Pumpkin-Caramel Ice Cream Pie may be made up to a month ahead. (Noel Barnhurst)
Sweets, no matter what the season, are a welcome addition to any holiday. In February, chocolate, which is already considered a yearlong delight, comes to the fore.
Now it’s time for caramel to shine.
October is caramel month, and for good reason. As a coating for crisp, fall apples or gooey buttered popcorn and peanuts, caramel can also be devilishly decadent and very, very grown up.
The term “salted caramel” is showing up in everything from ice cream flavors to gourmet cookies. In fact, the term “caramelized” has become a component in all manner of sophisticated menu offerings even beyond dessert, from entrees to side dishes.
Caramelized onions are scattered atop trendy pizzas, along with prosciutto and goat cheese; roasted root vegetables such as turnips, parsnips, carrots and beets taste even better after a slight sprinkling of butter and sugar while still in the oven; and chefs love the idea of giving seafood such as scallops and salmon a golden, sugary glaze. Classically trained chefs will even advise caramelizing bones for a rich lamb, veal or beef stock.
But whether we’re talking sweet or savory, the principle is essentially the same — sugars are heated until brown, creating an intense flavor and rich color. Sometimes these sugars are naturally occurring, such as the case with onions — when gently sauteed in butter, onions will turn brown and quite sweet. Other times, the caramelizing is man-made by combining sugar and water with cream and butter to create a sinful sauce.
The idea of turning sugar into caramel is almost ethereal, and there are two ways to do this, according to David Lebovitz in his cookbook “Room for Dessert” (HarperCollins Publishers, 1999): the wet method and the dry method (see below).
In both methods the sugar is cooked until it melts, darkens and turns a deep, rich color. Be sure to use only granulated sugar, as brown sugar and powdered sugar contain impurities that prevent caramelization.
There are four stages of caramel: The just-melted sugar syrup is called light caramel. As it continues to cook, it reaches the golden stage, followed by the slightly darker amber stage and then the dark stage. Be very careful if you let your caramel get to this last stage, because it can quickly burn.
For most recipes, amber is the desired color. It has a rich, sweetly mellow flavor.
To stop caramel in the desired stage, remove the pan from the heat and immediately plunge the bottom into an ice bath.
And once you’ve gotten the hang of making caramel and have tasted its homemade flavor, you’ll never go back to unwrapping those little waxy cubes again. You won’t be able to live without a tub of homemade caramel sauce tucked in your fridge, ready to be warmed in the microwave so you can dress up your apple pie, top a cheesecake, drizzle it over ice cream, or simply dip in some crisp or apple slices.
The wet method
This involves moistening the sugar with a little water. This method tends to take a bit longer — which can be a good thing. Once the caramelization process starts, it happens so quickly you’re only a few seconds away from having a pot full of burnt sugar, and you’ll have to start again.
The disadvantage of the wet method, however, is the tendency of the sugar to crystallize, which can give caramel a grainy texture and cause it to cook unevenly. For that reason, it’s best not to stir during the caramelization process, instead, shake or swirl the pot for more even browning.
Many recipes recommend washing down the sides of the pot with a pastry brush to dissolve crystals.
But Lebovitz steers cooks away from that method because of the risk of losing a few bristles in the hot caramel. Instead, Lebovitz recommends simply adding a pinch of an acidic ingredient, such as cream of tartar or lemon juice, which inhibits the sugar from crystallizing.
The dry method
This involves cooking the sugar alone in a heavy, wide-bottomed pot.
As you slowly heat the sugar, the edges and bottom will melt first, then you stir gently to promote even melting or tilt and swirl the pan.
But watch carefully, because the sugar browns quickly. With either method, the caramelization process is stopped the same way: With the addition of a liquid, such as cream, which causes the darkening sugar to bubble up violently for a few seconds. Stir madly and it will settle down into a creamy, golden syrup that can be made even more tasty with the addition of vanilla or other flavorings.
The trick is knowing exactly when to add the liquid, and that takes practice. The darker brown the sugar becomes, the fuller the flavor. But it really is a matter of taste, and sometimes it’s hard to judge the color when the sugar is bubbling away.
