I had forgotten how temperamental caramel can be. And eggs. Perhaps I should call this “How Not to End Up with a Hardened Sugar Lump and Scrambled Egg.”
I devoured my October issue of Bon Appétit, cheerfully dog-earing all the recipes I wanted to try. The “Burnt Caramel Custards” recipe, tucked into a sidebar at the end of a feature on how to throw a “no-stress, plan-ahead, you-can-do-it” dinner party, sounded and looked stunning. And easy! Oh, these can be fully prepared 2 days in advance and pulled out ever-so-non-chalantly by the hostess. Like creme brulee but without the fuss… or blowtorch. And caramel-flavored! I was sold.
The morning I decided to try this I had just gotten fresh eggs and cream for the occasion. Organic eggs and cream, I might add. French chansons playing with gusto in the kitchen. Vanilla bean sliced open gently, seeds lovingly scooped out, that aromatic potion simmered carefully in precious organic cream. All was going très bien on that fine morning until…
The Problem with Caramel
…Let’s see… this sugar is not dissolving, let alone boil or swirl or turn a deep amber color in “about 4 minutes.” I was going on 10 and all I had was a white crystallized mess of sugar stuck to my pan, over the as-instructed medium-high heat, which was starting to smoke. Hmmmmmm….
Take Two, chansons turned down a smidgeon, I’m re-reading the instructions line-by-line and focus on “stirring to dissolve sugar.” Did I stir? I’m sure I did, but how much? Maybe I didn’t stir enough! This time, I’m armed and ready with my freshly washed heat-resistant spatula, intent on stirring this new batch of sugar to its delightful transformation into oozing, glimmering, rivulets of caramel.
So I stir, and stir, and… end up with another smoking, crystallized, caked-on mess of solid sugar. I recall, though memory is a bit blurred, that there was much lamenting of my culinary limitations, cursing the Bon Appétit editors and beseeching any and all kitchen gods at large, and wishing I had that blowtorch to obliterate a certain October issue and a chanson-playing radio all in one go.
Back to Basics
But darned if I was going to waste that cream and those eggs. Did I mention they were eleven-euro-worth organic? A little breathing and a change of music and my resolve returned.
Two complete failures and I knew how not to do caramel, but scouring the Bon Appétit instructions I still had no idea what to do differently. I consulted my trusted cookbooks and online tutorials and learned a few things I wish I had known earlier:
- There are two types of caramel: wet caramel, in which you heat sugar and water together, and dry caramel, in which you heat sugar on its own and let it melt into liquid and caramelize before adding anything else. As it turns out, wet caramel (which is what this recipe called for) is more temperamental.
- It’s easy to over-stir and interrupt the melting process of the sugar, causing the sugar to crystallize instead of melt. You need to watch and let it melt and do its magic before you stir. Aha!
Back stove-side, I decide to try the more-forgiving dry caramel, and resist my temptation to stir. It’s not easy to stand there and watch…
…and put down that spatula… and watch…
…And… wait a minute…
…Oh-là-là… What have we here?
Wait for it… don’t touch yet!
Golden, then deep amber, oozing, glistening caramel. It’s about 30 seconds after this last shot when it reaches that toasted-marshmallow, just-barely-starting-to-smoke peak of goodness.
More on making caramel, creating a custard, regaining your culinary je-ne-sais-quoi, and forgiving Bon Appétit in the next posting.