The deep secret of caramel

Times Staff Writer

OF all the caramels in all the world, Richard’s mother had to bring me some from Brittany. Richard is French, and a baker, who jokes that his region is less famous for its bread than its platters of seafood, so poetically called “fruits de mer.” But as I tasted the caramel, I realized that Richard’s hometown had more to commend it than loaves and fishes. It had this stuff. Brittany had caramel.

I have always loved caramel. As a child, I used to stare longingly at plastic-wrapped squares heaped by the checkout counter at our local grocery store. My favorite candy bar is still a Snickers, second favorite a Twix. I never bite into a chocolate from a mixed gift box without checking the key on the lid to see which is caramel.

But as much as I love all these, the tawny little chews in this box from Richard’s mother were different. They were madly intense, super rich and slightly salty. I have never been so powerless in the face of food. Even with one in my mouth, I found that I needed one in my hand. Chewing and holding, I then found it altogether disconcerting to leave the room where the candy box sat on the mantle. Chewing, holding and standing near the mantle, I gave into the compulsion and ate every candy in the box.


That was almost 10 years ago. I did not allow myself near anything like them until the last week, when I got to wondering: What is it about caramel? All caramel, but especially that caramel? What is so compelling about those swelling buttery flavors topped off by toasty-brown notes?

I had to know. There’s nothing like a challenge, particularly when it involves candy.

The investigation begins

My first step was ordering every kind of French caramel that I could find on the Internet and in posh shops around town. Many came in folksy wooden Camembert-style boxes, leading me to expect the Brittany effect. I rolled up my sleeves and started sampling sweeties. They were good, some better than others, but one after another, I could put them down, leave the room, think caramel-free thoughts. They were factory sweets. Nope. Nope, nope, nope.

Second step was calling on the experts. Barry Swanson, a food scientist, more specifically a fabulously informative candy doctor at Washington State University in Pullman, began his primer with a definition of caramelization. Anything with sugar in it can be caramelized, he said. The browning of toast, the golden richness of frying onions, all those wafting good smells that could waken Rip Van Winkle, they are all products of caramelization.

Then there is caramel, the candy. Unsurprisingly, back in 1912, it was a Frenchman, Louis-Camille Maillard, who offered a scientific explanation for caramelization, a process known among chemists as “Maillard browning.” By that time, French confectioners had long mastered the art of cooking a combination of sugar and syrup to a molten sugar state, browning it, creating a myriad of toasty, edgy, even some almost bitter flavors, but stopping just before it burns. They lined tart pans with this sugary glaze, made spun sugar cages, generally worked wonders. Some smart candy maker thought to add sea salt in order to, as Swanson put it, “broadcast” the flavors in our mouths, an artful fillip behind caramel’s lingering richness.

The French also realized that to achieve caramel that makes our mouths water, they needed to add fat and protein to that molten sugar. The best choices of fat, Swanson said, are butter and cream, “that’s what gives you the flavor.” Caramel, it turns out, is not only quintessentially French, it is the sweetest expression of a dairy culture that is so varied, it has a cheese for every day of the year.

As in France, American caramel making took off around dairies. When I phoned Alan Cotich, president of the Classic Caramel Co. in York, Pa., he was keen to emphasize that Milton Hershey started with caramel in the heart of Pennsylvania dairy country before becoming distracted by chocolate. Cotich’s company supplies caramel for big-time candy makers who reformulate it into their products. He sees caramel as a notably honest confection. “No colors or flavors are added to caramel,” Cotich says. “All are developed by proper application of heat and time.”


In other words, if you buy a candy that says it’s got caramel coloring in it, then either a mild caramel has been dyed to suggest a smokier bite than the cooking actually achieved, or it ain’t caramel.

Like Hershey before him, his company grew up in Pennsylvania because of the lush local dairy culture. But they don’t always use cream, Cotich said. Choice of fat is dictated by client. Caramel is so versatile, it can be hard, medium chewy or soft. It goes into suckers, sauce, candy or even as delivery systems for calcium supplements, he said. In each case, there might be a different fat involved: soy oil, coconut oil or refined palm kernel oil.

In Los Angeles, at See’s candies, there are two acceptable fats: whipping cream or butter, usually a mixture of the two. The vice president, Richard van Doren, says of his candies: “They are all natural ingredients.” I never doubted it. What’s more, it’s high time that someone confirmed my long-held belief that See’s Almond Royale is, in fact, a health food.

A swooning success

But it’s still not the sort of caramel that Richard’s mother gave me, something that properly should be a controlled substance. I wondered if I hadn’t somehow imagined their potency. I took to cookbooks, and ran through any number of recipes. I could not find one for salty Breton caramel.

