Here are my tips and step-by-step instructions for How To Make The Perfect Caramel.
(You may also wish to read Ten Tips for Making Caramel, which preceded this post.)
I love whole grains and I love chocolate.
So when I saw this curious Muzzi chocolate bar in a terrific Italian traiteur and grocer, Au Village Italien, I had to add it to my shopping basket. Inside the bar was little bits of puffed farro, or spelt as one would say in English.
(It’s épautre in French, dinkel in German and for the brainiacs out there, it’s triticum dicoccum in Latin.)
I was curious to taste how the dark Italian chocolate would meet up with the earthy, crispy little bits of whole grains and I was not disappointed. Boy…I took one bite of this and stopped in my tracks.
What a great bar of chocolate!
Speaking of not being disappointed, did you ever correspond with someone online, then meet up with them to find out they’re nothing like you think?
Okay, you don’t need to admit to that.
But I will.
“You’re A Winner!” said the email.
“You’ve won a Katana Series Nakiri knife, from Calphalon.”
While I seem to be the quintessential person who never wins anything (except the fabulous no-expense paid trip to Paris that I’m enjoying), and I don’t remember putting my business card in the raffle fishbowl, I was happy to accept. And the knife made a lovely addition to my Katana collection, joining the smaller one that I already owned. I’ve been using both, and they’re really rather incredible knifes. I love the handles, and the blades are scary-sharp. Which is good.
While we’re on the subject of deadly weapons, let’s talk about salt. Everyone is scared of salt.
I don’t pay much attention to hot-shot chefs, but I’d read that Thomas Keller was once asked what makes a good cook, and he replied, “salt”. He summed it all up in one simple word, and that’s truly what it all comes down to…and that’s why he’s a great chef and I bought his French Laundry book even though there’s no way in h-e-double-toothpicks I’m ever going to make anything from it. But if he can use it, so can you.
So no matter what you do to food, whether you whip it into a foam, toss it on the grill, spend 17 hours cutting it into little itty-bitty cubes that people wait 6 months to taste, or churn it in your ice cream maker, salting makes all the difference in cooking and baking.
A lot of people are afraid of salt, citing health concerns. Yet experts tell us that if you stay away from pre-packaged convenience foods, the average person only consumes about 1 1/2 teaspoons to salt per day. Although I should talk…I can’t have enough of it and sometimes buy it by the kilo. So maybe at this point you’d be wise to just scroll down to the recipe.
I mostly sprinkle top-quality salt on top of things, as a finish, where you’re going to taste it rather than adding it all at the beginning of the recipe where it can get lost. Whatever salt you use, I recommend coarse salt crystals, since the larger pieces take longer to dissolve, thereby giving your palate more time to experience the complexity of flavors, rather than just dissolving into a salty mouthful like fine salt does. Plus most commercial salt has additives which give the salt a bitter, acrid taste.
If you don’t know what fleur de sel is, you should. It’s fine crystals of salt that’s hand-harvested in marshes in Brittany, off the Atlantic coast of France. Although lots of fleur de sel-style salts have been showing up from Italy, Portugal, and elsewhere, the best fleur de sel is from the Guérande. I use it on everything; its fine, delicate taste is best appreciated when sprinkled over things, as mentioned above, rather than dissolved (like in soups) so it’s best to save it for places where it can be appreciated.
Fleur de sel is admittedly pricier than ordinary table salt, but when people balk at paying 5 or 6€ for a container of salt, that will cost them pennies (or centimes per day), they get all freaked-out. (Hey, it’s cheaper than gas, and lasts longer.) Just a last-minute flurry over a slab of foie gras or dark chocolate bark will give it a curious, other dimension. When you start using it, you’ll be as hooked as I am. You’ll never go back to ordinary table salt again.
I only buy fleur de sel harvested in Brittany, and I’ve recently befriended a récolteur who invited me to his marshes this summer to rake and harvest salt. His salt is incredible; light and flaky, with the fine, delicate taste of the sea. He sells his salt in Paris and I always tell guests to stock up here, since it’s one of the true bargains in Paris. A 250 g bag costs just 4€ ($5), which translates to .0136986 cents per day.
So I hereby give you permission to spend a little bit more on salt. It will improve your cooking, just like upgrading to a good olive oil will improve your salads (and really, how much do you use?) If you don’t believe me, take this simple test: Taste a few grains of fleur de sel. Then taste a few grains of commercially-available fine table salt. I can almost guarantee that you’ll never use ordinary table salt again.
This is one of my favorite recipes for using fleur de sel, crispy Salt-Roasted Peanuts. These are terrific with cocktails or aperitifs, but I also like to enrobe them in bittersweet chocolate and if you’re making Hot Fudge Sundaes, they’re also dynamite sprinkled over the top.
