Making Bakery Napalm

Knock-out sticky buns, apple tarts and caramel ice creams cannot exist without knock-out caramel and/or caramel sauce. Or so sayeth…well, me. Too many pastry makers treat it as a detail, unworthy of serious scrutiny (especially some conspicuous folks on TV). That’s a cup of sugar and a quarter cup of water swirled over high heat until it turns amber, add a cup of cream and stir. Done. And now on to the other eighteen components of our triple-fudge-suicide toffee-maraschino banana-bomb sundae!

Sheesh. Cooking a sugar-water mixture until it simply turns color doesn’t even get you near the full potential of carefully made caramel. If you really want to explore the burnt sugar arts, plumb the true depths of deep caramel flavor, and experience all the bitter-sweet glories that occur when sugar meets flame…then you must dare to venture beyond the boundary of mere “amber” color and enter the real caramel heart of darkness.

What’s out there? Oh nothing much. Just dozens upon dozens of broken molecule flavors that all those pantywaste TV chefs don’t care if you experience: flowery, aromatic alcohols, buttery diacetyls, fruity lactones and nutty, toasty furans and maltols. Almost none of which you can really taste when a caramel is cooked to under 350 degrees. Of course creating a full-flavored caramel requires careful attention. Molten sugar is nothing to mess around with. It’s sticky and it holds heat. Let it come in contact with skin and the result is a painful burn. For this reason (and because I enjoy feeling like a mad scientist) I always clear the kitchen when I make caramel, and have a fully-charged fire extinguisher at-the-ready just in case.

Of course I’ve burned a batch or two pursuing burnt sugar perfection like this. Five or ten degrees too much and a nice dark caramel can become too bitter to stand. But then I’m the type of guy who lives his life on the edge, baby.

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