Once upon a time, butterscotch was the darling of the American sweet tooth, casting its golden glow over puddings, pies, sauces, candies, cake frostings--you name it. Now there are people who’ve never had so much as a single, sorry instant butterscotch pudding.
This must be an oversight, America. Sure, maybe your doctor doesn’t want you to eat too much of it (your dentist either), but fresh butterscotch is overwhelmingly rich, mellow and seductive. Flavorwise, it’s the boss.
In my ill-informed youth, the only butterscotch I knew was either a sauce or a pudding. When I first encountered butterscotch balls, I remember thinking, “Hey, cool, they’ve figured a way to make a butterscotch-flavored candy.”
Actually, I had it backward. Butterscotch candy had come first--the butterscotch flavor develops naturally when you boil sugar syrup and butter together to a high enough temperature to make hard candy. It’s a combination of two flavors: browned sugar, otherwise known as caramel, and browned butter. The latter results from what chemists call the Maillard reaction, in which sugars and proteins react under heat to create roasted and browned flavors.
This is why butterscotch has so often been combined with other roasted ingredients. Nuts, such as pecans, are typically roasted; rum and Bourbon contain caramel; maple syrup has undergone the Maillard reaction.
If anything is certain about butterscotch, it’s that this flavor was not created by design. It was a byproduct of a technique that made candy-making just about foolproof, even for people who weren’t skilled confectioners. The problem in candy-making is that once syrup has been heated higher than about 250 degrees, its natural inclination is to “seize up” as it cools, turning into rock-hard crystals rather than brittle, glassy candy. In the 17th century, French candy-makers had discovered that fat has the handy property of getting in the way of crystallization.
Acid ingredients accomplish much the same thing--in the 18th century, adding an acid such as cream of tartar to sugar syrup was called “greasing” it--by breaking some of the sucrose molecules into glucose and fructose sugar, thereby cluttering up the solution for would-be crystals. This is one reason for all the many sweet-sour hard candies, such as lemon drops and Life Savers. Probably it also explains why a lot of old-time butterscotch recipes call for a little vinegar or lemon juice, and maybe even how a bit of lemon peel flavor came to be traditional in English butterscotch candies.
Molasses retards crystallization too, by altering the ratio of glucose to fructose. Conveniently for butterscotch makers, molasses contains caramel and even some roasted Maillard-reaction flavors of its own, because it’s the byproduct of the repeated boiling by which sugar is refined; in effect, it’s a very dark caramel with a distinct burnt edge and a bit of sharpness. Because molasses is so strongly flavored, butterscotch recipes rarely use it straight, only in the diluted form of brown sugar, which is basically refined sugar crystals thinly coated with molasses.
So a really cautious, or insecure, candy-maker might throw all these things into the mix: butter, an acid ingredient and molasses. As it happens, until highly refined sugar became inexpensive in the middle of the 19th century, most sugar--certainly the sort of sugar ordinary people had access to--was more or less brown, so the molasses issue pretty much took care of itself.
Though the name “butterscotch” didn’t appear until 1885, the product was probably being made in the early 18th century, maybe even before that. In “Sugar-Plums and Sherbet: The Prehistory of Sweets” (Prospect Books, 1998), Laura Mason draws attention to a brand of hard butterscotch called Everton toffee, which goes back to 1753. (The word “butterscotch” has nothing to do with Scotland, by the way. “To scotch” means to cut or score something; when butterscotch candy was poured out to cool, it was “scotched” to make it easier to break into pieces later.)
In the late 19th century, Americans started making butterscotch-flavored sauce, one of the mainstays of the old-time soda fountain, and then followed up with a profusion of butterscotch pastries and other sweets. Most of them have faded, but an underground of passionate butterscotch lovers survives.
For proof, there’s Diana Dalsass’ “The Butterscotch Lover’s Cookbook” (Buttercup Press, $17.95), which gives a lot of luscious-sounding recipes, such as butterscotch streusel apple sour cream pie. Nearly all are based on crushing up butterscotch candies, though, rather than making butterscotch from scratch. The book includes a passionately researched list of sources for buying them.