Then my editor remembered some indecently good caramels served in the New York restaurant of French chef Alain Ducasse. To my astonishment, the restaurant agreed to part with the recipe (merci!).

I went out and got the best cream, the best butter and the best sugar I could find. Cheap stuff would not, I was sure, achieve the Brittany effect.

For the next four days, I made Ducasse’s caramels every night and brought them to the office next day. I made them right, I made them wrong. I overcooked them and undercooked them. I made them plain, then with vanilla and maple syrup, then with Valhrona 100% cocoa solids dark chocolate.

I had not misremembered the intensity of fresh French-style caramel. This was the butter, cream and sugar in perfect pitch. I realized why they are so scarce. They are soft, luscious -- halfway to a fresh food. Factory caramels never could taste like these: Butter practically runs from them. The recipe didn’t come with an eat-by date, and we didn’t give any a chance to age, but I’m sure they should be made, served and eaten in fairly good order. They most certainly would become rancid on a candy rack.

Take the trouble to make these, serve them, and they induce rapture. One afternoon, I passed out the caramels in the newsroom. Of approximately 100 people offered them, only two declined. The most typical reactions were a cry to the heavens, purrs, groans, astonishment at the richness and waves of complex flavors.

When one colleague registered the flavors, he practically shouted, “Sweet Mary mother of God!”

To those who have yet to try these, please don’t take offense. It’s not sacrilege. That’s the Brittany effect. That’s caramel.


Caramel sauce

Total time: 25 minutes

Servings: 6 (1 1/2 cups)

Note: From “My Chateau Kitchen” by Anne Willan (Clarkson Potter, 2000).

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup water

Lemon juice

1/2 cup (1 stick) salted butter

3/4 cup whipping cream


1. Combine the sugar with the water and a squeeze of lemon juice in a heavy saucepan. Stir to combine and cook over low heat until the sugar dissolves, 3 to 4 minutes. (The lemon juice helps stop the sugar from crystallizing.) Increase the heat to medium and boil the syrup rapidly without stirring until it starts to turn golden around the edges, about 10 minutes. Do not stir -- if you do, the syrup may crystallize.

2. Meanwhile, melt the butter with the cream in a separate saucepan over medium heat.

3. When the syrup begins to color, lower the heat a bit and continue boiling to a deep golden color, about 3 to 4 minutes; it will darken rapidly. Remove the pan from the heat and let it cool for 30 seconds. Add the butter mixture, standing back as the sauce will sputter and bubble up in the pan. Put it back over the heat, stirring until the caramel is completely dissolved. Let the sauce cool, then taste it and add a dash of salt to sharpen the flavor. Serve hot or chilled.

Each serving: 317 calories; 211 mg. sodium; 62 mg. cholesterol; 21 grams fat; 13 grams saturated fat; 34 grams carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0.01 gram fiber.


Walnut caramel tart

Total time: 2 hours

Servings: 12

Note: The tart filling is from “The American Baker” by Jim Dodge with Elaine Ratner (Simon & Schuster, 1987); the shell is from “Baking With Jim Dodge” by the same authors (Simon & Schuster, 1991).

Tart shell

1/2cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cold

2 teaspoons sugar

1/4 teaspoon coarse salt

1 1/2 cups flour

6 tablespoons whipping cream

1. If using a mixer, cut the butter into 1-inch cubes. Blend with the sugar, salt and flour at low speed until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add the cream and mix until the dough comes together.

2. If mixing by hand, combine the sugar, salt and flour and chill in the freezer, 30 minutes. Cut the butter into 1-inch cubes. Add to the chilled ingredients and toss until coated with flour. Pinch the flour and butter together until the butter is in thin flakes. Rub small amounts of the mixture between your fingers until it resembles coarse meal. Add the cream and turn it in with a rubber spatula, turning the flour over repeatedly. When absorbed, press the dough against the bottom of the bowl.

3. On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough into a 13-inch circle. Fold the dough into quarters and lift into an 11- or 12-inch tart pan. Unfold and settle it into the pan. Gently press the dough against the sides, being careful not to press against the bottom. Trim off the extra dough. Chill until firm, about 20 minutes.

4. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Line the shell with heavy foil, covering the edges and bottom. Poke holes with a fork over the bottom, piercing both foil and dough. Bake until the inside of the shell no longer looks raw, 20 minutes. Remove the foil and bake until the shell is golden brown and has pulled away from the sides, 3 to 5 minutes more.


