Caramel, in all of its delicious forms, is one of life’s most pleasurable indulgences. It has a rich, satisfying flavor that lingers long after the last bite is gone. In the alchemy of cooking, making real caramel requires the skill of a candymaker, low-humidity weather, and a lucky horseshoe for good measure! It can be an exasperating task at times even for pros. Although the process can be tricky, creating a classic, full-flavored caramel sauce and similar treats is possible by following a few basic rules. Classic caramel begins with a single ingredient — refined, granulated sugar — and the basic formula is simple: sugar plus heat. Sugar melts, or breaks down, into a syrup and begins to caramelize at a very high temperature, around 320 degrees F. Caramelized sugar is also known as “burnt sugar.”
Caramel darkens in stages as the temperature rises; hundreds of compounds aid in browning and creating complex flavors. The hot, liquefied syrup initially turns golden and has a mild, sweet taste. The flavor intensifies as it quickly darkens to medium, at around 345 degrees F, turning reddish brown, or the color of red amber or a copper penny. This is a good stage to carefully blend in liquid off the heat. The sauce can be cooked a little more to thicken it or smooth it out.
Darker caramel, around the smoking point, smells aromatic but tastes bitter. Blackjack caramel or ”baker’s caramel” is used by food manufacturers to color soft drinks, baked goods, cereals, soups, sauces, and other products. Cooking also “caramelizes” the natural sugars in vegetables and fruits.
So, what could go wrong?
Melted, caramelized sugar has a natural tendency to recrystallize and create sugary lumps. The syrup must be removed from the burner at precisely the right moment; speed is essential. Undercooked caramel only tastes sweet while burnt caramel tastes, well, burned! So, it’s important to caramelize sugar to the right point.
When liquid is added, the hot syrup can erupt in the pan like a volcano or “cause a commotion,” as one vintage cookbook explains. Beware of splattering to prevent painful burns. (Read “Tips for Caramelizing Sugar” at the end of the article.) If you are a beginner, use the lowest heat possible; slowing down the process makes it easier to manage. If caramel is in danger of scorching, set the pan bottom into a sink or large bowl filled with iced water. You can achieve sweet success through practice and precision.
Hot liquefied sugar cools and hardens to a glass-like consistency, but before that happens, it can be transformed into sweet indulgences with varying textures, flavors, and uses. Stir in roasted nuts and seeds to make a brittle, or spin threadlike strands of the melted sugar to decorate desserts. Add water for caramelized syrup, butter to create toffee, and cream for a luscious caramel sauce. A blend of caramelized sugar, butter, and cream transform into the moist, chewy candy also called caramel.
The Caramel Cake
Burnt sugar cake, or burnt leather cake, is an old recipe from the early 20th century. The batter and frosting include burnt sugar syrup, also known as caramel molasses. Cookbooks of the period suggested making it in a cast-iron skillet or graniteware, which was actually not the best choice since the pan’s enamel was likely to chip off.
Mastery of a classic caramel frosting requiring caramelized sugar was a time-consuming project for the home baker of yesteryear, and it continues to be, although modern recipes offer better instructions to make sweet success more likely. But that’s only half of the issue. Applying caramel frostings smoothly to a cake can be challenging too. Renowned Southern cook Nathalie Dupree advises bakers to first select and frost the top of the prettiest cake layer when the caramel frosting is at its best spreading consistency. She says to set aside the frosted top and then fill and stack the remaining layers. Carefully place the reserved layer on top of the stack and then frost the sides. The important point when spreading any type of caramel frosting is to work as fast and efficiently as possible since the frosting quickly sets.
Historic pitfalls in making and storing burnt sugar syrup have included crystallization and mold. Eventually, home bakers were motivated to use brown sugar. Boiled Penuche Frosting was invented and is much easier to make. It shares many characteristics of the 19th century fudge-like candy called penuche, including its characteristic, grainy texture and rich butterscotch flavor. The two cake recipes in this article feature Penuche Frosting; each has a slightly different consistency, but both are irresistible!
This type of candy and frosting is beloved throughout the United States and appreciated worldwide. Tablet is a Scottish, brown sugar fudge confection, and like Penuche Frosting, it is beaten firmly after cooking to give it a lighter texture. The Hawaiians have Panocha, and French Canadians have le sucre à la crème.
