Caramels for Christmas

12 12 2010

I recently took a great food writing class through UCSD Extension with Deborah Schneider, longtime San Diego chef, author of Cooking with the Seasons at Rancho La Puerta, and owner of Sol Cocina, a modern Mexican restaurant in Newport Beach.

My final project was inspired by caramels that we made as gifts for Christmas this year. We made fleur de sel, chocolate brownie, apple pie, and Marcona almond flavors.

Christmas Caramels

Caramelized sugar is one of the few ingredients that have the power to evoke both warm feelings of home and deep terror. Standing over the pot in the kitchen with slightly spitting boiling sugar on the verge of burning, I kept telling myself that the warm happy part with soft, buttery, chewy caramel candy was coming soon. This was last Christmas when I was making a collection of sweets for holiday gifts and time was running short on getting the caramels done. People loved the flavor, but I never did get the texture right. This year, I was determined to solve the texture and do the whole process without giving myself an ulcer. I think I’ve found a good method.

Chewy caramel candies are actually an American invention that originated in the 1800’s. They were made with sugar, milk, butter, and molasses or syrup that was mixed together and boiled until the right consistency was reached. Before this, caramel was the stage in the process of boiling sugar when all the water had boiled away and the molten sugar began to color. This use lives on in flan or crème caramel, filigree spun sugar, and has been incorporated into yes, many caramel candy recipes.

The caramel recipe here starts with boiling sugar until it changes color; then you add butter, cream, and milk and cook it until it further browns and reaches the right texture. Why bother browning the sugar separately and then the milk, you ask? Well, browning sugar and browning milk proteins are actually two very different chemical processes: caramelization and the Maillard reaction. Each contributes different flavors to the overall taste profile and the combination makes for a complex, layered experience when you chew the caramel.

The Science of Caramel Sidebar
Caramelization is the process by which sugar alone turns brown. Sugar molecules start breaking down and reacting with each other higgledy piggledy. New molecules like diactyl, the molecule that makes butter and microwave popcorn taste like butter, get formed. The darker you go, the more the reaction continues. Take it to coffee color and you’ll have a smoking, bitter concoction called caramel color that is used to add color and flavor to colas. Depending on the sugar, caramelization occurs at different temperatures. Fructose caramelizes at lower temperatures (220 F), with glucose higher (300 F), and sucrose (table sugar) even higher (340 F).

When sugars are heated in the presence of proteins, a different reaction occurs between some types of sugar and the amino acids of the protein. Called the Maillard reaction, after Louis Camille Maillard, the French scientist that described it, this is the same process as browning meat in a pan. In caramel candies, the lactose from milk as well as glucose and fructose, if present, react with the amino acids in the milk and butter proteins. Table sugar, or sucrose, oddly doesn’t play a role here. Sucrose is made up of glucose and fructose, but they are bound together at the same part of the molecule that is required to react with amino acids. So, as long as sucrose stays sucrose, it doesn’t make Maillard products. Maillard reactions can occur at much lower temperatures than caramelization and we’ll see most of ours around 225-250 F.

So, why is caramelizing sugar so stressful? Well, the classic method requires split-second timing. Sugar and a little lemon juice or corn syrup are mixed together until it looks like wet sand. The lemon juice breaks down sucrose to glucose and fructose, effectively making a version of corn syrup in the pan. We’re using corn syrup because it is easier to control. The sugar is heated until it begins to melt. Stirring the sugar can make it crystallize into a giant globular mess, so it is swirled gently to mix the ingredients. The melting is usually uneven, though: some parts of the sugar may melt and darkly caramelize, while others are still crystallized. And you want to stop it before it burns. But the sugar needs to melt before adding the liquids or else crystals can form in the finished candy. And then the phone starts ringing and the kids start yelling. You get the picture.

An alternative method is to dissolve the sugar in water first. The water is then boiled off and molten sugar is left. The crystals are fully dissolved and the caramelization of the sugar is even, resulting in much more control over when we want to add the liquids. We still swirl, not stir, but we’re swirling a liquid, not a slushy mix.