2 cups sugar

1/2 cup water

1 1/2 cups whipping cream

3 cups walnut pieces

2 eggs

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. Stir together the sugar and water in a 3-quart heavy-bottomed saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat and cook without stirring until half the sugar has dissolved and the syrup is a light mahogany color (350 degrees on a candy thermometer), about 30 minutes. Swirl the pan during cooking if the syrup is not darkening evenly. Remove from the heat and very carefully pour in the cream (the hot syrup may splatter). When the bubbling stops, stir and set aside to cool at least 15 minutes. (This is important because if the syrup is too hot when you add it to the eggs, it will cook them and ruin your filling.)

3. Toast the walnuts on a baking sheet in the oven, 5 minutes. Chop them into 1/2-inch pieces.

4. Beat the eggs at medium-high speed, 1 minute. Mix in the caramel. Stir in the walnut pieces. Spoon the mixture into the baked tart shell with a slotted spoon. Pour any remaining caramel over the top and smooth the surface with the back of the spoon. Bake 30 to 35 minutes. The filling will feel soft when it comes out of the oven but will set as it cools.

Each serving: 508 calories; 68 mg. sodium; 77 mg. cholesterol; 34 grams fat; 11 grams saturated fat; 47 grams carbohydrates; 8 grams protein; 2.43 grams fiber.


Caramel ice cream

Total time: 1 hour, plus 1 1/2 hours chilling

Servings: 12 servings (1 1/2 quarts)

Note: From “Desserts” by Nancy Silverton (Biscuit Books, 2000). The caramelized sugar must be very dark to sufficiently color and flavor this ice cream, but be careful not to burn it.

8 egg yolks

2 cups whipping cream

2 cups milk

1 cup sugar

1 vanilla bean, split and scraped

1. Whisk the egg yolks lightly to break them up in a large bowl. Set aside.

2. Scald the cream and milk in a large, heavy saucepan. Keep warm over low heat.

3. Heat the sugar and vanilla bean in a small heavy saucepan or an unlined copper pan over medium heat until the sugar caramelizes, 5 to 8 minutes. Stir occasionally with a wooden spoon to ensure that the sugar colors evenly. Once one portion of the sugar begins to darken, toss it with the uncooked sugar. This will prevent the sugar from burning in one spot before the entire mixture has liquefied and turned a dark caramel color.

4. When the mixture begins to smoke, set the bottom of the pan in a bowl of water to stop it from cooking and coloring further. Remove the vanilla bean. Immediately begin whisking the mixture into the warm cream in 3 or 4 batches; pour in the cream quickly or it will continue to cook and burn. (Careful -- it will splatter and bubble up.) Reheat the cream mixture, stirring constantly, until the caramel is completely incorporated.

5. Pour about one-fourth of the hot cream mixture into the egg yolks, whisking continuously. Return to the saucepan, and whisk together with the remaining cream. Cook over low heat, being careful not to boil, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of the spoon, about 5 minutes. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer into a bowl. Whisk a few times to release the heat. Chill about 1 hour.

6. Freeze in an ice cream machine according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Each serving: 197 calories; 32 mg. sodium; 163 mg. cholesterol; 12 grams fat; 6 grams saturated fat; 19 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 0 gram fiber.


Caramel with salted butter

Total time: 30 minutes, plus 2 hours cooling

Servings: 36 caramels

Note: From Alain Ducasse at the Essex House Restaurant in New York. Fleur de sel, a sea salt, is sold at specialty markets.

1 cup half-and-half

1 cup (2 sticks) salted butter

1/2 teaspoon fleur de sel

1 pound superfine sugar (about 2 3/4 cups)

1/4 cup corn syrup

1. Bring the half-and-half, butter and fleur de sel to boil in a heavy, 3-quart saucepan. Set aside.

2. Stir together the sugar and corn syrup in a heavy saucepan. Bring to a temperature of 293 degrees on a candy thermometer over medium heat. As the sugar begins to melt, swirl the pan often until all the sugar is melted. Remove the pan from the heat and add the half-and-half mixture. Set the pan over medium heat and bring the mixture to 248 degrees, stirring frequently. This will take 10 to 15 minutes. (The mixture will look like a caramel sauce.)

3. Pour into an 8-inch-square nonstick pan and allow to set 2 hours.

4. After the caramel has completely cooled, set the pan over very low heat just enough to loosen the caramel, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Invert the pan onto a nonstick surface. Cut the caramel into 36 pieces and wrap individually. Store in a dry place.

Each caramel: 115 calories; 90 mg. sodium; 16 mg. cholesterol; 6 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 16 grams carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0 fiber.