Susan’s Golden Spice Cake with Penuche Frosting
This cake is scented with mace, a distinctive spice that complements the caramel notes of the Penuche Frosting. Mace — the membrane (aril) that covers the hard nutmeg seed — has a sweet, complex flavor profile that elevates the flavor of foods. I spread 1/2 cup pumpkin butter or apple butter between the cake layers along with the filling. The finished cake is grand without decorations, but it can be embellished with plain or glazed roasted walnut or pecan halves, a drizzle of dark caramel, or even spun sugar.
1 cup whole buttermilk, room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3 cups all-purpose cake flour (Swans Down) or soft-wheat flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 teaspoon ground mace or 3/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
2 sticks unsalted butter, slightly softened
1 cup extra-fine granulated sugar
1/2 packed cup light brown sugar
4 large eggs and 1 large egg yolk, lightly beaten in a bowl
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line two 9-inch round cake pans with parchment circles. Coat the parchment and pans with baking spray that contains flour. Stir buttermilk into vanilla; set aside.
Stir flour in the container, then spoon 3 cups into dry measuring cups; level the tops. In a medium bowl, whisk flour and remaining dry ingredients 30 seconds or until well combined. Set aside.
Cream butter in a large mixing bowl, slowly adding granulated sugar, then brown sugar. Beat 2 minutes on medium-high speed. Add the egg mixture a little at a time, beating well after each addition. Continue beating 3 to 4 minutes until thick and fluffy. Scrape down the bowl, as needed. Add flour mixture alternately with the buttermilk, beating just enough after each addition to combine ingredients. Divide batter evenly between the pans; smooth out the tops. Bake 25 to 28 minutes. The tops should be golden brown and feel slightly springy when touched. A cake tester inserted into the centers will come out clean. The layers may be done before the sides pull away from the pan.
Cool 20 minutes then turn out layers; cool on crosswire mesh rack or on parchment. Make the frosting. Put one layer on a serving plate, flat side up; spread with frosting. Add the second layer, the nicest side up. Spread the top with frosting, then the sides. If made one day ahead, seal cake in a cake storage container. Make certain that your choice of cake plate will fit.
This luscious frosting recipe offers notes of caramel, molasses, and rum. The texture is not billowy, nor is it pourable like glaze. It is a little like soft peanut butter. If too thin, beat in a little more sifted confectioners’ sugar; if too thick to spread easily, beat in more half-and-half. Thin or thick, the “caramel-licious” frosting is heavenly on chocolate, pumpkin, banana, and apple cakes.
3 cups confectioners’ sugar (more, if desired)
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter (6 ounces), preferably European style for flavor
3/4 packed cup light brown sugar
3/4 packed cup dark brown sugar
2/3 cup heavy cream or half-and-half
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 tablespoons molasses or sorghum
3 to 4 teaspoons dark rum (such as Myers’s brand) or bourbon, or 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
On the counter, sift confectioners’ sugar into a large mixing bowl. Place molasses and rum nearby. In a medium-sized, deep saucepan, melt butter over medium heat; cook 1 minute. With a wooden spoon, stir in both brown sugars. Cook and stir 2 minutes. Pour in cream and salt. Raise the heat slightly; stir and cook the bubbling mixture 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from the heat; cool slightly. Pour the warm mixture, molasses, and rum into the bowl of confectioners’ sugar. Attach the bowl and wire whip to the mixer; beat on medium speed 4 to 5 minutes until slightly thick and smooth. Refrigerate any leftover frosting.
Variations: Umami is a flavor enhancer that is the fifth primary flavor. Stir in 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon of artisan, fresh Japanese soy sauce like Kikkoman’s marudaizu (“whole bean”) shoyu, or Ohsawa Organic Nama Shoyu. Omit the 1/2 teaspoon salt in the recipe.
To add a nutty richness to the frosting, cook butter an additional minute or two until it begins to turn light golden brown. Continue with the recipe, stirring in sugar and cream.
Sprinkle 1/2 cup finely chopped, toasted pecans, walnuts, or English walnut pieces evenly over the icing filling.
Will’s Sour Cream Caramel Cake
Polly Ailor Tullock — an outstanding baker — has prepared this yummy sheet cake for her son Will’s birthday for over 30 years — even shipping it to him while he was in college. Not only is it delicious, it’s easy to frost in a quarter sheet pan, and it stores well.