The best way to tell is to use your nose — the rich scent of caramel will become apparent — to help judge when the sugar reaches the caramel flavor you prefer.
Caramel Corn with Smoked Almonds
Recipe from Epicurious. Caramel corn can be prepared in advance and stored, in an airtight container at room temperature, up to 3 days.
Nonstick vegetable-oil spray
1 cup popcorn kernels
1 tablespoon canola oil
2 teaspoons coarse kosher salt
½ cup light corn syrup
2 ¾ cups sugar
½ tablespoon baking soda
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
2 cups (about 8 ounces) smoked or regular Marcona almonds, coarsely chopped (See Note)
1 ½ tablespoons fleur de sel
Note: Marcona almonds are tender Spanish nuts that are usually roasted and salted. They’re available at specialty foods stores and some supermarkets, including Trader Joe’s.
Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper or aluminum foil and grease generously with nonstick vegetable-oil spray. Generously spray a large bowl and all but the handle part of a large spoon or rubber spatula.
In a large, deep pot with a lid, combine the popcorn kernels, oil and salt, and stir to coat the kernels in oil. Place the pot over moderately high heat, cover with a lid and cook, shaking the pot frequently to redistribute the kernels, until all the kernels have popped, 6 to 8 minutes. Transfer the popped popcorn to the large prepared bowl, discarding any unpopped kernels. (The popcorn can be popped in advance and stored, in an airtight container at room temperature, up to 3 days.)
In a large, deep pot over moderately high heat, combine the corn syrup, sugar and ¼ cup water, and stir to combine. Cook, undisturbed, until the mixture develops a light amber color, about 10 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat, add the baking soda and butter, and stir continuously to melt the butter and combine the ingredients, about 20 seconds. (The mixture will be very hot and will foam up at this point—continuous stirring will help the foaming subside.) Working quickly, pour the caramel over the popcorn and add the almonds, then use the prepared spoon or rubber spatula to stir everything together, trying to evenly coat the popcorn and nuts in caramel. Transfer to the prepared baking sheet, spreading out the caramel corn as much as possible. Sprinkle with fleur de sel and let cool and harden for about 20 minutes. Break the caramel corn into smaller, bite-size pieces and serve.
When making the caramel, once the sugar begins to caramelize you can swirl the pan to evenly distribute the color, but avoid stirring, which will cause the sugar to crystallize and harden. Serves 10.
Per serving: 561 calories; 25 g fat (7 g saturated fat; 40 percent calories from fat); 82 g carbohydrates; 26 mg cholesterol; 1,407 mg sodium; 7 g protein; 5 g fiber.
Spiced Bundt Cake with Apple Caramel Sauce
Recipe adapted from Bon Appetit. To make the cake more festive, fashion small pumpkins and acorns out of marzipan and place on the cake plate.
1 cup sugar
Pinch of cream of tartar
¼ cup fresh apple cider
¼ cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
Nonstick vegetable oil spray
1 ¼ cups (2 ½ sticks) unsalted butter
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
2 1⁄3 cups all-purpose flour
1 ¼ cups slivered almonds
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 ½ teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg
1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground allspice
¾ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup (packed) dark brown sugar
1 cup sugar
¾ cup powdered sugar plus more
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
3 large eggs
5 large egg yolks
1 cup whole milk
For caramel sauce:
Combine sugar, cream of tartar, and ¼cup water in a medium saucepan over medium heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Cook, without stirring and occasionally swirling pan for even cooking, until mixture turns a dark amber color. Remove from heat; slowly add apple cider, cream, vinegar, vanilla and salt (mixture will bubble vigorously), whisking to combine. Return pan to medium heat and bring to a vigorous boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook, stirring to dissolve any caramel bits, for 1 minute. Remove from heat and let cool. Set aside.
Arrange a rack in middle of oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Generously coat a 10-inch Bundt pan with nonstick spray. Place butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Scrape in seeds from vanilla bean; add bean. Cook, stirring often, until butter foams, then browns (do not burn), about 5 minutes. Carefully remove vanilla bean; pour brown butter into a medium bowl and chill until slightly firm, about 45 minutes.
