Fleur de Sel Caramels with Crème Fraîche
Caramel is another such contender. As much as I find the process of caramelising sugar utterly fascinating, it certainly doesn't hurt that I adore the flavour - crème caramel, crème brûlée, tarte Tatin, confiture de lait...if there's caramel involved, I am so there. As for caramel candies, they are surely the ultimate sweet for the sweet-toothed. As a kid, just about the only bribe for good behaviour that worked on me, trumping every other trick in the parenting book, was a piece of Werther's Original candy. And as a misbehaving adult candy freak, a handful of these uncommonly good sweets continues to be one of life's greatest and guiltiest pleasures.
My attitude to food is much like my attitude to clothes. With vintage threads say, I'm equally happy examining the pristine pieces at Steinberg & Tolkien or rummaging the bins at Oxfam - in short, I'm a real high/low kind of girl. Friends who know this, and who happen to be returning from a trip to France, also know whether they've thoughtfully picked up a jumbo bag of cheery Carambar, those ultra-chewy batons of sugary goodness, or gone through the trouble of hunting down a boîte of handmade Breton caramels au beurre salé - soft caramels made with the fine local salted butter, beurre baratte au sel de mer de Guérande - I'm just as appreciative.
In the world of designer sweets, the description "caramel au beurre salé" has become a byword for chic. Whether it's the collective nostalgia for the treats of childhood or, more likely, because the flavour of salted butter caramel - be it in a precious scoop of Berthillon ice-cream or a Pierre Hermé macaron - is just so wonderful, the flavour of the moment has had so long a moment it's become a modern classic. Although, of course, the truest way of enjoying caramel, the flavour, is via caramel, the candy. Where these are concerned, the Le Roux CBS (which stands for, you guessed it, caramel-beurre-salé) is the caramel nonpareil - justly legendary, much imitated, never bettered. The Quiberon-based chocolatier only uses the choicest of local ingredients from Brittany to craft these artisanal candies. Texturally, at first bite, they offer the perfect degree of chew. The warmth of your tongue, however, transforms this irregularly shaped candy into the most unctuously rich and creamy of long, slow, melt-in-your-mouth moments - all the better to experience the sublime flavour, full of nuance and savour, as it spreads, lingers and deliciously dissolves.
These mouthfeel qualities and taste sensations are what I remember from my first taste of a CBS caramel, and had hoped to somewhat emulate when I made caramels last week. The recipe I loosely followed comes from Michael Recchiuti and Fran Gage's Chocolate Obsession (although given that the book is just as much an homage to Recchiuti's exquisite applications of his signature burnt caramel flavour as it is to chocolate, it could well have been just as aptly titled "Caramel Obsession"!). As there are so few ingredients (sugar, corn syrup, vanilla, cream, butter and salt) that go into the making of caramels, it's vital to use the very best available if the flavour is to sing - for me, there's no better reason to go splurge on Tahitian vanilla beans, beurre d’Echiré, and fleur de sel de Guérande. The addition of crème fraîche d'Isigny (Normandy, afterall, is also famous for its caramels) was inspired by the success I've had so far with the recipes in the caramel chapter of Sherry Yard's The Secrets of Baking, most of which call for some crème fraîche - it lends a subtle touch of acidity which works alongside the salt to balance the sweetness. I didn't bother, liking them enough in their plain glory, but Rolo and Twix fans will probably fancy an enrobement of chocolate - either ways, they're just the thing if you've ever fantasized about putting together an Alain Ducasse-inspired candy trolley. (To this aspirational candymaking end, my bedside reading lately has been Carole Bloom's Truffles, Candies & Confections, an excellent primer on the subject.)
For all the magic that's caramelising sugar, there are trying times when the very prospect of fastidiously washing down stray sugar crystals from the sides of a pan with a wet pastry brush brings me to tears. For such times, enter stage left: brown sugar - instant caramel flavour with none of the fuss. Below, two recipes that make terrific use of this sweetening lifesaver from Claudia Fleming's The Last Course - as painless to make as they are fun to eat.
Butterscotch Custards with Coconut Cream
Baked in a water bath at a gentle temperature, the custards acquire a dreamy texture - velvety, lush, and very comforting in the best nursery-fodder sort of way. Coconut-infused cream, whipped to a soft peak, add a lovely tropical note.
If you typically make more tart dough than you need and always have some lying around in the freezer, this is fairly quick to put together. The distinctive taste of toasted macadamias and a luscious custard filling make this a luxe alternative to pecan pie. Some ice cream on the side (I made honey vanilla) is also nice.