The perfect caramelization point depends on the other flavors in the recipe. Light fruit flavors may benefit from a lighter caramel, while toasted nut caramels may like a darker flavor. The first time you caramelize sugar, take a sample at various points as the sugar goes through lemon, gold, amber, and coffee colors. Take some with a spoon and let cool on a lightly oiled heat-proof surface. When cool, you can taste these stages and decide what will be best for your flavors. The recipe here uses a gold colored caramel, which is reached at about 340 F. As the color gets close, take the pan off the heat. It will continue to brown, just more slowly. If you want it darker, put it back on the heat.

Adding the liquids can be exciting, but you can take it slow. Since the sugar is much hotter than the boiling point of water, all the water in the butter, milk, and cream will start to boil when you add it to the molten sugar, making for a bit of a bubble show. Start adding just a bit, stir, and wait for the bubbles to quiet down before adding more.

Choosing the time to take it off the heat and pour it into a lightly oiled container is another critical stress point. Hardness is determined by the temperature when you take it off the heat and slight variation in temperature can be important. I had been under the impression that if you cooked it too much, there was nothing you could do. You just had to deal with hard caramel. But that isn’t true. You can just add liquid and it will soften. It was like a weight had been lifted. As temperature reaches close to the end, just take the pan off the heat and test the hardness by drizzling a small amount in ice water. As soon as it goes from soft to strongly resisting, pour it out. Too hard? Just add a spoonful of milk or water and try again.

The last point is to let it rest after pouring for at least 12 hours. Touch it any sooner and the oil will start to break and ooze out of the candy. After 12 hours, you can cut easily with a chef’s knife or a pizza cutter. Wrap individually in plastic candy wrappers or waxed paper, put in a pretty box, and you’ve got an enviable holiday gift that was faster and less stressful than parking at the mall.

Recipe: Salted Caramels

The best things in life are often the simplest. Caramelized sugar, salt, and butter are a holy trinity of flavor.

220g (1 ¼ c.) sugar
30g (2 T.) corn syrup
55g (¼ c.) water

90g (6 1/2 T.) unsalted butter (splurge on the European style, here)
220 g (1 c.) half-and-half or:
160g (½ c. + 3 T.) milk
60g (¼ c. + 1 T.) heavy cream
1 t. sea or flaky kosher salt (a good sea salt like fleur de sel is great here)

¼ t. sea or flaky kosher salt

Mix sugar, corn syrup, and water in a heavy 4 qt. saucepan and stir until evenly distributed. Cover with a lid and set to high heat. The steam as it comes to a rolling boil will dissolve any stray sugar crystals on the side of the pan. When boiling hard, take off the lid and set a candy thermometer in the liquid such that the bulb is submerged, but is not touching the bottom of the pan to get an accurate temperature reading.

Heat the half and half or milk/cream mixture in a separate saucepan with 1 t. salt. Stir until the salt is dissolved. Set aside.

Boil at high heat without stirring until the temperature reaches 300 F. Then, turn the heat down to medium and monitor the solution for color change. It should turn a lemon yellow before turning golden. If the color appears uneven, swirl the pan. As the color changes, moderate the heat by taking the pan off the burner as needed. When the solution is golden, take the pan off the heat and add the butter. Stir with a wooden spoon until melted. Then, slowly add the half-and-half or milk/cream. Let bubble and stir.

Place saucepan on medium to medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Turn the temperature down if the caramel is in danger of boiling over. Boil, stirring often to constantly, until the solution reaches the desired consistency. This should be about 248 F. To test for consistency, drizzle a small amount into ice water, let cool, and taste. The candy should give resistance when bitten, and feel hard when ice cold, warming to soft at body temperature.

Pour into an 8×8 lightly greased heat-proof container, like pyrex. Sprinkle with remaining salt. Let cool at room temperature at least 12 hours. Remove from container and cut into 1×1 inch squares. Wrap in plastic or waxed paper.

Makes 64 pieces. Keeps well at room temperature for 2 months.