1 cup sour cream, room temperature
1/4 cup whole milk, room temperature
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 of a Crisco All-Vegetable Shortening Baking Stick (1/2 cup)
2 cups granulated sugar
4 large eggs, room temperature
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour (spoon into dry measuring cups, level the tops)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon rum flavoring
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour a 13-inch by 9-inch baking pan. Combine sour cream and milk; set aside. In a large mixing bowl, cream butter well. Add sugar gradually and combine thoroughly. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, salt, and baking powder 30 seconds or until well combined. Add to the creamed mixture alternately with the blended sour cream and milk, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. Add in flavorings. Try not to overmix the batter. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until slightly golden on top and a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool the cake while making the Caramel Frosting.
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
1 packed cup light brown sugar
1/4 cup whole milk
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Melt butter in heavy, deep saucepan. Blend in brown sugar and salt. Cook over low heat about 2 minutes, stirring to combine ingredients. Add milk and continue to stir until mixture is well combined. Bring to a “soft,” slow boil, and then cook for about 5 minutes. Watch carefully as it can boil over — do not leave it. Remove pan from the heat and add in confectioners’ sugar; blend with a hand mixer until all the lumps are out. Mix in flavoring. Immediately pour over the cake; frosting will begin to thicken and set up as it cools.
Serve each portion of this rustic, yet festive dessert with Ginger-Butterscotch Sauce (recipe below) and a sprinkling of roasted, chopped pecans, if desired.
4 to 5 cups 1-inch bread cubes (from a day-old, crusty, 8-ounce French baguette)
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2/3 cup fresh cranberries or 1/2 cup dried cranberries or raisins
3 large eggs
2 cups half-and-half
1 cup plain canned pumpkin puree
3/4 cup sugar (1/4 cup more if desired)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
Make the Ginger-Butterscotch Sauce (recipe below); stir in rum. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Cut the bread cubes; drizzle evenly with butter and then toss in cranberries; set aside. With a whisk, mix eggs in a large bowl, and then beat in the remaining ingredients. Add bread cubes and mix well. Pour into a greased 8-inch baking dish. Let the custard sit 15 minutes; bake for 45 to 50 minutes. Pierce the pudding near the center with a small knife; if it comes out clean, it is done. Cool at least 20 minutes and then serve with the sauce. Reheat refrigerated leftovers in the microwave. Serves 9.
Butterscotch sauce looks like caramel sauce and tastes similar, but this version is easier to make. A zing of fresh ginger juice gives it a special flavor. Grate a peeled knob of fresh gingerroot and then grate finely with a microplane grater or Japanese fine-toothed grater (oroshigane). Wrap the grated pulp in a small cheesecloth square; squeeze firmly to extract the juice. Optional: substitute 1 tablespoon rum or bourbon for the ginger juice, or add the spirit in addition to the ginger juice.
1 1/4 cups heavy cream or half-and-half
1 1/2 packed cups golden brown sugar
1/2 stick unsalted, firm butter, cut into 4 tablespoons
Pinch of fine sea salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 to 3 teaspoons fresh ginger juice, or 1 tablespoon rum or bourbon (optional)
In a medium-sized, deep saucepan, heat cream over medium-low heat until bubbles form around the edges. Stir in brown sugar. Raise heat to medium and bring mixture to a slow boil; cook 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and whisk in butter, 1 tablespoon at a time, until smooth. Add salt, vanilla, and ginger juice. Pour into a bowl to cool; cover with plastic wrap. Sauce thickens upon cooling. Makes about 1 1/2 cups.
Oven Caramel Sauce
Caramel sauce made from “burnt sugar” develops complex aromas and flavors. Drizzle over baked apples, ice cream, bread pudding, and gingerbread. Slowly caramelized in the oven, sugar does not need constant attention until it begins melting. I use a heavy, enameled cast-iron pan 8 inches wide and 4 inches deep. Remove from the oven when sugar is golden amber; it continues darkening from the pan’s residual heat. I also caramelize the sugar in a copper sugar pot on a medium-high burner. Use a deeply browned caramel sauce to add flavor to foods including frostings. Read the “Tips for Caramelizing Sugar” below.