Pulse flour and almonds in a food processor until almonds are finely ground. Transfer to a large bowl. Whisk in baking powder and next 7 ingredients; set aside.
Using an electric mixer on medium speed, beat brown butter, brown sugar, sugar and ¾ cup powdered sugar in a large bowl, frequently scraping down sides and bottom of bowl and beaters, until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Mix in lemon zest. Add eggs and yolks one at a time, beating to blend between additions; beat mixture until fluffy, about 3 minutes.
Reduce speed to low. Add half of dry ingredients; mix until almost blended. Add milk and mix until almost blended. Add remaining dry ingredients; mix until batter is blended and smooth. Scrape into prepared pan. Tap pan gently on counter to even out.
Bake until a tester inserted near the center of cake comes out clean and cake is dark golden brown and has begun pulling from sides of pan, 65-70 minutes.
Transfer pan to a wire rack. Let cake cool in pan for 25 minutes. Invert cake onto rack and let cool completely, about 1 hour.
Dust cake lightly with powdered sugar. Drizzle caramel sauce over cake, allowing it to drip down sides and into grooves and crevices. Serve remaining sauce alongside. Serves 16.
Per serving: 495 calories; 25 g fat (12 g saturated fat; 45 percent calories from fat); 62 g carbohydrates; 154 mg cholesterol; 353 mg sodium; 7 g protein; 2 g fiber.
Salted Chocolate Caramels
Caramels keep, layered between sheets of parchment or wax paper, in an airtight container at cool room temperature 2 weeks. Recipe adapted from Gourmet.
2 cups heavy cream
10 ½ ounces fine-quality bittersweet chocolate (no more than 60% cacao if marked), finely chopped
1 ¾ cups sugar
½ cup light corn syrup
¼ cup water
¼ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon pieces
2 teaspoons flaky sea salt such as Maldon
Vegetable oil for greasing
Line bottom and sides of an 8-inch straight-sided square metal baking pan with 2 long sheets of crisscrossed parchment.
Bring cream just to a boil in a 1- to 1 ½-quart heavy saucepan over moderately high heat, then reduce heat to low and add chocolate. Let stand 1 minute, then stir until chocolate is completely melted. Remove from heat.
Bring sugar, corn syrup, water and salt to a boil in a 5- to 6-quart heavy pot over moderate heat, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Boil, uncovered, without stirring but gently swirling pan occasionally, until sugar is deep golden, about 10 minutes. Tilt pan and carefully pour in chocolate mixture (mixture will bubble and steam vigorously). Continue to boil over moderate heat, stirring frequently, until mixture registers 248 degrees on thermometer, about 15 minutes. Add butter, stirring until completely melted, then immediately pour into lined baking pan (do not scrape any caramel clinging to bottom or side of saucepan). Let caramel stand 10 minutes, then sprinkle evenly with sea salt. Cool completely in pan on a rack, about 2 hours.
Carefully invert caramel onto a clean, dry cutting board, then peel off parchment. Turn caramel salt side up. Lightly oil blade of a large, heavy knife and cut into 1-inch squares.
If desired, additional sea salt can be pressed onto caramels after cutting.
Caramels can be wrapped in 4-inch squares of wax paper; twist ends to close. Makes 64 candies.
Per serving: 324 calories; 20 g fat (12 g saturated fat; 56 percent calories from fat); 40 g carbohydrates; 47 mg cholesterol; 303 mg sodium; 2 g protein; 1 g fiber.
Pumpkin-Caramel Ice Cream Pie
Recipe from Diane Rossen Worthington, Tribune Media Services
2 tablespoons finely chopped pecans
About 25 gingersnaps, ground into fine crumbs in a food processor (1 ½ cups)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 pints pumpkin ice cream
4 tablespoons chilled caramel sauce (see recipe below, or use your favorite store brand)
16 pecan halves for garnish
1 cup warm Caramel Sauce
To make the crust, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Tightly line a 9-inch pie plate (with 2-inch sides) with aluminum foil. In a bowl, mix the pecans and gingersnap crumbs. Add the butter and toss the crumbs to blend well. Press the crumbs evenly over the bottom and sides of the pie plate, using the back of a spoon, the heel of your hand, or your fingers. Chill until firm, about 30 minutes. Bake for 6 minutes, or until just set. Let cool.
