Wednesday, February 10, 2010

When Salted Butter Caramel Goes Wrong But Ends Up So Right!

It wasn't my intention to begin this post with the following question: What is the difference between caramel and toffee?

I intended to talk about the drippy, gooey nature of a soft, buttery caramel. Caramel could quite possibly be my favorite sweet. I used to make it often. Before kids. Having two kids in two years made me ever so vigilent about my waistline. Now I reserve the melting of sugar into liquid with additions of butter and cream for special occasions. So last night I set out after dinner to whip up some caramel to pour into my chocolate pie shells for this post. I decided to use David Lebovitz's recipe for Salted Butter Caramels instead of my regular simple caramel filling. However, events during the cooking process last night changed things a bit.

I know from much experience eating both caramel and toffee that the latter is much harder than the former but how to get one versus the other was not in my bank of knowledge.

That was until last night when I got distracted taking pictures of caramel dripping off wooden spoons (oh so pretty) and boisterous children who were supposed to be in BED (oh so annoying)! Add to that my Taylor candy thermometer seemed to go on vacation in the middle of the process. The end result, a "caramel" that hardened up pretty fast and seemed to be a direct threat to teeth we wanted to keep on the inside of our mouths.

However, this morning, I grabbed one of my little square nuggets of sugar joy and popped it in my mouth to see if it would soften up. Instead it broke into pieces much like the inside of a Skor bar. The candy definitely was taking on more of a toffee feel and taste so I decided to inquire with the internet as to the exact differences between the two.

Making caramel you can use either the wet or the dry method. The dry method is simply sugar heated in a pan until it melts into an amber syrup. I have always used the wet method. Sugar dissolved in a little bit of water over heat until it browns. You can leave it at that or you can, take your caramel off the heat, add butter and cream, and reheat until it is the amber color you are looking for. Normally, I just use my eyes and nose to figure out when to take it off the heat. Last night I was using a new thermometer and did not rely on my senses. While I like gadgets and toys in my kitchen, there really is no match for using your five senses when preparing food. So the basic difference between caramel, butterscotch and toffee is that they are cooked to different temperatures. Toffee being cooked the longest. So, fine, I have toffee. Things could be worse!


Chocolate Tart Dough:
1/2 cup unsalted butter (1 stick), at room temp
1/2 cup confectioner's sugar
1/4 cup dutch processed cocoa
1 large egg yolk
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons ice water

In a bowl, sift together the flour and cocoa. Set aside. To prepare the dough, the bowl of an electric mixer with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar until combined. Add egg yolk and vanilla and beat until smooth. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and then add the sifted flour and cocoa on low speed. Add ice water one tablespoon at a time. As with all doughs, you may not need all the water depending on the humidity of your area. You will want a dough that sticks together when pinched. 

Turn dough out onto a sheet of plastic wrap, form into a ball, wrap tightly and chill for at least 1 hour.

After dough is done, roll out to fit your pans, chill the dough in the pans for 20 minutes, and then blind bake at 325˚ for 15 minutes. (blind baking is when you bake a shell empty. Line it with foil and add pastry weights, beans or rice to the foil to prevent the shell from shrinking while baking.)

Caramel Filling:
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup water (some people use corn syrup or corn syrup and water for the liquid)
1/4 cup salted butter (1/2 stick)
1/4 cup cream

Dissolve sugar in liquid over low heat until dissolved. Increase heat and cook until it starts to brown. Occasionally use a wet pastry brush to wipe the sugar crystals from the sides of your pan. Do not stir the sugar as it cooks. Once it starts to brown, you can gently swirl the pan once to prevent hot pockets which may cause the sugar to burn. Stirring the sugar will encourage it to re-crystalize and become hard.  Once it is the amber color of your liking, take it off the heat and add the cream and sugar. Be careful as it will bubble, spat, and splutter at you. Make sure you are using a pot with high enough sides because it will also rise in volume. Return the mixture to the heat for 5 minutes or less depending on how dark you want your caramel. (Insert my mistake here- lost track of time at this point and thermometer was not reading correctly.) 

1/2 cup heavy cream
6 oz dark chocolate chopped into small pieces
2 teaspoons instant espresso

Heat the cream until hot and pour over chocolate to melt. Stir in espresso. Do this after your tart shells have been filled with the caramel so you can pour the ganache right on top and chill to set.

After you bake and cool your shells, fill with caramel and top with ganache. While the ganache is still warm, add a garnish of your choosing to pretty up your tarts. Nuts, dried fruit, caramelized ginger, herbs - all would make a very pretty dessert!