- 2 cups (300 g) raw peanuts
- 1/4 cup (80 g) light corn syrup, agave nectar, or rice syrup
- 2 tablespoons (30 g) light brown sugar or cassonade
- 1 1/2 teaspoons fleur de sel
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (175 C).
Lightly oil a baking sheet or line it with a silicone baking mat.
In a bowl, mix together the peanuts, corn syrup, and light brown sugar, until the peanuts are well-coated.
Sprinkle the salt over the peanuts and stir just a few times, but not enough to dissolve the salt.
Spread the peanuts evenly on the baking sheet and bake for 25-30 minutes, stirring three times during baking, until the nuts are deep-golden brown and glazed.
Cool completely, then store in an airtight container immediately, to preserve their crispness.
Store in an airtight container for up to 1 week. Makes 2 cups.
I can’t find raw peanuts.
You can use roasted, unsalted peanuts, and reduce the baking time to 15 minutes. I buy raw peanuts in Asian markets.
Can I use other nuts?
I never have, but let me know how they turn out if you do.
What if I can’t get light corn syrup where I live?
Use glucose, available at professional pastry supply shops.
Can I use honey or golden syrup?
Yes, but they’ll be stickier and not as crisp. See the linked post under ‘corn syrup’.
Can I use another salt?
You can use any coarse sea salt, but choose one that’s light-tasting. I like Maldon salt from England very much, or you can use kosher salt.
I make this every year for Passover. It’s not that I’m all that religious (for some reason I seem to celebrate only the holidays where there’s lots of eating, drinking…and presents, of course.) But I always pick up a box or two of matzoh, which is stacked high in supermarkets this month, plus I love the sweet-crunch of this toffee-like confection.
The only problem is that I haven’t figured out how to adapt it for Easter.
Perhaps you can cut it into ovals with a cookie cutter and try to pull one over on your family.
The recipe is loosely-adapted from baker and cookbook author Marcy Goldman. Marcy’s run a web site devoted to the art of baking since 1997, called Betterbaking.com. In addition, she’s authored a cookbook of the same name with recipes and ideas and funny stories she’s gathered along her life as a mother, professional baker, and consultant.
You don’t have to be Jewish to like or make this (just like you don’t need to be Christian to like Christmas presents) but it’s delicious and super-easy to make…you can keep the candy thermometer in the drawer as well!
Feel free to substitute milk chocolate or white chocolate, and instead of the crushed almonds, to play around with toasted shredded coconut or other kinds of nuts. As I type, I’m thinking wouldn’t pistachios and white chocolate be nice together on top?
Maybe next year…
I spent this morning at my market handing little sacks of this to my favorite vendors (and a few I’m trying to win over.) So if you’re out at a market in Paris this morning and see the lots of butchers, fishmongers, fromagers, and olive merchants snacking on something, you’ll know what it is.
Caramelized Matzoh Crunch with Chocolate
- 4 to 6 sheets of matzoh
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted or salted butter, cut into chunks
- 1 cup (firmly-packed) light brown sugar
- optional: fleur de sel, or coarse sea salt
- 1 cup semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chips, or coarsely chopped bittersweet chocolate
- 1 cup sliced almonds, toasted and coarsely chopped
Line a 11″ x 17″ baking sheet completely with foil (making sure it goes up the sides) and preheat the oven to 350F degrees.
Line the bottom of the sheet completely with matzoh, breaking extra pieces as necessary to fill in any spaces.
In a medium-sized heavy duty saucepan, combine the butter and brown sugar and cook over medium heat until the butter begins to boil. Boil for 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Remove from heat and pour over matzoh, spreading with a heatproof utensil.
Put the baking sheet in the oven and bake for 15-20 minutes, until the syrup darkens and gets thick. (While it’s baking, make sure it’s not burning. If so, reduce the heat to 325F degrees.)
Remove from oven and immediately cover with chocolate chips or chunks. Let stand 5 minutes, then spread smooth with an offset spatula.
Sprinkle with a flurry of fleur de sel or coarse salt, then scatter the toasted almonds over the top and press them into the chocolate.
Let cool completely (you may need to chill it in the refrigerator), then break into pieces and store in an airtight container until ready to eat.
Related Links and Recipes
Chocolate-Covered Caramelized Matzoh Crunch (Recipe Update)
A Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking (Marcy Goldman)
Last year I read about a pastry chef-turned-candymaker in Los Angeles. She was becoming known around those parts for her tender caramels, blended with wisps of sel de mer (sea salt.)
