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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The best ever salted butter caramels, what a delicious mistake!


I've had a few near disaster in the kitchen lately, and that's not counting this morning when I nearly sawed off my index finger with a bread knife. Blood and gore aside, I've also had a few great accidental "discoveries" as well. One of those resulted in the pretty caramels wrapped in parchment that you see in the picture above.

My friend Heidi recently wrote about her espresso caramels, which got me craving one of my favorite sweets, the salted butter caramels, caramel au beurre salé, from Brittany. A great balance between salty and sweet, chewy and meltingly soft, those caramels are the stuff of foodie dreams. I buy an arm load every time I come across them, but somehow they are never on hand when I crave one. Heidi's post inspired me to make some caramels of my own.

I have some homemade salted butter left – made from the milk from our Normande cow share - but I wasn't sure if I wanted to part with that. Luckily, I also had a quart of cream (from the same cow, Nutmeg) left in the fridge. Conveniently, Heidi's recipe calls from cream instead of butter, so that's what I planned to use.

There was one little kink in that plan. Heidi's recipe also calls for cooking the cream and honey (which she uses in place of sugar) to temperature together. That wouldn't do for me. I'm always complaining that caramels in America are cloying sweet and lack that bitter edge you get from burnt sugar caramels in France. So I would adjust the recipe a little. I'd cook the sugar first, get it burnt enough, then I'd add the cream and make my lovely caramel candies.


A couple of months ago our friend Luca, who makes honey for Manresa up at the garden and also keeps beehives at his house in town, gave me a jar of one of the most intense, dark honey I've ever tried. It's Redwood Honey, he said. It tastes a bit wild, sort of like chestnut honey but more piney, slightly bitter, and very fragrant – not flowery kind of fragrant, but more woody, earthy, reminiscent mushroom freshly parted from damp earth. The jar had been sitting in my cupboard waiting, as if just for this occasion. Instead of using mild honey that Heidi calls for, I'm going to use a mixture of sugar and this super intense honey to make an even more intense burnt sugar caramels, add these to Nutmeg's ultra delicious raw cream, I might actually end up with the best caramels ever. I had high hopes.

So I set about making my best caramels ever. I started by adding the sugar and honey and let them melt undisturbed in an enamel pot. The puddle of dark honey melted quickly, like a pool of lava, quickly devouring the white sugar, turning the entire pot into bubbling, molten sugar in no time. I let it go until the sugar and honey is just this side of burnt, then, in haste since I was also working yet another pot of dulce de leche next to it, I forgot to warm up the cream first before adding to the caramel.

The fridge-cold cream touched the molten caramel lava, spattering everywhere, and promptly curdled. I stood there, staring in disbelief at the pot of dark caramel with curdle bits of cream suspended in it. I just couldn't believe my moment of stupidity. What was I thinking adding cold cream to hot caramel, didn't I know anything about cooking?

Frankly, if this was made from cream I bought from the store I would have dumped the whole thing and start again. But this wasn't just any cream, this was special stuff, from our very special cow. We've got a quota every week from our share in Nutmeg, I drive to the farm weekly for a pick up, waiving hello to Nutmeg while she munches happily on a patch of grass, mingling with her friends Paris and Rosie. I know I risk sounding totally crunchy, but I am emotionally invested in this cream. I couldn't just throw it out.

I had to do something to fix this. I tried whisking the content of the pot, no luck. So I pulled out the finest chinois I got and strained it. It worked well enough, separating the big curdled bits from the liquid. There were still tiny particles that got through, so I strained it once more, this time lining the chinois with a couple of layers of cheesecloth. The resulting liquid was free enough of curdled particles, I poured the liquid back into a pot, a larger one this time because I knew I had to cook this thing down a great deal to get the liquid intense enough to make caramel again.

I looked at the pot, the liquid in it looked quite watery, with most of the milk solids removed with the curds. I knew I had to add more milk solids into it or my caramel candies won't reach that creamy deliciousness I wanted. I just had to give up that homemade butter in my fridge or that pot of caramel would end up a sad failure. So I did. I quickly warmed the butter in the microwave, not to melt them but just to bring it close to room temperature. Then I whisked in the butter, a small knob at a time, into the caramel. I used all I had, which was close to a third of a pound.

Now my caramel is looking like closer to what it should be. I let it continue cooking, over very hot stove, until, as Heidi recommended, it reached 260F. When it got there, after quite a long time boiling I should add, I dipped a spoon into the caramel and then very quickly dipped it into iced water to cool. I did this so I could taste the hot caramel without burrowing a hole into my tongue. It needed a bit more salt – I like my caramel bitter and salty – so I added a bit more flakey Halen Mon salt, which is the salt I use in my butter.

Then I poured the content of the pot onto a baking sheet lined with parchment, let it cool down enough to touch, and cut into little squares, rolled, and wrapped in parchment. There was a lot of wrapping for a baking sheet's worth of caramels....I think I fell asleep that night with my two hands unconsciously rolling imaginary packets of caramels still. No matter the effort, the result, just ask anyone around here, is entirely worth it.

So, here's a recipe, a close approximation to what I did, minus the stupid mistakes, and cut down the portion to what mere mortals without a surplus of cream would do. Have fun, and let me know how yours (or your disasters) go!

Salted butter and honey caramels

1 cup (2.5dl) heavy cream
1.5 cups or 300g sugar
1/2 cup (2.5dl) very dark, intense honey, if all you have is milder honey I'd use one cup of honey to one cup of sugar
4oz or 110g salted butter, room temperature
more salt to taste

Add sugar and honey into a large non-reactive pot. Turn on the heat and let the sugar and honey melt and cook until caramelized, that is to say change to a deep, dark brown color. Shake the pot if necessary to get all the sugar crystals to melt, but don't stir.

While the sugar is cooking, bring the cream to a simmer.

When the sugar reaches the color you like, whisk in the butter in small knobs, until well mixed, then add the warmed cream, whisk until smooth. Let the mixture cook until the temperature reaches 260F or 125C. (You will need a thermometer for this, of course.)

Pour the hot caramel onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment or a Silpad. Let cool until you can touch it, then cut into small squares, roll, and wrap in packets of parchment or waxed paper. Try making one first, adjusting the size of the square and the paper until you like it, then cut the paper and the caramels into the sizes you want and begin wrapping.

Have fun!


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