Crème brûlée is the iconic caramel-topped dessert we are all familiar with. Who doesn’t love giving the crackly golden-brown topping a sharp rap with a spoon to break through to the rich, decadent custard inside? Many of us are put off making it ourselves though by the many recipes requiring you to wield a blowtorch to crisp the caramel to golden perfection. The reality is that a few minutes under a hot grill does the trick almost as well.
And then there is spun sugar, that ornate caramel stuff that tops elegant desserts in fine-dining restaurants. Its presence is usually announced by fanciful menu descriptions along the lines of ‘Fresh Framboise Tart in a Cage of Caramel’ or ‘A Trio of Homemade Sorbets in a Spun-Sugar Bird’s Nest’…
It all looks magical and mysterious, and seems to signify that a culinary genius is waving a wand behind the scenes. Do not be intimidated – caramel is amazingly simple to make, requiring just a few essentials – like a top-quality saucepan – a bit of practice, a watchful eye while it cooks and a confident approach.
WET VERSUS DRY CARAMEL
The basic ingredient of all caramel is refined sugar. Yep, it’s that simple. Dry caramel is formed when sugar is slowly heated in a heavy-based saucepan until it melts and becomes a dark amber colour, at which point it is done. Wet caramel, which is usually used for sauces, includes dissolving the sugar in a liquid, usually water but often cream, and flavourings such as vanilla extract, chocolate or even salt, which has a wonderful way of offsetting the intense sweetness of caramel.
TIPS FOR SUCCESS
There are two main problem areas when you are cooking sugar: the first is that sugar burns very easily and you need to watch it like a hawk throughout the entire cooking process. A heavy-based saucepan really helps to spread the heat evenly and gently without creating hot spots.
The second problem area is recrystallisation, which is when your caramel gets a rough, grainy texture once it cools. Prevent this by using only the very best quality refined sugar, ensuring your saucepan is spotlessly clean, mixing all ingredients very well and dissolving the sugar completely before bringing your mixture to the boil.
Once the mixture comes to the boil, do not stir it (unless it contains a lot of milk or sugar, in which case stir only when necessary). When your mixture is at the required temperature or cooking stage (see the chart below), halt the cooking process.
COOKED SUGAR STAGES
A sugar thermometer is really helpful if you are keen on making homemade sweets, fudge and caramel. The good news, though, is that if you don’t have a sugar thermometer, you can follow the appearance guide to judge when your sugar is cooked. Here is a handy guide to the various cooked sugar stages and the required temperatures.
RECIPES FOR SWEET SUCCESS
Kickstart your career as a caramel cook with some of our easy yet elegant caramel-inspired desserts… plus a main-course dish that will tease your palate with its hint of savoury, spicy caramel.
Chocolate Caramel Tarts with Coarse Sea Salt
These light pastry cases filled with decadent chocolate caramel and topped with a sprinkle of coarse salt are so sinful they should probably be illegal! The creamy, buttery sweetness of caramel flavoured with the delicious bitterness of dark chocolate and a sprinkling of salt makes these a taste sensation.
Apple Tarte Tatin
We love a tarte tatin, that quintessentially French dessert. Our cast-iron Tatin Dish is perfect for cooking up the sugar, water and butter caramel sauce. For a gorgeously rustic effect, crisp Pink Lady apples are neither peeled nor cored before being thickly sliced and arranged on the base of the tatin dish, covered with puff pastry and baked until golden brown. Use the easy-grip handles to quickly flip the tarte tatin over onto a serving platter, and voila!
Caramelised Pineapple Cake
This is like a contemporary cobbler, with fresh pineapple pieces caramelised in a saucepan before being spread over cake batter in a square stoneware dish and baked until golden and fragrant. The caramel sauce offsets the tartness of the pineapple, transforming this sometimes sharp-flavoured fruit into a sweet treat of note.
Ribs with Spicy Caramel Sauce
Had enough of the tooth-curling sweet stuff? These exotic sticky ribs are a treat of a different order. Simmer crushed garlic, ginger, coriander seeds, star anise, pepper, rice vinegar, soy sauce, ketjap manis and maple syrup in a saucepan for 10 minutes, stir in a spot of brown sugar and tomato ketchup. Marinate the ribs for at least 2 hours before you cook them on a grill pan for half an hour, brushing them with the delicious spicy caramel marinade while they cook.