Why don’t many people make butterscotch sauce or pudding today? Particularly if you don’t trouble to cook the butter to the point of browning (around 240 degrees), as some recipes don’t, it’s a splashy effect with relatively little risk of failure. Butterscotch is forgiving.
Just how forgiving is plain from the wildly differing proportions of ingredients in butterscotch sauce recipes. With fudge or fondant, the proportions always have to be about the same, but the ratio of sugar to butter in butterscotch recipes can range from 4:3 to 16:1, and the ratio of sugar to cream from 8:9 to 4:1.
In short, you could practically forget about using any recipe at all and just boil a bunch of brown sugar with some butter for a while, add cream and then boil until it was as thick as you liked.
Don’t worry. It’d be some kind of butterscotch sauce. Butterscotch rules, but it’s not exactly rocket science.
Rum Butterscotch Sauce
Active Work Time: 10 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 40 minutes
This really luscious, mouth-filling sauce keeps well in the refrigerator but should be taken out an hour ahead, or briefly zapped in the microwave, to soften it before use. From “Ladies Home Journal Dessert Cookbook,” edited by Carol Truax (Doubleday, 1964).
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 1/4 cups light corn syrup
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1 cup whipping cream
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons light rum
Place the sugar, corn syrup and butter in a small, heavy saucepan and boil over medium-high heat until it reaches 245 degrees, about 15 minutes; the coating on a spoon dipped into the mixture and then in cold water will have a gummy consistency.
Stir in the cream, return to a boil and simmer until thickened, 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla and rum. Let cool and then refrigerate until use.
About 2 cups. Each tablespoon: 114 calories; 46 mg sodium; 13 mg cholesterol; 4 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 19 grams carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0 fiber.
Active Work and Total Preparation Time: 20 minutes
This recipe, which the Food section voted as one of its 10 best in 1990, is based on the one used at Wolfgang Puck’s defunct restaurant Eureka. Adding coffee gives it a flavor like coffee candy, maple an overpowering perfume.
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1 3/4 cups brown sugar, packed
1 1/2 cups whipping cream
7 tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 cups milk
4 egg yolks
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 cup brewed espresso or strong coffee or 1/3 cup maple syrup, optional
Combine the butter and the brown sugar in a saucepan over low heat. Simmer 5 minutes, stirring. Add the cream and stir until smooth.
Combine the cornstarch and salt in a bowl. Stir in the milk until the cornstarch dissolves. Add the cornstarch mixture to the saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly to prevent burning, until the mixture thickens, 5 minutes.
Whisk 1 cup of the mixture into the egg yolks, then return to the pan. Add the vanilla and optional espresso or maple syrup. Reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Strain and pour into 8 custard cups. Serve warm or cold.
8 servings. Each serving: 468 calories; 260 mg sodium; 185 mg cholesterol; 25 grams fat; 15 grams saturated fat; 58 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 0.06 gram fiber.
Caramel Butterscotch Sauce
Active Work Time: 20 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 45 minutes
Here’s a butterscotch sauce flavored with freshly made caramel instead of molasses, which emphasizes the flavor of the lightly browned butter. It has a tendency to separate and granulate when cold, so it should be warmed up and stirred well before using. From “Sauces: Classical and Contemporary Sauce Making,” by James Peterson (Van Nostrand and Reinhold, 1991).
1 pound granulated sugar
2 cups water
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1/2 cup whipping cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Place the sugar in a small, heavy saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves, then cook without stirring until it is a deep reddish brown, 10 to 15 minutes. Pour in 1 cup of water and stand back to avoid the steam and splatter. Wait 1 minute, then add the remaining 1 cup of water and boil, stirring occasionally, until any hardened caramel has melted, 5 to 8 minutes.
Add the butter and boil until the mixture reaches 245 degrees on a candy thermometer, about 15 minutes; the coating on a spoon dipped into the mixture and then in cold water will have a gummy consistency. Stir in the cream and vanilla and simmer until it reaches the desired consistency; it should flow smoothly almost in a continuous drip off the spoon. This should take 2 to 5 minutes. Let cool, then refrigerate until use.
2 cups. Each tablespoon: 88 calories; 30 mg sodium; 10 mg cholesterol; 4 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 14 grams carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0 fiber.