All About Caramel Class @ Savory Spice Shop - 2.27.19

It was a big week in Butter land! We led our first class, All About Caramel, kindly hosted by Savory Spice Shop in Westfield. We source a number of ingredients from the shop, plus we love working with Marty & his team - they’re always helpful, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic taste testers.

You could spend weeks learning about caramel, and its many forms and applications, so I stuck to the two ways I use caramel the most: sauce and candy. If you’re a fan of our celebration cakes and cupcakes, you know how much we like to use caramel sauce! I love a caramel drip on a cake. I love to drizzle caramel all over cupcake tops and then sprinkle candy crumbs all over. And I love using caramel as a flavoring — in buttercream, pastry cream, custards and more.

Before I learned how to make caramel, I hated caramel-flavored anything, mostly because I felt it was cloyingly sweet (think of that awful goop that comes out of a giant tub at an ice cream shop - gross!). The thing about making your own caramel is that YOU control the flavor. Yes, there’s sweetness, but depending on what color it is when you pull it off the stove, you’re also controlling the other flavors at work - bitter, malty, toasty, nutty among them. When I worked at Vanillamore and made quarts of caramel sauce daily, my colleague Tom and I would say we liked our caramel “on the right side of burnt”. We never used thermometers, relying instead on our eyes to spot that perfect amber brown color, and our noses to alert us when the caramel was just right.

Caramel candy, on the other hand, is not as easy. And as I learned the hard way after 4 (4!!!) botched batches of caramel, no other tool will make or break your candy like a thermometer. But more about that later.

Our class kicked off at 7pm this past Wednesday, with a crowd of 16 enthusiastic students and an ever-so-slightly-nervous teacher introducing what caramel is and passing around sauces and graham crackers for everyone to taste. Luckily, my first demo was a recipe I know in my sleep, caramel sauce flavored with Mexican vanilla & dark spiced rum. I flavor caramel sauce with extracts, liqueurs, spices, coffee, you name it—but the sweet warmth and delicate spiciness of vanilla and rum balances with the bitterness of the caramel beautifully, so you get a lot of complexity without using a laundry list of complicated ingredients. Because this wasn’t a hands-on class, I made sure to invite everyone up to check out what was happening in the pan, and I also passed around some amber jewelry everyone knew what color to look for. Amber yellow is for traffic lights, not caramel! The darker your sauce, the more flavor it has, but be careful - cross that point into dark brown / black caramel, and it’s ruined.

Part II of All About Caramel focused on caramel candy making, a challenge for any home cook, even someone at the advanced level. Caramel candy demands a LOT of patience, a lot of waiting, and then BOOM! It’s time to react quickly before you ruin everything! Yeah, it can be a PITA, but the results are worth it. And think of it this way: the ingredients for basic caramel candy are sugar, corn syrup, cream, butter, and salt. That’s it. Ever read the ingredients on a box of caramel candy? The list is much longer.

After reviewing my own candy recipe and doing some research, I created a new method for the class to (a) make it less intimidating, and (b) cut down on how many pans/tools would need to be used and washed. The whole idea is to get people excited to make caramel. You know what’s not exciting? Dish washing. Complicated instructions. Waiting forever. You get the point.

Once I had the method in place, I did tests prior to class to make sure what I’d be teaching was useful. To make a long and frustrating story short - I ruined 4 batches of caramel candy because not one but TWO thermometers failed me. I did not burn the caramel, but it cooked to the point of being rock-hard and impossible to cut. In essence, completely useless, and that translates to wasted food (which I hate more than dish washing). I did not hide this from my students - I actually brought in all my thermometers to show what kind you specifically want for a job like this, and which thermometers you should avoid buying. Pro-tip: Get a candy thermometer you can easily read, one that will securely clip to your pot/pan. Test its temperature in boiling water before you use it in candy making. You can get a decent candy thermometer for $10, but avoid the cheap glass thermometers. They’re hard to read, unreliable, and they’ll fall into your pot as the candy’s boiling away (I know, because it’s happened to me!).

In the last minutes of waiting for the candy to get to temperature, which feels like forever, I passed around samples of Vanilla Bourbon Caramels and Vanilla Rum Chewy Caramels to show differences in texture and flavor (based on the all the happy noises I heard, the chewy candies were the winner!). Finally, there was cake - a total experiment that I had prepared shortly before class, and people’s reactions to this cake would determine whether or not it would go on the March menu. It' was a chocolate stout cake, with layers of caramel sauce (flavored with Jameson whiskey), then covered in chocolate ganache and garnished with chocolate pearls, Sixlets, and green sprinkles. I literally threw this one together based on a “What if I…?” moment, and I have a lot of those. I was also trying to show people that you can use caramel as a garnish, or you can hide it inside a dessert for the most delightful surprise. I think I convinced them :)

I could not be happier with how the event went, and I am so grateful to Marty for hosting, and to all the lovely people who came to the class, asked questions and gleefully tried new treats and gave me their feedback. I’m looking forward to doing another class in the spring - stay tuned!