I have an addiction. It's caramel. In fact, some people call me the caramelizer. It's even the title on my business card.
I just can't resist caramel. Of all the flavours I can create in my kitchen, none is as enticing. I love making it and I love spooning great gobs of it onto just about anything.
White sugar is the base and has zero flavour. It's about as exciting as eating white rice on the corner of Plain and Bland. But heat it to the point that its starts browning and a cascade of nuanced flavour emerges. From nothing, in other words, comes something spectacular. Maybe that's why the world's most popular sodas are caramel-flavoured.
Many caramel recipes perilously advocate a dry-heat method that often results in a gritty mess, clouds of black smoke, shrieking smoke alarms and ruined pots.
There is an easier way: Just add water, then remove it. Water helps the sugar dissolve and melt evenly without getting grainy. And if you don't stir while the water is evaporating – stirring can cause the sugar granules to pop up, stick to the side of the pot, crystallize and fall back into the syrup – you can further avoid grittiness.
Left behind will be an evenly melted pure sugar syrup free to continue rising into the flavour zone. And if there's some butter, cream and vanilla waiting at the end, even better.
Michael Smith is the author of Chef at Home and host of Chef Abroad on the Food Network.
1 cup water
1 cup white sugar
1/2 cup butter, cut into pieces
1 cup heavy (35 per cent) cream
Splash of pure vanilla extract
Pour water into a saucepan. Gently sprinkle in sugar, taking care to avoid the edges of the pan. Begin heating over a high heat. Don't stir! Allow the sugar to dissolve into the water to form simple syrup. As the heat increases, the water will gradually evaporate and leave behind a pure melted sugar syrup. Once the syrup starts to turn pale gold, gently swirl the pan to keep the colour even. When it has reached deep golden brown, add butter and whisk in until the sauce is smooth. Add cream and pure vanilla extract and whisk until smooth. Pour into a jar and refrigerate until thickened. The sauce will keep for up to a month in the refrigerator.
Makes 2 cups.
Reprinted from The Best of Chef at Home, Whitecap 2009
What you pair with this sauce will depend on how you use it. Whether your pour it over ice cream or on some sort of cake, though, it's fair to assume the dessert will be very sweet. The caramelized flavour here lends itself to a variety of wines. Sweeter styles of sherry, such as cream or rich oloroso (ask your store consultant for a sweet oloroso, because there are also dry versions), would be a top choice, especially for ice cream. Tawny port is another good option. If you prefer a chilled dessert wine, consider orange muscat or, from France, a muscat de Baumes de Venise. A rich, dark spice cake topped with the sauce could also match well with a dark beer, such as porter or stout.