Inspired by the amazing CBS, caramel-beurre-salé caramels produced by the master himself, Henri LeRoux, Christine Moore’s caramels are indeed the best I’ve had in the US.
A friend drove me out to the Silverlake region of Los Angeles. It’s a rather funky area, full of shoe shops, stores with second-hand clothing racks on sidewalks, just-opened bakeries, and a music studio that Flea (from the Red Hot Chili Peppers) opened for the young folks of the neighborhood.
And there’s the The Cheesestore of Silverlake, a small shop with wheels of cheese piled high on the counter, and a carefully chosen selection of ‘gourmet’ foods…although I hate to use that word, which seems so pretentious, and this shop is anything but. They’re incredibly friendly (and yes, I seem to be the only one who truly likes LA…) and we spoke a bit about what they carry, their cheese and wine selection – and, of course, the creamy, wonderful caramels.
Although a few might consider them a tad salty for their taste (I love them), The Little Candy Company caramels were cooked to just the right temperature…not too tough, not too sticky and meltingly-soft, cooked just enough to that chewy stage to give them some ‘bite’. As we ripped open the package, unwrapped a few tender morsels and popped them in our mouths, we did concede that it was impossible to reproduce the French caramels exactly. But boy, those caramels sure were good. No matter where they’re made.
-Sea Salt Caramels from The Little Flower Candy Company can be ordered via their website.
-Check out the recipe for Christine Moore’s Chocolate-Caramel Tartlets.
While Paris is always beautiful, winter comes, and the city gets cold, gray, and touch dreary. In fact, it’s so cold that I refuse to go outside until spring. Believe me, all those romantic photos of Paris you see are taken during the spring and fall are very deceptive. And although it’s very pretty, it would take a mighty big levier (crowbar) to get me outdoors some of these days.
So when to do when you’re stuck indoors for three or four months? Make candy! If you’ve never made candy, this one is really simple and incredibly delicious, so there’s no reason not to try a batch. (No matter where you live.) And truthfully, doesn’t it make you feel happier just looking at it?
My recipe for Chocolate-Almond Buttercrunch Toffee is easy: You chop nuts, you make a syrup, and then you pour the syrup over the nuts. Sprinkle some chocolate over it, spread it out, and finish it with more nuts. That’s it. There’s no fancy techniques and the only special equipment you’ll need is a candy thermometer; they’re easily found online, and in most supermarkets. (Yes, really. Take it from someone who lurks in supermarkets, searching for things like candy thermometers, late at night.)
I like to add a sprinkle of fleur de sel, French salt, which gives it a pleasant salty edge which is divine with the dark chocolate and toasty nuts (any coarse salt can be used). Although you can use chips, you can also chop up a block of chocolate, instead.
When making candy, here are a few tips that will help:
Chocolate-Almond Buttercrunch Toffee
Adapted from The Perfect Scoop
- 2 cups (8 ounces, 225g) toasted almonds or hazelnuts, chopped between 'fine' and 'coarse'
- 2 tablespoons water
- 1/2 cup (1 stick, 115g) salted or unsalted butter, cut into pieces
- a nice, big pinch of salt
- 1 cup (200g) granulated sugar
- 1/4 cup (45g) packed light brown sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 5 ounces (140g) bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped, or 1 cup chocolate chips
optional: Roasted cocoa nibs and fleur de sel, or another flaky sea salt
1. Lightly oil a baking sheet with unflavored vegetable oil.
2. Sprinkle half the nuts into a rectangle about 8″ x 10″ (20 x 25 cm) on the baking sheet.
3. In a medium, heavy-duty saucepan fitted with a candy thermometer, heat the water, butter, salt, and both sugars. Cook, stirring as little as possible, until the thermometer reads 300ºF (150ºC) degrees. Have the vanilla and baking soda handy.
4. Immediately remove from heat and stir in the baking soda and vanilla.
5. Quickly pour the mixture over the nuts on the baking sheet. Try to pour the mixture so it forms a relatively even layer. (If necessary, gently – but quickly – spread with a spatula, but don’t overwork it.)
5. Strew the chocolate pieces over the top and let stand 2 minutes, then spread in an even layer.
6. If using, sprinkle with a small handful of cocoa nibs and a flurry of fleur des sel. Sprinkle the remaining nuts over the chocolate and gently press them in with your hands.
Cool completely and break into pieces to serve. Store in an airtight container, for up to ten days.
Related Recipes and Links
I tried various recipes of for caramel corn, some came out too dark, some not dark enough. So I worked and worked, until I settled on this one.
