Instagram Instagram

Entries in caramel (3)


Flicker and spark

When I worked at a theatre company in my teens, one season there was a play that opened with Geroge Gershwin's “Rhapsody in Blue”. I fell for it at first listen, somewhere in between the flirting tumble of notes at the beginning and the arcing rise up the scale before the clarinet cascades in a sigh. It was summer, and the play was a love story. One of my friends had a breathless crush on the production's male lead. One afternoon, the power went out in the theatre, so the show continued by candlelight.

It was all pretty romantic. 

I'm keenly aware of how strange it sounds but when I was trying describe these apple cider caramels, namely caramels spiced with chai masala, strains of "Rhapsody in Blue" kept coming to mind.


Before I lose you entirely, it might be best to try to lay out what we have here. The recipe starts with reduced apple cider, bulked up with sugars and swirled with butter and cream. Then things perk up with a combination of spices; cinnamon, cardamom, clove, and ginger, flinty with black pepper, which taste to me how that Gershwin tune sounds.

Caramel can oftentimes be flat, all sugary heaviness, a dud. These caramels lilt; they flicker and spark. There are highs and lows, deep sweetness, prickling warmth, fragrance and flavour that rolls and develops. They're romance and drama wrapped up in brown paper, and totally worthy of infatuation.

spiced soft caramels

They are soft caramels, not the kind that stick to your teeth and threaten to pull out your molars, but yieldingly-so; they stretch only the tiniest bit when bitten, then relax, supple and dense as you chew. 

We made them by the trayful for gifts this December, in both a straightforward cinnamon version and this fussed up one. They were so popular, I'll be making them into January as well. I am not one for candy, usually, but found it easy enough to make an exception in this case (this being my other). And speaking of ease, these are a cinch as far as candy making goes; some boiling and stirring, then pouring out. Just make sure to keep an eye on the bubbling pot towards the end — when it comes to temperature the caramel will be a smidge lighter in colour than these photographs show, as the shade deepens with the addition of the spices, and even further when the candy cools. 

apple cider caramels spiced with chai masala

And for that ease, you get something stunning. A candy that's interesting yet familiar, and altogether dreamy. Candlelight not required.

Happy new year.



Modified slightly from Deb Perelman and her book The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook (Appetite by Random House, 2012), rewritten by me, except as noted.

Cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, clove and black pepper are fairly standard for chai masala — the mixture used, as you might gather, to flavour masala chai. I think the assortment of spices brings further complexity to the caramels, and works nicely with the apple cider. And, as it's evocative of gingersnaps and gingerbread, the blend matches well with the echoes of the holiday season. While it's not traditional in masala chai, if so inclined, seeds scraped from 1/2 a fresh vanilla bean can be added to the spiced salt.

The original caramel recipe calls for cinnamon alone, so feel free to use 1/2 teaspoon of the ground stuff if that is your preference.

Deb says: Apple cider (sometimes called sweet or “soft” cider), as I’m referring to it here, is different from both apple juice and the hard, or alcoholic, fermented apple cider. It’s a fresh, unfiltered (it has sediment), raw apple juice — the juice literally pressed from fresh apples. It’s unpasteurized, and must be refrigerated, because it’s perishable. In the Northeast, I usually find it at farm stands and some grocery stores. I occasionally find vacuum- sealed bottles called apple cider in the juice aisle, but none of the bottled varieties that I’ve tried has the same delicate apple flavor as the more perishable stuff sold in the refrigerator section.

4 cups (945 ml) apple cider
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger 
1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom 
A good pinch ground clove
A few turns of freshly-ground black pepper
2 teaspoons flaky sea salt, less of a fine-grained one
8 tablespoons (115 grams or 1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into chunks
1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar
1/2 cup (110 grams) packed light brown sugar
1/3 cup (80 ml) heavy cream
Neutral oil for the knife

Bring the apple cider to a boil in a large saucepan over high heat. Continue to boil, stirring occasionally, until transforms into a dark, thick syrup and is reduced to about 1/2-1/3 cup in volume, which should take around 35 to 40 minutes. 

Meanwhile, set out the other ingredients, as the candy comes together pretty quickly at the end. Line the bottom and sides of an 8-inch, straight-sided metal baking pan with a cross of parchment. Set aside. In a small bowl, stir together all the spices with the sea salt. 

Once the apple cider is reduced, remove it from the heat and quickly stir in the butter, sugars and heavy cream. Return the pot to medium-high heat and let it boil until a candy thermometer reads 252°F, about 5 minutes. 

Immediately remove the caramel from the heat. Add the spiced salt mixture, and give the caramel several stirs. Pour the caramel into the prepared pan and set it aside to cool; around 2 hours at room temperature, or faster in the fridge. Once the caramel is set, use the parchment paper sling to transfer the block of candy to a cutting board. With a well-oiled knife, cut the caramel into 1-by-1-inch squares. Place the cut pieces onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and place in the fridge for 10 minutes before wrapping. Once firmed up, wrap each in pieces of parchment or wax paper, twisting or folding closed. 

