Saturday, 16 October 2010

Of Boiled Sweets and Humbug

After a rather long and busy week, which included some news that left a bad taste in my mouth, I decided that today was (and still is) the day to take some time and hand the same over to an activity which I have no control of. None whatsoever. Something that will dictate its own time frame and has a chance to go wrong, but will demand my full attention (thus leaving less time for gloomy ponderings) and, if anything, will be exciting. A substitute for dancing while my knee is still on the mend. In short: an ill-advised food experiment.

Dear reader, I made them. Salty caramels. Without a thermometer. Surely (I told myself), I cannot be the first person to work without one, in spite of many recipes' warnings that it'll all go wrong, friends vanishing from sight, children pointing and laughing, etc. I decided that my eyes, ears and tongue, although not too sure about what to look/listen/taste out for, could judge the caramel situation just as well as a dial with a stick calling itself thermometer - after all, alchemists had had produced fine metal concoctions in pre-Celsian or -Fahrenheitesque times without such equipment. So, I tapped into my inner daredevil-cum-alchemista, crossed my tummy and hoped to end up with something edible. Here's the whole story, sugary start to sweet end.

Salted Caramels
-adapted from three recipes beyond recognition-

300g sugar
250 ml honey
250 ml heavy cream
110g salted butter
more salt to taste

Warning: caramel is insanely hot. Never, ever, ever risk getting spatter, boiled-over caramel or other spillage onto yourself, and if you want to try it, coat a cold spoon very thinly with the finished product and wait before trying!

Sugar and honey go into a pot and are heated, swished around (not stirred - a useless act that makes everything messier than necessary) and heated more, until the sugar caramelises, one recipe said. It did not mention the bubbles, nor that this would take quite some time with these proportions of ingredients. I must say, a gas hob might have helped, but I got there in the end (ca. 20 minutes in).

Observation 1: bubbly sugar-honeyness
While that is doing its thing, heat the cream in a pot and keep it very warm. That made sense. I had experienced the surprisingly quick, rock-hard mess you get when adding cold-anything to caramel in a pot - something that will not be molten again (not even with alchemical methods, I imagine) and ruins both whisk and pot. Lesson learned while making caramel pudding (or not) aged 10. Right. Cream heated. Next step.

When the caramel is the right colour (and smells nice - hanging your nose over the sugar-bubbles is really nice and potentially good for your skin - ok, I made that up, but it cheers one up beyond measure), whisk in the butter in small knobs (buttery caramel smell, observing lumps sinking into oblivion, it's all good). 

Now stir in the hot cream, little by little. This is danger at its best: just a drop too many, and everything goes over the rim of your pot, big mess, game over. If you're anything like me, you'll play around with this a little bit. Then cook the mixture for a while to get the right consistency.

Observation 2: mixture and consistency

Yes, this is where every recipe tells you not to heat above 120 or 125 C. It does things to the crystals and makes your sugar brown even more. Well, I stuck to heating it on a very low heat so it was simmering away, watching the mixture turning slowly (really slowly) from runny into something more creamy - eventually, frantic whisking (something you're not supposed to do, but it's so much fun) will clear the bottom of the pot for a second, leaving whisk marks like motorboats in deep waters. Of course, watching the caramel drip from the whisk helps, too. Now is the time to add more salt if you like.

Observation 3: slow caramel drops
But how do you know when it's done? What is the right consistency? Well, here's something I learned from The Kitchn: drop a bit of caramel into a glass of cold water, and it will cool down and show you what texture the sweet will have. If it's still too liquidy for your taste, keep boiling it. In my case (since I was very cautious, being a caramel virgin and all), the process took 30 minutes after all ingredients had been combined. I ended up with a toffee-like consistency.

Pour the finished caramel onto a baking tray or similar, lined with parchment paper, and let it set for a while, until it's warm and pleasant to the touch.
While you're waiting for this to happen (it took much less time than I anticipated - somewhere between half an hour and an hour), cut more parchment paper into squares fit as wrapping paper.

You will know that it's ready for the next stage when you can cut through it quite easily, too - the mixture will not stick to the knife.
Now find someone to help you - without a helper, this final stage took me an hour (with the result of ca. 100 neatly wrapped caramels).
Take each cut square and roll it a little to make a neat caramel, then wrap. Mine are good - much more intense than anything you buy in a shop. Very little goes a very long way, and I am more than ready to share. If you live in Glasgow, leave a comment with your 'scary yet successful food experiment' story to get a sample! Comments from further afield are also very welcome, but I'm afraid I don't deliver beyond city bounds. Your comments will be edited and posted on Wednesday.

So, what have I learned today? A lot of things. For instance, making sweets is better than eating them (I only had one try-out caramel and am perfectly content). Thermometers are humbug. It's fun to figure out how to do something that seems too tricky to try. And so on.

Most strikingly, though, I learned more about how I learn: it's a messy process which consumes all my brains and senses while I'm at it. It's therefore something that slows down time and accelerates it at the same time  - it feels like I spent a whole day in caramel land, and I am late doing what I was supposed to do today. So, I'd better re-join reality and get on with my work. Luckily, the world is a little bit sweeter again.


Lorraine said...

success! yay!
since you only have had one and have 99 left- couldn't you bring some down when you come to visit?

*thought i'll try my luck* :P

Paracelsa said...

I doubt they'll last until then - but one experiment does not an expert make, so let's see what happens, shall we? ;-)

David (you know which one) said...

Surely two of them could survive a trip via Royal Mail, in a jiffy bag?

Paracelsa said...

Next time?

Anonymous said...

There's something very pleasing about the caramels against a blue-and-white spotty background! Looking forward to tasting one... Geraldine