I know there are lots of ways out there to make ‘easy’ caramel– usually involving sweetened condensed milk alone (dulce de leche) or with brown sugar (cooked to just a high-enough temp to taste like caramel.) I’m not here to knock either of those two methods– they certainly have their places. I love to use dulce de leche in this icing, and when I lived in South America, we ate it daily on bread for breakfast. It was heavenly. Likewise, the brown sugar stuff is great for caramel apples in the fall, and for an easy chocolate-fondue alternative.
But today I’m back from a long vacation, and ready for the real thing: pure sugar with a bit of water (and Karo to avoid crystalization), brought almost to the smoke-point. Combine this with heavy cream and a little butter, and it is caramel perfection. Don’t be scared. Throw fear (but not safety) out the window, and follow these directions closely. There is nothing like pure sugar after that beautiful, fragrant and fast-moving process of caramelization!
Some people shy away from making real caramel because you have to watch it closely, and remove it from the heat at just the right time. Others worry that the sugar molecules will crystalize and ruin the batch. While these concerns are all valid, the caramel-making process can be mastered with just a little attention to detail and some careful practice.
First, a little safety. Melted sugar is sticky and extremely hot. Please wear cooking gloves to protect your hands. Also, you may wish to have a bowl of ice water in the sink, just in case a little spatter pops out of the pan and you need to cool off quickly. Work carefully, and never, never leave the cooking pot unattended.
Start with a tiny (1-quart) saucepan that is very clean. Set it on the burner you will use, and carefully pour the sugar into the center of the pan, avoiding the sides.
Then, carefully add the water to the pan by slowly pouring it down the inside walls of the pan in a circular motion. This assures that any stray sugar crystals wash down off the sides and into the middle of the pan, where they can cook correctly. Ensure that all the sugar is moistened by running a toothpick through any remaining dry sugar until it is overtaken by water. Add the Karo syrup to the center of the mixture. This light corn syrup is an additional safeguard against crystalization.
Turn on the heat to medium. Now just sit there and watch. Really. DON’T stir (any foreign molecules introduced while caramelizing the sugar can cause crystalization. And that’s bad. So don’t stir.) Soon the mixture will begin to boil.
Keep watching. In a few minutes, you will see the first amber-like color appear at the bottom of the pan.
Don’t get impatient! Continue to boil the mixture a few more minutes until the whole mixture is amber-colored, almost the color of copper. It is quite hard to take the temperature of such a small amount, and the cooking process moves very quickly, so this is one time I recommend just going by color and smell.
This is the tricky time. The caramelization moves rapidly from ‘just barely amber’ to ‘smoking and burned.’ Lift the pan off the heat at any moment if you are worried that the process is moving too fast. You can always put it back on the burner for a few seconds if it needs more cooking. I sometimes lift my little pan up several times, even taking it over to the window to see if I am satisfied with the color or if it needs more heat and time. Also be aware that it will continue to cook in the hot pan even after it has left the burner, so remove it a second before you think you should, then immediately add the warmed cream. It will pop and sizzle just a little bit– so be cautious.
Stir in the cream, then add the butter and stir until combined. At this point you can return it to very low heat, stirring constantly if you are having trouble getting it all to mix smoothly. It should come right together.
Pour the caramel sauce into your serving dish, and allow it to cool slightly before using. This caramel can be kept, covered tightly, in the fridge for a few days. Just warm it up gently before using. Or, if you’re me, sneak little spoonfuls straight from the fridge. Yep, not going to hide it! I love this stuff.
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