Yuzu Macarons

27 11 2010

Macarons filled with yuzu curd and candied yuzu peel. They are tart, sweet, and a touch of heady citron bitter on top of being the most cheerful looking cookies we’ve made.

Working on a badge, we’ve gotten a ton of inspiration and info from Kitchen Musings. The recipe is basically from Pierre Hermé, and is similar to this one.

Calissons in San Diego

8 10 2010

Ah, finally we get to try traditional French calissons. Maison en Provence, a cute shop in Mission Hills carrying specialties of the Provence region, recently started carrying calissons. They are from Chabert et Guillot in Montelimar, who appear to be particularly known for their nougat.

You can see in the picture how it breaks with a coarse crumble, but is moistly holding together. This version seems to have more water/sugar syrup than ours, is brighter orange in color, and is not ground quite as finely. I think the slightly coarser grind may help in bringing out more melon flavor — the very fine grind seems to swamp out the floral notes. The flavor reminds me of fruitcake with the almonds, candied fruit, and moist cake-like texture.

Green curry with fish dumplings and eggplant

30 09 2010

Continuing with green curry, we have David Thompson’s green curry with fish dumplings and eggplant from Thai Food. The fish is chopped finely, flavored with cilantro root, garlic, ginger, white pepper, fish sauce, and a touch of sugar before being formed into little balls that get poached. They are spiced to the level of wonton filling and are tender when broken. The fish is white sea bass from our favorite fish supplier Catalina Offshore. They’re a wholesaler, so they have very fresh fish, and for whatever reason they actually sell it to the public.

This coconut milk-based curry uses essentially the same curry paste that we used for our green curry with beef with a touch of krachai and tumeric. Krachai, also known as fingeroot and lesser ginger, is strong like ginger, but with a different flavor. It tastes almost medicinal and seems to give strength to fish and vegetable curries. We’ve gotten ours frozen at Minh Huang.

Huitlacoche with corn pots de creme

28 09 2010

Huitlacoche (wheet-la-co-che), also known as corn smut, is a wonderful delicacy, especially if you can find it fresh. It is hard to describe, but has a earthy mushroom flavor and lends a light savoriness to foods. It goes very well with corn, cream, eggs, light white cheeses (like mozzarella or Oaxacan cheese) and light amino acid rich seafood like scallops. This time of the year, Chino Farm occasionally has an ear or two and we snatch it up whenever we see it.

This preparation worked out really well. It is a savory pots de creme using corn juice instead of milk with dashes of salt, honey and butter. The huitlacoche is sauteed with shallots, butter and corn, and placed over strips of roasted red anaheim peppers. A bit of epazote is on top. It can be easy to drown out huitlacoche, but in this, it was highlighted with the roasted flavors from the peppers and the sweet creaminess of the custard.

Green Curry with Beef

26 09 2010

We’ve been working through Thai Food by David Thompson and recently got his new book Thai Street Food. This is our first foray into Street Food: a spiced green curry with beef, served with roti.

The roti needs some work and the brisket was too tough, but the curry was bright, rich, and complex with green chiles, lemongrass, shallots, galangal, coconut milk and more. The recipes are tough to get right, but feel much more authentic than any other cookbook we’ve seen on the subject.


1 08 2010

Our latest candy obsession has been calissons.

They are similar to marzipan, but have ground candied fruit, particularly melon and orange, in addition to almonds. The paste rests on wafer paper and is covered by royal icing.

Calissons have quite the history and lore regarding their name and origins. They are a specialty of Aix en Provence where they have been made in a semi-industrialized process since the 1800’s. This region of Provence was well known for it’s almonds until the early 1900’s and melons are still celebrated with an annual festival in the nearby Cavaillon. Prior to the Aix factories, they date to the middle ages, possibly coming from Italian monasteries, although they are often attributed as being first made for King Rene’s (the last king of Provence) second wedding in 1454. They retained a religious significance for some time and were said to protect from the plague.

