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.


Butter Badge: Making Cultured Butter

2 05 2010

As usual, we were getting an ingredient from a good supplier when all of a sudden they stop carrying it. So then what? We have to figure out how to do it ourselves.

This is the story of how we lost butter and found it again, picking up creme fraiche/crema, marscapone, and buttermilk along the way.

We had been buying Plugra from Trader Joe’s, a higher milkfat butter that I had thought was cultured to give it a more buttery flavor. It was reasonably priced at about $4/lb and better than a lot of other butters we had tried at the time. But one day, it was just gone. When we checked, the Trader Joe’s in San Diego wasn’t intending to carry it again.

In trying to find a replacement and searching for cultured butter, we found a number of sites with directions on how to make it yourself. Here are some good ones: Positron, Cook Like your Grandmother, What Geeks Eat, Traveler’s Lunchbox, and more recently, Michael Ruhlman.

Cultured butter is a pretty straightforward process. You take heavy cream, inoculate it with bacteria that make lactic acid, let it thicken overnight, and then beat/churn it until the fat congeals together and the whey/buttermilk is expelled. The first half is very similar to making yogurt, but you start with cream instead of milk and the specific cultures that you use can be different. The butter culture bacteria are mesophilic (medium temp) and thrive at cooler temperatures (64°- 77° F) whereas the yogurt cultures are often thermophilic (warm temp) and grow closer to 110°.

Butter flavor interlude
The flavor of butter is dominated by a couple related chemicals called diacetyl and acetoin. They are made during fermentation — usually by bacteria or yeast. In wines, like chardonnay, wine makers can set up the conditions just right for yeast to make a lot of diacetyl, giving the wine a rich mouthfeel and buttery flavor. In butter, the compounds are made by bacteria (including this guy:
Lactococcus lactis subsp. lactis biovar diacetylactis). Or, if you get the cheap stuff (or butter-flavor popcorn), they just add it as a natural flavoring.

We have tried using yogurt as a culture starter (Fage and Trader Joe’s Greek Yogurt) before upgrading to a mail order butter culture from Dairy Connection. The first attempts with yogurt worked, but the flavor really doesn’t get to buttery without the diacetyl/acetoin producing bacteria. We use the Flora Danica culture — for $10 + shipping, we can culture 50 gallons of cream.

This culture has 4 bacteria friends — 2 which seem to primarily drive the acidification (Lactococcus lactis subsp. lactis, Lactococcus lactis subsp. cremoris) and 2 which drive the flavor production (Lactococcus lactis subsp. lactis biovar diacetylactis, Leuconostoc mesenteroides subsp. cremoris).

The cream that you use is surely important. And as soon as we find a good creamery in San Diego, we’ll tell you just how important. For the time being, we’re relying on heavy cream from Costco (Swiss Dairy, which seems to be based in Riverside and is part of a conglomerate Dean Foods, which also makes Alta Dena and Berkeley Farms, among others).

Like most creams on the general market, this cream is ultra-high pasteurized, and has some additives like mono and diglycerides. The price is cheaper than anywhere else we can find at about $3.10/quart. We have had very good results with it, though. The main thing to remember is always use the freshest cream possible to start. Don’t let it sit in your fridge for weeks and don’t use it if it has been sitting open in your fridge for long (a week was too long for us). It may taste ok as cream, but the bacteria somehow find a way to amplify slightly off flavors into straight yuckiness.

To culture the cream, we start by placing Flora Danica culture (1/8 t. per gallon of cream) in a clean bowl and add about a tablespoon of cream. We make sure to clean the bowl, but we don’t sterilize or go to great lengths to purify our tools. As long as the cream is fresh, we haven’t had a problem.

We let the culture thaw and then work it with a spatula to resuspend the culture in the cream, resulting in a paste.

We heat the rest of the cream to 77 F (25 C) and pour in, mixing well. Then, it gets loosely covered with plastic wrap and set on the kitchen table for 18-24 hrs until thick like sour cream.

Then, in a very boring, but very important step, the cultured cream gets refrigerated for 24 hours. If you don’t do this, the final butter texture is kind of flaky, not smooth and creamy like good butter. It is the kind of butter that breaks when you slice off a piece instead of smoothly cutting through. The flavor also seems to develop some.

After a day in the fridge, the cultured cream can be used as creme fraiche or crema. If you strained it like Greek yogurt, you’d end up with marscapone. It will keep at least 1-2 weeks in the fridge. We usually make a gallon, keeping a quart for creme fraiche and using 3 quarts for butter.

To make butter, you begin by warming the butter to about 50-60 F, which I think is supposed to help it separate when you are beating it later. We do this by placing the bowl in hot water in the sink and stirring until the cream doesn’t feel cold to the touch anymore.

Then, it is off to the mixer. We use a 6 qt. Kitchen Aid stand mixer. Because the beating incorporates air, I would suggest that you make no more than 1/2 the volume of the bowl in cream. We use the paddle attachment because whisking, although effective, seemed to incorporate more milk solids (proteins, etc.) into the butter. When we spread it on bread, the butter melted with a punctate pattern of milk solids. With the paddle attachment, it just melts.

Beat the cream on medium speed (4-5). It will take about 15 minutes or so to turn into butter. First, the cream whips like whipping cream, incorporating air to about double its volume.

Then, like over-whipped cream, it takes on a granular structure. This is the milk fat globules starting to clump together.

The globules keep clumping together and it starts to look like butter, but it isn’t there yet. You may want to reduce the speed at this point so it doesn’t splash out of the bowl.

Finally, the buttermilk separates and the pieces of nascent butter form together.

At this point, you can take it off the mixer. You’ll work it with a spatula to get the butter to become one big clump and then pour off the buttermilk.

The milk is thick and rich. If you haven’t had buttermilk from fresh butter, this will likely be a treat. It is actually drinkable and great in other recipes, which is much more than I can say of the kind in the store.

Then, you wash the residual buttermilk from butter by adding cool water and working it with a spatula. After 3-4 additions of water, the water is not milky anymore and mostly clear.

Then, pour off the last of water, work the butter some to expel the residual water, and you are ready to salt or wrap. We don’t normally salt, but this time we tried 1 teaspoon/lb of salt. Salting seems to vary between .5% and 2% salt (3-9g/lb). It sounds like you need less salt for cultured butter and this time was a little salty. Next time, we’ll do 1/2 t. per lb. To salt, you just work in the salt with the spatula. Then, wrap up for storage. We wrap 8 oz. in plastic wrap.

Three quarts makes about 2 1/2 lbs. of butter. This will keep 3 weeks or so in the fridge and gets better with time. If you are going to keep it longer than that, just put it in the freezer, preferably vacuum packed. It easily takes on fridge/freezer flavors if left too long without good wrapping.

And was it worth it? Well, although we’ve been making the stuff, I think we’re even more likely to buy fancy butter now than before. In comparisons, we think this butter is better than any uncultured butter we’ve had — including Strauss European Unsalted. It is not as good as Echire or Le Gall Beurre de Baratte. If we had to price it, we’d put it at $8-10/lb — as tasty as anything we’ll usually find in the specialty butter section of Whole Foods, but not elite. And as for Plugra? Well, it turns out it isn’t cultured at all, but has “natural flavorings” added (i.e. diacetyl). It now has a harsh artificial taste like microwave popcorn. Ah well.