1 cup extra-fine granulated sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 cup half-and-half
5 tablespoons firm, unsalted butter, cut in pieces
Pinch sea salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Other flavorings as desired (e.g., rum, bourbon)
Heat oven to 375 degrees F. Spread sugar over the bottom of the pan; place on the middle oven rack. Check every 5 minutes, rotating the pan. Heat cream and half-and-half in a small pan over low heat; keep warm. After 20 to 25 minutes (time may vary from oven to oven), the sugar will turn golden and smell fragrant; watch carefully. Do not stir unless necessary to cover sugar lumps with liquefied sugar. When the sugar turns amber, remove pan to a stovetop burner heated to medium heat. Drizzle in 1/2 of the warm cream mixture, stirring rapidly. The mixture will bubble furiously; avoid the steam. Cook and stir the bubbly mixture, adding in the additional warm cream mixture. (If the sugar clumps, continue cooking and stirring to dissolve.) When thick and smooth, remove from the heat and stir in butter, one piece at a time. Add salt and vanilla. If sauce contains pieces of rock sugar, pour through a strainer into a small bowl. Cover with plastic wrap. Sauce thickens upon cooling. Makes about 1 1/2 cups.
Burnt Sugar Syrup
This recipe uses the wet method of melting sugar. It caramelizes more slowly than when melted dry, allowing even browning and the development of complex caramel flavors. The syrup will add depth of flavor to ice tea, cocktails, hot cereals, ice creams, cake batters, buttercream, and fluffy boiled frosting. Read the “Tips for Caramelizing Sugar” below.
1 1/3 cups water, divided
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 cup granulated sugar
Heat 1 cup water. In a deep, heavy saucepan, stir together additional 1/3 cup water, sugar, and lemon juice until moistened. Cook on medium-high heat, undisturbed, until water evaporates and sugar begins to caramelize. Swirl pan occasionally for even browning; stir only if necessary. Continue cooking a few minutes until sugar turns to medium amber; watch carefully to prevent burning. Reduce heat to medium and remove pan from the heat. Stir in 1/4 of the original heated water. The mixture will bubble furiously; avoid the hot steam. Mix in remaining water. Cook while stirring for a few minutes until a thin syrup is formed. Cool and pour into a bottle. Use at once or refrigerate. Makes about 1 cup.
Burnt Sugar Nut Brittle
After caramelizing the sugar (do not include the one cup of warm water), stir in about 2 1/2 cups roasted nuts (pecan halves, cashews, blanched almonds, walnut halves, hazelnuts). Select one type, or several. Use two large spoons to gently turn and coat nuts in the syrup. Spread mixture over a large baking pan covered with a silicone baking mat or oiled parchment. Sprinkle with a finishing salt such as fleur de sel or Maldon flaked sea salt. When cool, break into pieces.
Tips for Caramelizing Sugar
Sugar caramelization can be dangerous; remove all distractions. Hot sugar mixtures can instantly cause serious burns, far hotter than boiling water.
Wear a sturdy kitchen mitt when stirring liquid into hot, caramelized sugar; avoid the hot steam that immediately forms. Use a long handled, heat-proof spoon or spatula.
Do not be tempted to taste burning hot caramel, or hot syrups or sauces.
Have everything you will need at hand before starting.
A good digital candy thermometer is useful to determine the stages of sugar caramelization, but you also need to rely on your eyes and nose.
Drop a teaspoon of cooked sugar into ice water to determine if your caramel has reached the desired temperature. It should be soft and malleable. The cold water is also good for cooling burnt fingers.
A heavy, deep-sided pan will safely and efficiently melt sugar (no nonstick pans). It diffuses heat evenly and helps prevent hot spots. When liquids are added, the hot sugar mixture bubbles up quickly and can boil over. A larger pan makes the process safer.
You can more easily watch sugar changing color in a pan with a light-colored bottom.
Heat liquids slightly before adding to hot sugar to prevent sugar crystal formation and excess splattering.
Wash down the pan sides with a wet pastry brush to remove sugar crystals; they can cause new crystal formation.
Add 1 teaspoon of lemon juice or 1 to 2 tablespoons corn syrup to help prevent crystallization.
For easy cleanup, soak sugary pans in hot water or simmer on the stove.
Refrigerate caramel sauce in a lidded container up to two weeks. Gently rewarm in a double boiler or microwave a few seconds on low. Stir and continue heating if necessary.
Thin with extra cream or half-and-half if desired.