Fail-Proof Caramel

adapted from Simply Recipes and New Best Recipe Cookbook

makes a good 1 1/2 C

Cook time: 20-30 minutes

Cost: $.86

(sugar: .16, cream: .50, butter: .20)

1/2 C water

1 C sugar

6 Tbsp butter, cut into chunks

1/2 C cream

1. Put water in a pan. Please do not use the cheapest, flimsiest-bottomed pan you have.

2. Pour sugar in a mound in the middle of the water in the pan.

Don't worry, the water will soak into the sugar. Putting it in a mound in the middle means crystals of sugar are less likely to get on the side of the pan, causing the final mixture to crystallize.

3. Put the lid on the pan and turn the heat to medium or just shy of medium.

4. Let it boil. Do not stir it or mess with it in any way.

La di da. This is going to take 10 minutes or so. You don't need to watch your pot too much at first. Do the dishes, make the kids lunch. Whatever. (Do NOT leave the kitchen and then forget you were boiling sugar.) This method of caramel making does take a little longer than just letting your sugar melt and adding butter and cream. However, at this point of the process, you don't have to be super duper attentive. Give it a glance here and there to see if it's starting to change color. Also, take a few minutes to get your other ingredients ready... (see step #5).

5. Get your other ingredients ready.

At a certain point in caramel making, a little speed is required. It helps to have your cream measured and your butter cut. You can warm the cream if you wish (I used the microwave to get it warm--took me 25 seconds or so). It might make your life a little bit easier, but it's not essential with this method. (Cold cream--and sometimes even warm cream--can cause the boiled sugar to seize--or get kind of hard for a few seconds--worry not, even if it seizes, you just keep mixing and it will, um, un-seize--which is a totally technical term, I assure you.)

6. When the boiling sugar turns the color of straw, remove the lid and REDUCE THE HEAT to medium low.

7. It's still going to boil for a few minutes, but watch it now. If you're oven is even the teensiest bit un-level, rotate your pan. DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES STIR THIS MIXTURELet it boil until it becomes an amber color.

This is a bracelet made of actual amber. This is the color you want.

But take care not to go darker or you will probably burn your caramel. If you are nervous as I often am, or if you are making this for guests or a gift, err on the side of light amber. It may not be as rich as complex as the amber caramel, but it will be un-burned and perfectly delicious.

8. When it is an amber color, it's time to move quickly. Don't get nervous, just be ready. When it's amber, take the pan off the stove and whisk in the butter (I use a flat whisk, but any whisk will do--don't use a spoon--too slow). If it seizes and seems to separate and get funky, just keep stirring. If it bubbles up (as it almost surely will), don't freak out, just keep stirring. All will be well.

9. As soon as your butter is incorporated, whisk in the cream--you're still moving quickly here, but you're almost done.

10. My friends, it is finished. And it is delicious. Stir it for another minute and pour it into a bowl that can handle some heat because it is really really hot. Put some on a spoon, blow it a lot, and taste it. Good, huh?

11. Allow it to cool in a bowl and then cover it for storage. It'll last quite a while just on the counter. It can also be refrigerated for really long-term storage (i.e. if you have a will of iron).

And now, at the end of this very long post, I have a confession. I burned my first batch. Oh, it wasn't the method's fault. I was trying to take pictures you see. And pictures are distracting and they take time to take, especially for me. First of all, I forgot to reduce the heat after I took the lid off. And then, I was trying to nail that right on perfect amber color and, um, my stove is not level and things just got away from me. By the time I'd clicked a few times, half of the sugar was burned. Just barely--just 30 seconds too long, but yes, definitely too dark. It does give me the chance, however, to blab on a little longer discuss the color of your caramel.

The spoon on the right is burned, the one on the left is good. You'll notice that there's a little place in between these two shades. The name of that shade is 'risk.' Hit it right on and you'll have the best most heavenly caramel to ever cross your lips. It will be deep nutty sweet, complex, and perfect, but miss it and you've burned your sugar and there's no going back. If you wish to try to hit that mark, I have a bit of advice. Go there slowly. Turn your heat to low (as opposed to medium low) after the lid is removed and rotate the pan a bit as it cooks. Remember that your pan is hot, so even when you take it off the stove, it's going to keep cooking for a few moments (which is sometimes all the time it takes to burn sugar), so keep your heat at low which will give you a lot more control and a little more time after the pan is removed from the burner. If your heat/pan is too hot, you're going to go from perfect to burned too fast to get the butter and cream in there.

Now, go forth and conquer they caramel sauce.

Posted by The Tasty Cheapskate