Friday, August 17, 2007

notes on caramel, and rituals

At this moment, I'm in Birmingham, Alabama, using the free wifi that DFW and SFO for some reason lacked. In TX I got myself some Dunkin Donuts for the first time since left Boston in March. I *LOVE* Dunkies. It is in my blood. Defenders of Krispy Kreme, y'all don't know what you're talking about. Dunkies is simply always there, whether it's when you're waiting for the bus to pick you up in Central Square and deposit you outside Clio where you kind of wish you were working instead of opposite the dark scary alley you've got to walk down to get to Sonsie where you actually are {were} working or whether it's to get a caffeine hit for your four hour discussion of postmodern literature or the metaphors of Salman Rushdie. Dunkies isn't about good coffee. It's cheap. Weak roast and with a slightly nutty taste. Scalding hot at least if you drink it black like I do. You can't miss the neon pink and hunting orange signs.

Last night I made use of my expiring dairy products and churned the salted caramel ice cream base I'd made. But first I stood with the salt shaker upturned in my palm shaking out grains of plain iodized salt (because really need to get something other than they grey smoked salt, though that might be interesting in ice cream), salting lightly, stirring and tasting. It finally got to a point where it was deliciously salty sometimes and other times I was tired of tasting it. So I churned.

Both times I've made that ice cream the caramel takes on a bitter, smoky complex taste. The first time my friend and I danced around my Somerville apartment licking the dripping off the ice cream paddle and proclaiming it better than sex.

Caramel-and I always want to say Carmel now that I'm on the west coast, as if 'm talking about that town-is such a complicated thing for pastry people.

There is never precise agreement about when to pull a pot of sugar off the heat, nor is there any one way to cook the sugar. In school my pastry chef insisted we bring the sugar to a boil and then skim off impurities, something I've never done elsewhere. Only when our sugar was clean could we proceed to cook it, and you had best be sure the whole time we were brushing off the sides of the pan with a pastry brush dipped in water the whole time. It made me happy to see Lydia Shire cooked her sugar that way for butterscotch-making. Oh yeah, and we cooked sugar without adding water to the pan. Punks I tell you!

Other people, like my Sonsie boss and the cupcake crew, just add water and mix to sand consistency and then leave damn well enough alone until it starts to turn. Never stir the pot or else you risk recrystallizing the sugar.

One day at Sonsie I left a pot of candying orange segments on too long. They'd been at 213 F for a wicked long time and just got wrapped up in something else, went over with my thermometer to check, and had caramel with orange pieces. In my frustration I threw most of it away before I realized it was probably going to be most delicious. It was heaven.

My cupcake boss has this theory right now that taking caramel too dark causes it to separate out later as it sits on the shelf for a few days. My theory is there's too much butter in it and that settles out to the bottom. Either way she's on us now to pull the sugar at a super light amber stage. But it's in the cooking that you pull out the flavor. It's a balance between burning it (something I have not done, though I've burnt other things, most recently making the mistake of putting a pot 'd made curd in back on a burner that wasn't off and managing to ignore the fact that the kitchen smelled like lemons when it shouldn't. Yeah that was a bad one.) and cooking it.

At Sonsie, my boss would also show me the color he wanted caramelized confections--almond brittle, or candied nuts. Then as the menu rolled on for months I'd stick to the original mark and watch as his batched got lighter and lighter.

I have a strong palate. I like a lot of coffee in my coffee flavored things and have yet to find a natural coffee flavor I prefer to Trablit.

I love the process of caramel, the debates. Get five people around a stove and have them each tell you when they'd stop it. Pull the pan off the heat adding SLOWLY oh you'll learn why your cream or other liquid and your butter. There's something so magical about watching the sugar start to seize, stirring it out, slowly dissolving the mass back into usable product. It's dangerous, this whole cooking sugar thing.

But it tastes so good.

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