It seems like a simple candy, but finding a recipe for these things has proved challenging. In seemingly reputable descriptions (like here, here, and here), they indicate ground almonds, ground candied fruit, and sugar or syrup from the candied fruit, but fail to provide actual directions. The ground paste is molded on top of wafer paper and then topped with royal icing as you can see in this video. The result is an almond shaped confection.

There is another version that contains egg yolk and heavy cream that seems like it just can’t be right, and others that seem close, but simplified, with ground almonds and jam. MFK Fisher even has a contribution in her book Map of Another Town. She gives the recipe (you can search for it in the Amazon book) from a factory that she never seems to get around to visiting — a pint of blanched almonds, a pound of sugar, and a few tablespoons of fruit syrup — no mention of candied fruit itself and no candied melon.

We decided that we needed to re-engineer the recipe. We based it on Greweling’s marzipan recipe, which is 50% almonds, but decreased the almonds and added candied fruit and syrup. We changed the recipe to about 35% almonds, 30% candied Cavaillon melon, 5% candied Seville orange rind, and 30% melon syrup + a little honey.

Usually, the candied Cavaillon melon is the most difficult ingredient to source. You can find it online, but it is prohibitively expensive for candy making. You can make it yourself if you can find a really good cantaloupe-ish melon. Cavaillon melons are a type a cantaloupe with a strong, honeyed flavor that is just wonderful. We get ours at the Chino Farm, but they seem like they are becoming more common at farmer’s markets and the like. It can be candied like any other fruit by letting it sit in progressively stronger sugar solutions until it is translucent and the solution is about 75% sugar. It can be dried to look more like candied fruit or drained briefly and used for cooking, as in this recipe.

The almonds we get at Terra Bella Ranch, which have the benefit of being very fresh with a clear almond flavor. Unlike European almonds, though, these do not have any additional flavor from the occasional bitter almond. So, we add a little pure almond extract to compensate.

Here’s our current calisson recipe:

350g almonds
300g drained candied Cavillon melon
50g drained candied Seville orange peel
350g syrup from melons
60g lavender honey (not the infused kind — the kind from bees feeding on lavender)
1/4 t. pure almond extract

The syrup is 75% sugar, but gets cooked to ~88% sugar, so it is >30% to compensate. The honey is in place of glucose in the recipe and is characteristic of Provence, which is renowned for their lavender honey. Historically, fruits were often candied in honey, so this is probably consistent with some version in the past.

To make the paste, we use the same method as Greweling’s marzipan. We blanched the almonds in water for 5 min, removed the skins, lightly ground them with the fruit in a food processor. This gives a roughly chopped mixture:

We boiled the syrup to 244F, poured over the fruit/almonds, lightly stirred and let cool on a marble slab.

This recipe is a little too wet, I think and the above image is probably too moist. We actually microwaved this for 1-2 min to reduce some of the water, let cool, and then proceeded with grinding. We ground the mixture to a paste in 2 batches with the almond extract in the food processor for about 8 minutes per batch. Greweling specifies a commercial processor, but our home 11-cup version works just fine. You just wouldn’t want to make too much, as the motor gets pretty hot. This resulted in a fine, smooth paste that was sticky when warm, but smooth when cool.

After this cooled, we rolled it out onto wafer paper (rice paper, but made of potato starch, available here) using .375 inch aluminum bars as guides.

If you try to cut this immediately, it is pretty sticky. But, if you leave it overnight, it hardens on the outside and becomes much easier to cut. We cut them with a slightly oiled knife, using the aluminum bar as a guide.

Although these are usually molded into tapered almond-shaped diamonds, candies like this have historically been cut into diamonds for centuries. Since we don’t have a mold, we have opted for the cut diamonds. After cutting, they are dipped into royal icing and set out overnight to harden.

These are a pretty subtle, but quite addictive candy. They are not terribly sweet and are floral from the melon and orange. I felt the honey and the almond extract really helped to bring all the flavors together. It is much like marzipan, but with a lot more character — in a light, fruity, flowery sort of way.

We’ll have to run these by the French folks in our lives to verify that they are close to the real deal (we haven’t tried the real deal yet!), but we’re quite happy with their flavor. I think a badge will be in our not too distant future!