel sauce
Makes about 350ml
Adapted from Pastry Affair
To sterilise a glass jar, wash the jars and lids in hot, soapy water before placing on a baking tray and drying in an oven pre-heated to 110°C (about 10 mins or so). Once fully dried, remove from the oven and allow to cool fully before using. Remember that you’re working with very hot sugar – an apron and long sleeves are recommended in case of any splattering (even if you don’t usually cook with an apron, this is a good time to make an exception). Oven gloves are probably a good idea, too. By adding half the salt once the caramel is cooled, you ensure that it doesn’t all melt into the caramel, leaving little bursts of salty flavour. Freshly ground salt is best as it tends to be a little coarser than already-ground table salt, so it adds that little intensity of flavour – you could use fleur de sel, but I think it might add a little too much saltiness. The sauce will keep in a sealed jar for a couple of weeks in the fridge. If you’re unsure of any of the steps, refer to the photo guide at the end of the recipe.
200g caster sugar
175ml double cream (NZ: pure cream)
½ tsp salt
1. Place the sugar and water in a large heavy-bottomed pan (avoid using non-stick if you can – I’ve read that the elevated temperatures that hot sugar can reach aren’t good for non-stick materials – and use a light-coloured pan if possible, so that you can see the colour of the caramel). Heat over a very low heat, gently stirring occasionally (make sure to use a utensil that can withstand very high temperatures – a wooden spoon is perfect, but avoid anything plastic, and only use silicone utensils if you are 100% sure about them) until the sugar is entirely dissolved. Do not allow to boil at any point.
2. Once the sugar is entirely dissolved, turn the heat up and bring the sugar mixture to the boil. Do not stir. Once the sugar mixture starts to turn golden, you can gently swirl the pan around if necessary. As the sugar is boiling, measure out the cream and make sure it’s ready to use as soon as required.
3. The sugar will continue to darken – keep an eye on it, it can turn quickly, and it can’t be rescued once burnt. Once it has reached a golden amber colour remove from the heat and immediately pour the cream through a metal sieve and stir until smooth (using a sieve is optional but it should stop the caramel from splattering over you – obviously make sure). Stir through half the salt and allow to cool.
4. Once cooled, stir in the remaining salt and pour the caramel into a sterilised glass jar. Serve at room temperature or warmed (you can warm it in the microwave at a low power). Store in the fridge.
Here’s my little photo-guide of how to make caramel (click on the photo to get a larger version):