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Recipes for homemade caramel treats for your valentine

February 9, 2015

A simple soft caramel from "Chocolates and Confections, at Home with the Culinary Institute of America," is the easiest way to go

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.

"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.

TIPS

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.

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SOFT CARAMELS

Prep: 30 minutes

Cook: 20 minutes

Makes: about 72 pieces

Adapted from "Chocolates and Confections at Home with the Culinary Institute of America" (Wiley, $34.95). You’ll need a candy thermometer for this one because cooking it to the right temperature is crucial, notes chef-author Peter P. Greweling. Undercooked caramel will not hold its shape, and overcooked caramels will be too hard to bite. He suggests leaving caramels plain or dipping them in melted chocolate. We sprinkled ours with a pinch of sea salt.

1/2 cup water

2 cups sugar

1 vanilla bean, pod split lengthwise and seeds scraped

1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk

1 cup light corn syrup

1 1/2 sticks (12 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened

1 teaspoon salt

1. Butter well a 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Combine water, sugar, vanilla bean pod and seeds, condensed milk, corn syrup and butter in a heavy-bottomed 4-quart saucepan. Heat to a boil over high heat, stirring constantly with a heat-resistant rubber spatula. Continue stirring while cooking, lowering heat to medium-high or medium, to keep mixture at a gentle boil, until mixture reaches 245 degrees on a candy thermometer.

2. Remove saucepan from heat; stir in salt. Pour into prepared pan; use a fork to remove vanilla bean pod. Cool completely at room temperature, at least 2 hours. Remove sheet of caramels from pan. If caramel sticks, use an offset spatula to loosen from the pan. Cut into desired size pieces; we cut them about 1 by 1 1/2 inches. Wrap individually in cellophane or waxed paper if they won’t be consumed in a day or two.

Nutrition information per serving: 70 calories, 2 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 7 mg cholesterol, 12 g carbohydrates, 0 g protein, 43 mg sodium, 0 g fiber

Note: A candy thermometer is the most accurate way to test the temperature of cooking sugar syrup. Experienced cooks, suggests Greweling, will find this reasonably accurate. For these soft caramels, a second method can help determine the exact point when the proper texture is reached. At 240 degrees, begin using the spoon to remove small samples of syrup from the saucepan and immerse in ice water. After several seconds, remove sample from ice water; squeeze between your thumb and forefinger to evaluate consistency. Caramel is properly cooked when the cooled piece is firm but not hard.

SALTED CASHEW CARAMEL CHOCOLATE TARTLETS

Prep: 20 minutes

Cook: 12 minutes

Makes: 12 to 18 tartlets

Adapted from Nick Malgieri’s "Pastry" (Kyle Books, $29.95). He suggests almonds as an alternative to the cashews and finishing each tart with a pinch of fleur de sel. For the tartlets, use a flaky buttery dough or French-style cookie dough; we found store-bought rolled crusts worked well too. You’ll need enough dough for a 9-inch double-crust pie.

Filling:

2 tablespoons water

2/3 cup sugar

1 tablespoon honey

1/3 cup whipping cream

1/2 cup roasted salted cashews, rubbed in a paper towel to remove excess salt, chopped into 1/4-inch pieces

12 fully baked 2 1/2-inch tartlet crusts

Topping:

3 ounces dark chocolate (60 percent cocoa solids), melted, cooled

1/2 cup whipping cream

1 tablespoon light corn syrup

1. For filling, combine water and sugar in a medium saucepan; stir to mix. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until syrup turns a deep amber caramel color.

2. Meanwhile, stir honey into cream in a small saucepan; heat to a slight simmer over low heat. Cover; set aside.

3. When sugar mixture is ready, remove pan from heat and begin pouring in hot cream-honey mixture a little at a time to avoid caramel boiling over. Stir until caramel is smooth, returning pan to heat for a few seconds if caramel hardens. Stir in cashews. Divide filling among baked tartlet crusts, using about 1 tablespoon for each and filling within 1/4-inch of the top.

4. For topping, place chocolate in a mixing bowl. Heat cream and corn syrup to a simmer in a saucepan over medium heat; pour over chocolate. Whisk smooth. Spoon topping onto each tartlet, smoothing surface. Cool tarts to room temperature.

Nutrition information per serving: 176 calories, 11 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 18 g carbohydrates, 2 g protein, 84 mg sodium, 1 g fiber

GINGER CARAMEL SAUCE

Prep: 20 minutes

Rest: 20-30 minutes

Cook: 25 minutes

Makes: 1 1/2 cups

In this recipe adapted from Martha Holmberg’s "Modern Sauces" (Chronicle Books, $35), fresh ginger delivers spicy heat and citrus notes. The author suggests serving the sauce with apple desserts.

1 cup whipping cream

1 1/2 tablespoons peeled, finely grated fresh ginger

1 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup water

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/8 teaspoon kosher salt

1. Combine cream and ginger in a small, heavy saucepan; heat just to a simmer over medium-high heat. Remove from heat; let cream infuse, 20 to 30 minutes. Taste cream; if not gingery enough, let stand another few minutes. Strain through a fine mesh sieve into a bowl, pressing gently on the solids. Do not press hard or cream will have a vegetal taste.

2. Combine sugar and water in a medium, heavy saucepan; heat to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring just until sugar is moistened. Let mixture boil without stirring, but with an occasional swirl of the pan, until it is a deep amber and smells like caramel, 9 to 11 minutes. Caramel will be very hot. Remove saucepan from heat. Carefully add a little ginger-infused cream; caramel will bubble up furiously.

3. Return pan to low heat. Whisk in remaining cream a little at a time to avoid bubbling over, then whisk in butter and salt. Continue whisking another minute until sauce is very smooth. Remove pan from heat; let sauce cool in pan. It will thicken as it cools. Serve warm or at room temperature. Refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 3 weeks.

Nutrition information per tablespoon: 76 calories, 5 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 16 mg cholesterol, 9 g carbohydrates, 0 g protein, 14 mg sodium, 0 g fiber

 

 


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