According to Larousse, caramel is simply melted sugar that has been browned by heating. Technically, it is that simple.
However, to explain the wondrous complexities of caramel, food scientist Harold McGee is more forthcoming. “Start with pure table sugar, a single kind of molecule, colourless, odourless, and simply sweet. Add heat, and you create caramel: many hundreds of new molecules, brown colour, rich aroma, sweet, tart and bitter.”
There are two basic methods for making caramel: the dry method, which involves heating sugar until it reaches melting point, when it starts to brown, or the wet method, which is to dissolve the sugar in water, then bring it to the boil until it starts to brown. Dissolving the sugar first is an easier and practical method for less-experienced cooks, but either way, caramel has to be constantly watched as once it starts to brown, it can easily burn. Have a bowl of cold water ready to cool the pan down, as this will stop it cooking further. I prefer the dry method, as it’s quick and I can keep stirring it all the time. With the wet method, once the sugar has dissolved and started to boil, you’re not allowed to stir it, as this can encourage the formation of crystals. You also need to use a clean pastry brush dipped in water to prevent any crystals forming at the side of the pot.
Whichever method you choose, there are plenty of wonderful recipes to make. I have included three of my favourites here.
My childhood treat of caramel bananas is given a makeover, with the addition of a super easy ice cream and the bitter crunch of praline. Can you ever have too much caramel?
4 over ripe bananas
1 cup dulce de leche*
¾ cup caster sugar
½ cup almonds
½ cup brown sugar
4 ripe bananas, peeled and cut in thick slices on an angle
To make ice cream, blend bananas in a food processor until smooth. Add dulche leche and blend. Pour into a plastic container and place in freezer for 4 hours until firm.
To make praline, line a baking tray with baking paper.
Heat a heavy based frypan over high heat. Slowly sprinkle in the sugar, allowing it to melt before adding more. As it melts, stir with a wooden spoon to ensure it doesn’t burn. Keep adding the sugar and stirring until it is a dark golden brown colour.
Quickly add the almonds and pour the mixture onto the tray.
Allow to cool, then break into large chunks and place in a food processor. Pulse until roughly crushed.
For the bananas, melt butter in a pan over medium heat, add brown sugar and stir. Cook for 5 minutes or so, stirring, until caramel forms. Add sliced banana and continue to cook until banana is soft and golden.
Remove from heat and drizzle over any extra caramel from the pan.
Serve with a scoop of ice cream and sprinkle with praline.
*To Make Dulce de leche:
Place a tin of condensed milk in a saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil and simmer for 2 hours, topping up with extra water to keep the tin covered. Remove and allow to cool.
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These caramels can be made with any type of sugar and butter, but the flavour is better with great quality ingredients.
375g Raw Castor Sugar
250g good quality salted butter, diced and chilled (plus extra for greasing the tin)
5 Tbsp crème fraiche
sea salt flakes to garnish
Grease and line a 20cm square slice tin with baking paper.
In a heavy based saucepan place the sugar over a medium heat. Cook to quite a dark caramel. Turn the heat down low and carefully add the butter, a few cubes at a time, making sure that it is all incorporated before adding more. Stir in crème fraiche and continue to cook until thickened (118C on a digital or sugar thermometer).
Pour into tray and sprinkle over extra salt flakes. Allow to cool, then refrigerate until set.
Cut into squares to serve.
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Inspired by Alvin’s recipe on Masterchef series 2, the caramel sauce for the pork belly is flavoured by the chinese master stock. The stock can be frozen and reused.
Chinese master stock:
3 cloves garlic, sliced
1 knob ginger, sliced
1 handful green onion ends
1 cinnamon stick
2 star anise
375 ml light soy sauce
375 ml shaoxing wine (Chinese cooking wine)
75 g chinese rock sugar
For the pork:
1 kg pork belly
300g brown sugar
1 tbsp fish sauce
2 tbsp lime juice
handful fresh coriander leaves
2 french shallots (eschalots), finely sliced and soaked in 1 tbsp asian vinegar
1 long red chilli, deseeded and sliced
1 tbsp black sesame seeds
To make the master stock, place all ingredients in a large stockpot and bring to the boil. Taste the stock for balance of flavours and adjust as required.
Add pork belly to master stock and gently simmer for 1 hour.
Remove and set aside to cool.
Heat brown sugar in deep sided frypan, stir and cook over medium heat until caramelised. Add 1 cup of master stock, fish sauce and lime juice. Cook over high heat until reduced and thickened. Cut pork belly into slices and add to sauce.
Mix together the coriander leaves, sliced shallots and chilli.
Place slices of caramelised pork on a plate, garnish with salad and sprinkle over sesame seeds.
To store master stock:
Allow stock to cool. Strain through a fine sieve and refrigerate until needed.
Master stock, once cooled, strained and refrigerated can be used again and again.
Replenish the stock with fresh garlic, ginger, green onions and aromatics each time you use it and the flavour will continue to intensify.
This stock can also be frozen.
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