Caramel and I have a long history. I want to be good at making it and it just wants to keep bringing me down. I have scars on my arms from caramel attempts gone wrong to prove it. There was this tart on the cover of Saveur magazine that almost killed me. It was a salted caramel tart in a chocolate base with a ganache topping. It took 3 tries to get it right, 1 sauce pan casualty, and one serious burn. But I was determined to get it right. The thing that I discovered that I was doing wrong was not trusting my instincts. Like in life, you need to trust yourself to know that you know what you are doing. I did not trust myself to know that maybe my thermometer was not calibrated anymore, or maybe there was a misprint in the recipe. Finally on the third attempt I threw the thermometer out and just watched for the signs from the stove that the sugar was ready. You need to trust your senses. Does the color look right? What does it smell like?
After a few more attempts at making caramel for different things, I am no longer afraid. The worst thing that can happen is that I am out of a cup of sugar and I need to start over. My new outlook on caramel has made making caramel an enjoyable experience instead of one where I felt like my domestic prowess was being judged. I have learned a few things that I will share with you though.
1. Have everything out and ready to go. Keep a cup of water and a pastry brush next to the stove. You can brush the sides of the pan with water if crystals start to form. Measure out your cream and have the vanilla out.
2. Once the sugar starts bubbling, do not walk away from it. Do not check email or go fold a load of laundry, you really need to keep an eye on it.
3. Do not stir the sugar. Once dissolved if you stir the sugar it will form crystals up the side of the pan. While a cool science experiment, it is not something that you want when you want a smooth and rich caramel sauce.
Remember the chocolate ice cream that I made the other day? This sauce just might be amazing on it. With some crushed up pretzels. Oh. My. God.