Chill the crust in the freezer for 2 hours. Remove from the freezer and unmold the pie shell onto a flat surface. Very carefully peel away the foil so the shell stays intact. Return it to the pie plate.
To make the filling, soften the ice cream in a large bowl and mix with a large spoon until thoroughly blended and no lumps remain. Spoon into the pie shell and smooth the top with a rubber spatula. With a teaspoon, dot the top of the pie with 4 tablespoons of the caramel. Use a skewer to make a pretty swirl or other design, moving it back and forth about ½ inch deep into the ice cream. Arrange the pecans around the outside edge of the pie, pushing them into the ice cream.
Freeze the pie for at least 2 hours. When it is frozen, cover tightly with foil. To serve, thaw slightly in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. Cut into wedges and serve with the warm caramel sauce.
Advance Preparation: Make up to 1 month ahead, cover tightly, and freeze. Thaw slightly in the refrigerator for 30 minutes before serving.
Makes about 1 cup.
1 cup sugar
¼ cup water
1 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Combine the sugar and water in a medium-heavy saucepan. Do not use a dark colored pan, or you will not be able to see the color of the caramel. Dissolve the sugar in water over low heat. Turn up the heat and continually swirl the pan over the flame. The mixture will become bubbly. If sugar crystals form on the sides of the pan, cover it for 1 minute to dissolve them. Boil the mixture until it turns a dark golden brown, about 5-8 minutes. Watch carefully, as the caramel can burn easily, and if it is too dark, it will continue to cook and taste burnt.
Remove the caramel from the heat and let it cool, making sure it is still liquid. Return the caramel sauce to low heat and stir in the cream and vanilla, constantly stirring to create a caramel sauce. The mixture may look separated, but continue to whisk it and it will become smooth in a few minutes. Keep warm if serving immediately. Serves 8.
Advance preparation: May be prepared up to 5 days ahead, covered and refrigerated.
Per serving: 563 calories; 32 g fat (17 g saturated fat; 51 percent calories from fat); 66 g carbohydrates; 86 mg cholesterol; 217 mg sodium; 4 g protein; 1 g fiber.
Recipe from Gourmet
1 ½ pounds small (1 ½- to 2-inch) white boiling potatoes
3 tablespoons sugar
1 ½ tablespoons unsalted butter
Cover potatoes with salted cold water by 1 inch in a 3-quart heavy saucepan and bring to a simmer. Simmer, uncovered, until just tender, about 15 minutes. Drain potatoes in a colander and cool slightly. When potatoes are just cool enough to handle (but are still very warm), peel and cut into ½-inch-wide wedges.
Cook sugar in a 12-inch heavy skillet, undisturbed, over moderate heat until it begins to melt. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until sugar melts into a golden caramel. Add butter and salt, stirring until butter is melted. Add potato wedges, stirring gently with a wooden spoon or heatproof rubber spatula from bottom of skillet to coat potatoes with caramel (caramel will seize and form small clumps), and cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until potatoes are heated through and any clumps of caramel have melted to coat potatoes evenly, 10 to 12 minutes.
Cooks’ notes: Potatoes can be boiled and peeled (but not cut) 1 day ahead. Cool completely, uncovered, then chill, covered. Bring to room temperature before proceeding with recipe.
Potatoes can be cut and caramelized 1 hour ahead, then kept, covered, at room temperature. Just before serving, reheat over moderate heat until warmed through. Makes 4 servings.
Per serving: 210 calories; 5 g fat (3 g saturated fat; 21 percent calories from fat); 40 g carbohydrates; 12 mg cholesterol; 7 mg sodium; 3 g protein; 3 g fiber.