The caramels will be soft at room temperature, or can be kept firm in the fridge. They'll last about two weeks, either way. 

MAKES 64 candies. 


First photo taken from my Instagram. For those who asked about the recipe, this is for you. I hope you enjoy them. xo!


Something we can work with

If Béa's dessert was a paragon of restraint, exquisitely delicate, this brash incarnation of much the same ingredients is its antithesis.

And, comically, the story of this cookie-studded, caramel-rippled ice cream began in stubborn frugality. 

On the same day that friends were introducing us to Sweetheart Sundaes, on this end we were making blondies (think brownies without the cocoa). Our bars were heavy with shards of semisweet chocolate, and a measured scattering of white; they baked up shatteringly glossy at their top and dense with chew at their centre. Following the theme of St. Valentine, my lads and I cut the slab into appropriate heart shapes, to wrap and give to fond friends.

Our affection was well represented. 

However, no matter how neatly, carefully, mindfully hearts are punched out of a rectangle, there will be scraps left over. In the manufacture of multiple trays of blondies, those scraps can pile up staggeringly quick. There's only so many that can be nibbled while you work, and as a result it became necessary to consider a suitable use for all those irregular bits.

bits and bobs

Thank goodness for ice cream.

With a faithful affection for frosty confections, I keep the pantry stocked with all that's needed to facilitate the most direct route to frozen happiness that I know — condensed milk ice cream.

It's pour-and-heat and you're ready to go, with only the wait to chill and freeze to contend with. We could have stopped there, stirring in those leftover chunks, arriving at a rocky-with-cookies n' cream conclusion. But, I decided the coming long weekend deserved fanfare of its own, and so espresso-kicked caramel would serve as epilogue to this tale.

Caramel, straight up, can be a tricky business. Even in this energetic application of excess, I thought that too much caramel would be rather too much. It's a modest amount we made, but what's more is there's a sharpness to that sweet, thanks to espresso. The toasty, roasted, tannic depth of coffee cleaves the thick richness of the caramel, taming the throaty burn that caramel can often bring; the combination ends up in between affogato and the nicest butterscotch candy and my-good-gravy-this-is-good  — that is to say, it's something we can work with.

The image above was taken with my phone. In the immediacy of a dead camera battery, hot caramel, melting cream and what we'll now call smug frugality, you work with what's nearby, what's on hand. 

Here's to that working out just fine.

Crumbled cookie ice cream with espresso caramel
The condensed milk ice cream is an old favourite of mine, and its cooked sweetness works as a subtle underscore to the caramel ripple. 

1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1 14-ounce can evaporated milk
1 fresh vanilla bean
Kosher salt
1 3/4 cups heavy cream, divided
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons honey
1/4-1/2 teaspoon finely ground espresso beans or espresso powder, depending on taste
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup roughly crushed cookies, see note

In a medium saucepan, combine the condensed milk and evaporated milk. Spilt the vanilla bean down its length, scraping out the seeds. Add both the seeds and the bean to the saucepan, along with a good pinch of salt. Heat over medium-low heat until just under a simmer, stirring often.

Pour the mixture, along with the vanilla bean, into a clean bowl or pitcher. Stir in 1 1/2 cups of the heavy cream. Chill for a few hours or overnight.

Meanwhile, make the caramel. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat the brown sugar, honey, butter and a pinch of salt, stirring until the butter is melted. Pour in 1/4 cup of heavy cream, along with the ground espresso beans. Bring to a boil, whisking until smooth and the sugar is dissolved. Reduce the heat to low and continue to boil, undisturbed, for 1 minute longer. Remove from the heat, stir in the vanilla. Set aside to cool, stirring occasionally.

Strain the milk mixture in an ice cream maker and freeze according to manufacturer's direction. Depending on the capacity of your machine, either add the crushed cookies a handful at a time to the machine during the last few minutes of churning (the mixture should be the consistency of soft serve), or once the freezing cycle is finished, remove the ice cream to a large, chilled bowl and fold in the cookies by hand.

Spoon 1/3 of the ice cream into a storage container. Smooth the top, and pour over a few tablespoons of caramel in long stripes. With the tip of a knife, lightly swirl the caramel into the ice cream. Layer in half of the remaining ice cream, and repeat the layers two more times, ending with a drizzle of caramel. There will be caramel left over. Set this aside.

Cover the ice cream and freeze for at least 3 hours. To serve, warm up the remaining caramel, along with any leftover cookies, or some chopped, toasted walnuts if you happen to have them around. Make sundaes, and try to keep from grinning.

Makes about 1 quart.


  • Blondies were the cookie of choice because we had them on hand. They had a balance of crunch and soft that gave a terrific texture; chocolate chip cookies, or oatmeal cookies are what I'd recommend for their similarity. If you're hard pressed though, there's little wrong with bashed up vanilla wafers.



