Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Adventures in Cooking: the joys of caramel

There's been quite a bit of fuss over the magazine cover featuring a close-up of Nigella Lawson covered in caramel. Is it innocent love? Erotic food porn? After experimenting with caramel over Thanksgiving break, I can emphatically say yeeeeeeeeeeeees. I suddenly understand the urge to douse oneself in caramel and now all I have to say is bring it on.

I had saved a couple of recipes to try at home in Texas and at the time, they didn't seem to have much in common except that I couldn't get all of the ingredients in Turkey. Ha, little did I know. The first recipe was Oreo Cheesecake Cookies; I thought they turned out just okay, but my dad was crazy about them. The second recipe was for Salted Caramel Popcorn, Pretzel and Peanut Bars - the important word there being caramel. Unfortunately, this first attempt crashed and burned. Caramel starts out as sugar, water and salt, and turns brown through a chemical reaction, after which you add in heavy cream and in this recipe, marshmallows. But mine never turned brown which meant it never turned into caramel which meant that the pretzels/popcorn/peanuts didn't hold together as bars. They more resembled a sickly sweet Chex mix.

The last recipe I wanted to try was for Sea Salt Caramels, which I've had a slight obsession for every since I got some from Good Karmal as a bridal shower favor. (The Good Karmal caramels come in multiple flavors like sea salt, chocolate sea salt, caramel apple and chipotle and they are AMAZING.) It was more than a year since I'd had them and I was totally jonesing for them. You know the caramel is good when you're still thinking about it a year and a half later.

My caramel took three tries. I started out using a blogger's recipe that had been adapted for Gourmet and while I did manage to get the caramel to turn brown this time, my caramel turned into a toffee. At the time, I thought it was the recipe so I googled around a little bit and came up with this recipe from Ina Garten.

While I like the addition of the vanilla extract, I now know that the key to making caramel is to go slow so that you can watch the temperature. The ingredients turn into caramel at exactly 248 F because of something called the Maillard Reaction, which is apparently the same reaction in self-tanning lotion (ain't that scary). If you heat the ingredients too quickly, you can't pull the pot off the stove quickly enough and the still-rising temperature is already making it tofffee. I found that if I pulled the pot off right before the candy thermometer hit 248 F, I ended up with the perfect caramel. Divine caramel. I miss this caramel.

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