This tasty sweet sauce is good on almost any dessert.
CARAMEL SAUCE is quick and inexpensive to make, and the recipe is easily and infinitely customizable. A jar of decadent homemade caramel makes a welcome gift, and it’s a rare dessert that can’t be gussied up with a glistening drizzle.
Caramel is made by cooking sugar until it browns. As the sugar colors, its flavor changes, becoming less sweet, nuttier and eventually bitter. The darker the color, the deeper and more complex the flavor becomes (until it burns, and then it’s terrible). At the molecular level, the process is complex, but in practicality, it’s quick and easy to achieve. To make caramel sauce, you simply incorporate a liquid (usually cream) into hot caramel.
This recipe produces an elegant, velvety sauce. Freshly made (and too hot to eat), it has the consistency of cream. As it cools, it thickens to the viscosity of eggnog, and at room temperature it’s thick and luscious but will flow from a spoon and pool on the plate. (If you prefer a thicker sauce, you can reduce the cream to 1½ cups or even less.)
I like to cook my caramel until it’s a deep amber color. The resulting sauce has a hint of bitter that keeps it from being cloying, and lends itself to other slightly bitter additions such as orange zest, black tea or ginger. When I’m making sauce for kids, I cook it just until it’s golden to keep it sweet, and I keep the additions simple (vanilla and salt).
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Making caramel does require attention to detail. Make sure your sugar is clean, and once the sugar has melted, use only a clean, heatproof utensil to stir it if you absolutely need to. Any impurities in the sugar or even sugar crystals can cause the caramel to crystallize. To avoid burning your caramel, never walk away from cooking sugar — once it starts changing color, it will go very quickly. And use a light-colored pot so you can easily watch the color of the caramel.
Makes 2¼ cups
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons corn syrup
¼ cup water
2 cups heavy cream, heated to at least 110 degrees (and flavored, if desired; see below)
1. Put the sugar and corn syrup in a heavy-bottomed 2½- to 3-quart pot.
2. Add the water, and stir to completely moisten the sugar. Use a wet brush to wash any sugar crystals from the side of the pan.
3. Cook the sugar over medium heat until completely dissolved, stirring occasionally if necessary, but as little as possible. Cook the sugar syrup, undisturbed, until it starts turning golden. If it isn’t cooking evenly, gently swirl the liquid to keep the color even. It will turn yellow, then gold, then darkening shades of amber.
4. When it reaches the color you want, immediately remove it from the heat and add about ¼ cup of the warm cream (flavored, if desired). It will bubble and steam vigorously, so stand back. Use a long-handled whisk (to avoid splatter and steam), and whisk the caramel to incorporate the cream.
5. When the bubbles begin to subside, add another ¼ cup of cream and whisk well. Continue adding the remaining cream, bit by bit.
6. Pour the caramel sauce into a clean, heatproof bowl (or it will continue to cook). Allow it to cool slightly before using or storing.
The sauce will keep for three weeks in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
Coffee: Dissolve 1 tablespoon instant espresso in the hot cream.
Tea (Earl Grey is fantastic): Steep two tea bags or 2 tablespoons loose tea in the hot cream for 10 minutes. Squeeze the bags before discarding.
Fresh ginger: Slice a 4-inch piece into coins, and steep 15 minutes in the hot cream. The cream will thicken, but it won’t affect the sauce. Strain before using.
Orange: Add the zest of one orange to the hot cream, steep 15 minutes, then strain.
Salted: Add 1 teaspoon flaked salt and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract to the finished sauce. Whisk well.