Without edge

caramel self-saucing walnut puddings

There is a quiet gentleness to the word pudding, or even better its diminutive form, pud. I’m considering it in its larger scope, the loosely-defined notion of desserts in general, not the narrow view of custard alone.

Pudding has a welcoming, nursery-school comfort to its sound. Placing the phrase “Caramel Self-Saucing” as a prefix only serves to amplify that quality.

However, for all their soothing reputation, these petite darlings gave me a world of trouble.  Well, not these ones, as these ones right here are the ones that were made after the hair pulling. After the whispered mutterings punctuated by half-swallowed curses. These ones were the ones that reminded me when made well, a proper pud is your bestest bud on an autumn afternoon. These are the ones that made me do a happy dance in my kitchen, right there by the stove.

What was it that caused all my trouble? Only this - I wanted these cakes to be darned special for all their humbleness. I wanted them pleasantly solid and touched with caramel, and perfectly spoonable. 

Before I get into the account of my failure, it would be remiss to jaunt merrily ahead when I've not given Self-Saucing Puddings the introduction they're due.

To make this miraculous invention, you stir together a simple batter that's spooned into a buttered baking dish. Then your pour a watery syrup, in this instance a caramel one, over top the uncooked cake. Yes, over top. It looks a right mess, and you're thinking you've ruined the whole recipe, because who is going to want to eat something that looks like a sludge-covered bog, and gracious, will your friends ever even want to come over again after you serve them swamp pudding? Steel yourself and pop that dish in the oven.

Take a deep breath and uncross your fingers. You needn't worry. Promise.

The cake will take care of itself. As it bakes, the modest batter grows, rising above the murky darkness of the liquid. And that syrup, so unceremoniously displaced, will sink and ooze its way down, around and through the cake, ending up as a thickened puddle at the bottom of the dish.

And, as someone smart recently said to me, "what could be better than finding warm caramel on the bottom of a yummy cake?" Good question.

Now suitably lulled by that blissful notion, here is the story of my failures. 

My first go gave me a cake that was perfectly serviceable. Its top had a light sugar glaze that was crystalized and pretty - a sugared crust created by the syrup as it sank. But the caramel was where it faltered - I'd pulled muscovado from the pantry, craving its burnt-toffee sweetness and the suggestion of treacle. What I ended up with was far more than a suggestion, it was a manifesto yelled from the depths of my bowl. It was so sugary it hurt.

I tried again. This time with dark brown sugar and a greater ratio of water to sugar and less syrup on the whole.

Then the cake. Serviceable wasn't enough. I was going for better than that. I'd put roasted walnuts in the first try, which gave a rough crumb that reminded me of tweed coats and cable knit sweaters. This time around, as I was melting the butter, it hit me - let it brown. So I did, watching with far more glee than is probably normal for one to feel over a saucepan of bubbling butter, as it went from buttercup to deeper golden, and finally touched with umber.

The aromatic butter was transformative. The cake was given voice against the caramel, in harmonious tandem. 

The third try was a minor tweak - seeds from a vanilla bean. It is a sleepy spice, with a murmured warmth that is without edge. It's the accent of a hushed baritone. The duet turned a trio and was improved by the collaboration.

That was the charm, as they say. For here was the pud I'd wanted, one that lived up to its name. 


Caramel Self-Saucing Walnut Puddings


For the syrup
1/2 cup brown sugar, lightly packed
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup water
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt

For the cake
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
4 ounces walnuts, toasted and ground into meal with a food processor
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup brown sugar, lightly packed
1/4 cup milk
Seeds scraped from one vanilla bean
4-6 small fresh figs, sliced (optional)

Lightly-whipped cream to serve

Start with the syrup. In a small saucepan, over medium heat, melt the butter. Once liquid, stir in the brown sugar to combine along with the salt. Pour in the water and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for five minutes. Set aside.

Preheat an oven to 325°F (160°C).

In a saucepan over medium heat, melt the 6 tablespoons butter. Cook until the butter begins to brown and smell toasty, around 5 minutes. Set aside to cool, stirring occasionally - it will continue to darken as it sits. 

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. In another bowl, stir together the browned butter, walnut meal, eggs, brown sugar, milk and seeds from the vanilla bean. Once combined, stir in the dry ingredients until just blended. Do not overmix.

Divide the pudding mixture between 6 x 1-cup capacity greased oven-safe dishes. Top with sliced figs. 

Give the syrup a stir if needed, then carefully pour some over the back of a spoon onto each of the cakes, trying not to disturb the figs. The cakes will look a mess, but don't worry. Bake in the preheated oven until the cake is puffed and set, with a dry, glistening crust and you can see the syrup bubbling around the edge of the dishes, around 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool for 5 minutes before serving with the cream.

Makes 6.