Adapted from Epicurious
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1/3 - 1/2 cup popcorn kernels
- 1 stick (½ cup) unsalted butter
- 1½ cups packed light brown sugar
- ½ cup light corn syrup
- ½ teaspoon coarse salt
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 cup salted peanuts, or use any toasted nuts, such as almonds, pecans, or cashews.
Special equipment: a candy thermometer
Heat oil with 3 kernels in a 3-quart heavy saucepan, covered, over moderate heat until 1 or 2 kernels pop. Remove lid and quickly add remaining kernels, then cook, covered, shaking pan frequently, until kernels stop popping (or until your shoulder gives out), about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and uncover.
I ended up with 6 cups of popped popcorn.
(Premium American-brands of popcorn will yield more than mine did, about 8 cups of popcorn. If so, you may need to prepare 2 baking sheets in the next step.)
Line bottom of a large shallow baking pan with foil and lightly oil foil, or use a non-stick baking sheet.
Melt butter in a 6-quart heavy pot or Dutch oven over moderate heat. Add brown sugar and corn syrup, and salt and bring to a boil over moderate heat, stirring, then boil, without stirring, until syrup registers 300 degrees F on thermometer, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove pot from heat.
Using a wooden spoon or a heatproof spatula, stir vanilla and baking soda into the syrup, then quickly stir in peanuts and popcorn to coat. Immediately spread mixture over baking pan as thinly and evenly as possible.
Let cool completely, then break into bits.
Click here for more cookie and candy Recipes.
Since I wrote the book on chocolate I realize that I should be blogging more about chocolate, but all the answers to many of your chocolate questions can easily be found in The Great Book of Chocolate. This book is the ultimate guidebook to the world of chocolate and a wealth of information with delicious recipes. If you’re like me and can never have enough chocolate, this is the book for you.
Want to know the difference between bittersweet and semisweet chocolate? What’s the difference between Venezuelan and Ecuadorian cocoa beans? Which country produces the best chocolate? Which chocolatiers worldwide produce the most interesting and scrumptious chocolates? All the answers, and everything else you’ve ever wanted to know about chocolate, can be found in The Great Book of Chocolate.
One of the most common misconceptions about appreciating chocolate is that you should base your opinion on the percentage of cacao in the bar. The was reinforced this week when a close friend came to visit, and brought me a tablet of the fantastic chocolate from Cacao Sampaka in Barcelona, which I profiled for Saveur magazine last year in their 100 Best issue. Like everyone that I bring into chocolate shops, he was raving because the chocolate tablet that he graciously brought me (albeit half-eaten) was 71%! (…insert his enthusiasm here.) Like lots of people, everyone seems to expound upon the theory that the higher the better. (…insert everyone’s question here… “But what about anti-oxidants?…)
I like my friend very much and he may be reading this and if he is, I want him to continue to bring me care packages from Target and Trader Joe’s on his return visits so I don’t want to make him feel cuplable (well, maybe a little.) But I feel compelled to get folks to understand that the exact percentage of cacao in the bar is truly unimportant to the taste or even the bitterness. I’ve had chocolate bars that are 99% cacao that were palatable and other bars that were 80% cacao that were bitter and inedible (and I like very bitter chocolate.) I’ve had 90% bars that were amazingly good and smooth, while others were 60% and were crumbly and mushy.
So quit throwing your nose up in the air and saying, “I only eat chocolate that’s at least 75%.” To me, the numbers are, um, interesting, but not what I look for when evaluating chocolate, since by muddy chocolate-colored logic, that argument means that the 75% chocolate is inherently better than a 70% chocolate. It’s amazing with this analytical mind that I didn’t make my mother proud and become the lawyer (or better yet, the doctor) that she always wanted in the family.
Look what I have. Two Italian chocolates from Baratti & Milano in Torino:
One is 65% and the other is 80%. Does that mean the 60% is the worse of the two and should be avoided at all costs? You’ll also notice one is made from beans from Ghana and other from beans from Grenada. Quick: which one is better?
It means little to judge a chocolate based simply on a number (or origin, but that’s information that can be found in the book.)
The percentage doesn’t take into account…
The variety of beans,
The quality of the beans,
The careful roasting of the beans,
The blending of the beans by the chocolate-maker,
The sweetness of the beans themselves,
The acidity of the beans themselves.
I think part of the reason many of us Americans are hung up on high numbers (which is why we never adopted the metric system) because It sounds so much better to say, “Oh my gosh! It was 105 degrees today!” rather than, “Mon dieu, it was an unbelievable 40 degrees today!”
John Scharffenberger of ScharffenBerger chocolate says to pretend you’re Helen Keller when tasting chocolate; Don’t read the label and don’t listen to what others tell you. Taste the chocolate and judge for yourself. If you like it, it’s good chocolate!