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Caramel

Irma R., a novice home cook, turns to F&W's Tina Ujlaki to solve her kitchen crises. Part master cook, part Sherlock Holmes, Tina figures out what went wrong and tells how to make it right.

Problem

Dear Tina,

I hate to trouble you with this, but today I had a caramel crisis. The recipe I tried was very straightforward (I had no idea that caramel was made with just two ingredients!), but still, I think I ruined it.

The recipe said to combine one cup of sugar with two tablespoons of water in a heavy, medium-size saucepan and let it bubble over high heat, without stirring (and I really wanted to stir), until it became a light brown syrup. After about 10 minutes, the syrup in one part of the pan was light brown, but the rest was still clear. So I let it keep cooking, and by the time it was all a uniform color, it was quite dark and bitter. Did I let it go too long?

Eternally grateful for your help!

—Irma

Solution

Dear Irma,

If your caramel had a bitter edge, then yes, I fear you burned it slightly—and, alas, the only remedy for that is starting the recipe over.

Sugar can be temperamental, and caramel can suffer from being agitated, so I'm glad you resisted stirring. I'm guessing you didn't use a white-enameled cast-iron pot. Next time, try it; the light surface will help you see exactly where you are in the caramelizing process. When the sugar begins to turn light brown, you can swirl the pan a bit; if any sugar crystals end up on the side of the pot, wash them down with a moistened pastry brush. As more sugar melts and caramelizes, swirl again. Soon you should have a beautiful, cherrywood-colored caramel.

I'm not sure why you're making caramel, but now that you've mastered the technique, here are some things to do with it.

Shards And Brickle Pour the molten caramel onto a lightly buttered or oiled sheet pan. (Careful! The caramel is scorching.) When it's hardened, you can break it up into shards to use as decoration on cupcakes. Or pulse the shards in a processor and make brickle to sprinkle on ice cream or frosted cakes, or to fold into melted chocolate for candies.

Dip Leave the molten caramel in the pot and dip in fruit—single grapes, say, or clementine segments. Or dip nuts in the caramel, until coated; once they've cooled, you can roll them in melted chocolate, then in cocoa powder for a sophisticated sweet.

Syrup Add one half cup of water to the molten caramel and it turns into a light but intensely flavored syrup— a delicious sauce for poached pears or sautéed bananas, ice cream, fruit soufflés, puddings, or even chocolate cake or coffee mousse. You can also brush it over a pork tenderloin, ham, chicken parts or a duck breast during the last two to four minutes of roasting to add a lovely layer of sweetness.

Sauce and Frosting Add heavy cream and vanilla to the hot caramel and you'll have a great sauce, which also makes a base for a caramel frosting. Check out the recipes listed at right.

Good luck, Irma!

—Tina

Published November 2002
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