I feel like these days there are very few things people find truly scary in the kitchen. Sure, some things are still intimidating, like primal cuts or yeast based products. Other than flambeing though, is anything truly scary? Anything besides caramel that is.
Making good caramel is scary. There are so many things that could go wrong so very quickly. Caramel can crystalize, it can decide to not set, it can be bland, and it can burn. Oh, and there is a very good reason caramel is referred to as culinary napalm.
For years I wanted to love caramel. I really did. Every year my neighbor gives me a giant box of homemade caramel, most of which never gets consumed. I don’t want caramel to just taste sweet. Or buttery. Even salt on bland caramel doesn’t save it. I want caramel to be complex, slightly bitter and smokey with an underlying sweetness. My perfect caramel tastes like the sugar on creme brulee, but creamy.
Three years ago, I read a recipe in Pure Chocolate (by Fran of Fran's Chocolates) for Nearly Burnt Caramel Ice Cream. I felt like the heavens opened and a choir of angels sang. The secret, that apparently has never been a secret, to great caramel is that the sugar isn’t just melted, it is cooked.
Great people of the internet, you have to cook your caramel. You have to put on your big kid pants, man up, and play chicken with some molten sugar. It might take a few tries before you win, but when you win it is like hitting the jackpot. (Besides, a cup of sugar doesn’t cost that much.)
Everyone wins if you put your newly discovered caramel making skills to use making Chocolate Caramel Tartlets. Chocolate crust, loosely set caramel filling, chocolate ganache, and a sprinkle of sea salt all contained in a perfect two bite serving? Who wouldn’t want to eat that? Best of all, they are easy to make and transport really well. I brought a batch of these to a dance lesson with me, and they were gone by the time the lesson was over and there were only five people in the studio at the time.