When Debbie announced that the theme ingredient for this month’s Sugar High Friday is caramel, my stomach got butterflies! Caramel is such an all-purpose ingredient, a cool touch of sugar chemistry, and a little bit nerve wracking to make. Last time I made caramel, I got stung and it clumped up and crystalized on me making me respect the perfected product more.
An Ode to Caramel in Four Movements
Still being a little bit afraid… well, alright I was a scaredy-cat, I decided to play with the last of the sweetened condensed milk in the refridgerator instead of straight up sugar based caramel. I enjoy the tales of making condensed milk into dulce de leche by boiling a whole unopened can in water, especially more given the dire warnings against this act by the manufacturers of these cans. Liability will make a straight man out of anyone. My can was already open, so I wasn’t able to taunt the number three rule of chemistry lab (3- never heat a closed container, 2- never eat in lab, 1- never wear shorts or sandals in lab). Instead I simply cooked my sweetened condensed milk over heat till it became a soft caramel color. Dipping the tip of my spoon into the thickened surface yielded a milky sweet concoction that harkens to the primeval yearning of all mammals. Yes, this cues up my limbic system, but its not quite caramel. Feeling spontaneous I spoon it onto rounds of shortbread dough and christen each cookie with a whole pecan. The final cookie is enrobed in chocolate.
1. Dulce de Leche Shortbread
Make dulce de leche in the tradtional fashion and allow to come to room temperature.
Preheat your oven to 325°F and prepare the shortbread dough by combining in a food processor:
- 1 cups of flour
- 1/3 cup of powdered sugar
- a pinch of salt
Add to the machine:
- 1/4 lb of room temperature butter
- 1 tsp of vanilla
Add water by the tsp until your mixture just begins to ball up.
Roll out the dough and cut into desired cookie shape. Transfer shape to a lined cookie sheet and pierce the dough liberally with a fork. Spoon room temperature dulce de leche onto the cookie and top with a raw whole pecan.
Cook till the cookie is just blushing with gold at the edges, approximately 12 minutes for a one inch diameter cookie. When cookies are room temperature they may be dipped in melted chocolate.
This last weekend I picked up a set of three small tart pans, 4 inches in diameter. I bought these with Debbie’s SHF in mind, thinking that playing with caramel would be alright if contained to small quantities. Having these cute tart pans in my hands I was feeling more emboldned to actually make caramel in the name of a filling for my tarts. The preceding recipe for shortbread dough makes a great tart shell (these particular measurements yield dough for three small tarts). And is especially good with a goey date filling. Excellent served with sweetened whipped cream, this date tart has a nice fruity floral sweet note that blossoms with orange.
2. Sunshine Tart of Date Caramel with Orange and Pecan
First prepare the miniature tart shell. Cut out a round of wax paper the size of the removeable bottom to the tart pan and place in the tart pan. Roll out the shortbread dough to approximatley ¼ inch thick. Gently lift the dough over the tart pan easing it down were the bottoms and the wall meets. Trim your dough slightly higher than level with the pan and dock the bottom crust thoroughly with a fork. Cook the tart shell at 325°F for 12 minutes.
The filling preparation begins by chopping up five pitted medjool dates and covering with hot water. Allow this mixture to steep. Gather in place the zest of one orange and approximately 8 toasted pecans, crushed. Set aside.
The next step to making the filling is getting on with business and making caramel. In a heavy bottomed sauce pan combine over medium, medium-low heat:
- 1 cup of sugar
- 1/3 cup of corn syrup
- 1/3 cup of water
Stir just to get the sugar all wet then cover and allow the mixture to come to a boil. Remove the lid and allow the mixture to boil watching as it comes to a nice blond color.
In a separate container heat aprroximatly 1/2 cup of milk or cream and 1 Tbs butter. Drain the steeped dates and combine with the orange zest and crushed pecans, set aside. When the cooking sugar mixture turns to a nice brunette color remove the pan from the heat and carefully add the heated milk mixture (the less milk you add at this point- the harder your caramel will be at room temperature), it will bubble and froth. Stir the mixture with a clean wood spoon, and add a good splash of vanilla and a pinch of salt. Drizzle several tablespoons of the caramel mixture into the date mixture, stirring till combined. Fill the prebaked tart shell with the date mixture and cook at 350 °F till the edges of the tart are just starting to blush gold.
Garnish the tart with whole toasted pecans and a sprinkle of orange zest. Whipped cream is an option, depending on how over-indulging you feel.
With Easter right around the corner, my taste buds are cued up to dive into caramel with nuts and chocolate. This is a surprise impromtu tart, but I admit I had this one cued up before my caramel was even started…
3. Chocolate Candy Caramel Tart
Preparing the tart dough: Following the previous preparations, add 3-4 tbs of unsweetened cocoa powder to the tart dough’s flour mixture. Prebake this tart shell 15 minutes to yield a bittersweet chocolate tart shell. Allow to cool to room temperature and cover the bottom with a thin layer of the melted chocolate used to dip the shortbread cookies into. Before the chocolate is set, sprinkle it amply with crushed toffee bar bits and crushed toasted nuts (toasted coconut would be divine too). Spoon the warm completed caramel mixture onto your tart filling it up. Allow to cool completely and enjoy.
Given that caramel making ends up with caramel leftovers, I played with pouring it out onto a sheet sprinkled with flavored salt following a suggestion from my taste bud savvy coworker John. He extolled the pleasures of Fleur de Sel sprinkled caramels and truffles rolled in toasted orange rind, so I combined the two flavors to produce caramel gems that sing and burst with flavor in your mouth, my final act:
4. Orange Salt Dusted Caramel Gems
Zest an orange and toast the zest under a broiler till half of the concoction is a toasted brown. Allow to cool and add 3/4 to a bowl and grind it with 1 Tbs of kosher salt till the salt takes on an orange hue and the zest chunks are obliterated. Sprinkle this over a treated pan with the remaining larger chunkies of toasted zest and pour the warm caramel on top. Allow to cool just slightly. While still pliable cut off chunks of caramel and roll into balls in the palms of your hands. Roll in a bit more of the orange salt if desired. These will cool to a tooth sticky consistency, at which point they should be stored in an air tight container or wrapped in wax paper. Over time they will absorb moisture from the air and become softer.
I think it’s easy to see the dance that caramel can lead one into. Once you have it made, so much can be done with it. It’s easy to start your toe tapping.