Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Fleur de Sel Caramels with Crème Fraîche

There are certain seemingly mundane kitchen tasks, tasks which I perform with great frequency, that to me are anything but. Quite the contrary - not mundane, but magical. Watching two entities as disparate as egg yolks and oil emulsify into a thick, voluptuous mayonnaise is serially thrilling. As is reducing a quart of stock into a few tablespoons of shiny, viscous glaze. Call me crazy, but in terms of sheer entertainment value, who needs reality TV when there's such real-time drama to be had right under your nose?

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.

Macadamia Tart

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

wow! Utterly amazing; your attention to detail and with your sciptures (yes they are) on the hows and the history certainly reflects your research and passion for most of the subjects you touch upon. My my.. and the photography as well - neat!

Would you be gracious enough to post YOUR recipe for the honey vanilla ice cream please; may we inquire as to which ice cream machine you use to produce your creations?

Won't you let us know when you release a cookbook??

8:58 am, March 22, 2006  
Blogger Cathy said...

They all look amazing - but that first photo of the caramels is irresistable. I've never tried making any, but am really tempted now.

9:47 am, March 22, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jocelyn, your artistry (and yummy dishes) never fail to amaze me. I certainly could go for a few little caramels right now...


10:46 am, March 22, 2006  
Blogger Ruth Daniels said...

As usual, your photos are mouthwateringly (is that a word?) gorgeous!

Thanks for sharing.

11:48 am, March 22, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can I please come and live with you?


11:55 am, March 22, 2006  
Blogger Anne said...

All of these look so luscious. I know you don't commonly post recipes but could I have the ones for the butterscotch custard and the macadamia tart? Whenever you get a moment if it isn't too much can email it to me if you prefer...

Thank you!

2:01 am, March 23, 2006  
Blogger Michelle said...

Amazing writing, with amazing pictures to accompany it. I love being able to immerse myself so completely in your wonderful food-themed ramblings... ahhhh...mmmmmm...

4:44 am, March 23, 2006  
Blogger Pille said...

Jocelyn - those Fleur de Sel Caramels and Butterscotch Custards just have me drooooooling at the screen. Beautiful!
And I am so going to stock up on Werther's Original candies tomorrow (have you tried their soft & chewy ones? Delicious!)

4:45 am, March 23, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

yummy, yummy, yummy!!!

8:42 pm, March 23, 2006  
Blogger Anthony said...

Ah great I can finally use those small tart tins I bought six months ago now I'm fully amped up and inspired.

9:31 pm, March 23, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

J those Werther's Original candies dont last for long in this house this is also the candy we keep on our long drives...

anyway...i want to try that coconut creme..

am off for 6 months I fly out to Nice next week via Zurich (shall I meet you at banhofstrasee ;-) for macaroons?)

then not sure i can go on blogging might try...maybe i save a lot of tissue from drooling
will certainly miss my own kitchen

but if things go well we will be cruising sicily (been there and its magical) turkey and greece.

will be in touch and you have been an inspiration....

9:36 pm, March 23, 2006  
Blogger Annette Tan said...

As you already know, this post was so inspiring, I had to get you to take it further :-) You wrote and photographed it so well, I can literally taste those caramels with their slightly salty accent on my tongue. Have a safe trip bella! See u when you return.

9:36 pm, March 23, 2006  
Blogger Gustad said...

looks great. and yeh, gotta love that real-time kitchen drama. especially those murder drama episodes… ya know, when you threaten the crab to boil him alive. hehe

2:55 am, March 24, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gorgeous. I do believe that macadamia tart has my name written on it.

Your photos are, as ever, wonderful.

10:57 am, March 24, 2006  
Blogger Unknown said...

that is a wonderful introduction to the world of caramel, and as usual you've made it sound so inviting that it leaves me yearning for a bite :)

9:45 pm, March 24, 2006  
Blogger Nicholas said...

Hi J!
The Fleur De Sel Caramel looks deceptively simple, but I'm sure it speaks volumes once tasted.


11:51 pm, March 24, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ahjahahah, J this is so funny you mention Carambar because I grew up on them AND, while working in New Zealand as a French teacher, this is WHAT my students asked me to bring to them! I was puzzled at first but they LOVED them!

I should send you some next time I go!

This Macadamia tart looks so perfect!

11:13 am, March 25, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i am not a Werther's fan by any means, but this! oh my..... i'm drooooooling.... that macadamia tart is sheer genious.

4:01 am, March 26, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


You are so incredibly talented. Not only are the photos and writing so enjoyable ... but the recipes ... oh the recipes!

The butterscotch with coconut cream ... it will be mine. Oh yes!

Thank you so much ... please keep up the amazing blogging! It's such a treat to visit.

11:59 am, March 26, 2006  
Blogger Dana said...

I have been making salted caramel for my dessert menu, but until I read your post never thought of adding creme fraiche. What a delicious idea. I tried it today and it added such a fantastic ballance to the rich salty taste of the caramel. The staff couldn't keep their hands off it. Thanks for the inspiration!

4:16 pm, March 27, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi J, what a gorgeous homage to caramel! Your words and photos are luscious enough to lick off the screen. I couldn't agree with you more - caramel in all its forms is something I find impossible to resist, and you'll be glad to know that Werther's Originals had the exact same effect on me as a child. And I love your assessment that caramel au beurre salé has become a modern classic - the thought of something this good fading into food-fad obscurity is just too much for this caramelophile to bear!

8:19 pm, March 28, 2006  
Blogger Michèle said...

Macadamia tart? Oh my. Thought you could just sneak that one in at the bottom did you? ;) Im definitely going to try making that!

8:29 pm, March 28, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Joycelyn - I must say this is the most beautiful caramel I've ever seen! I know I couldn't stop eating them if I had them here... I'm intrigued by the butterscotch custards too, the combination sounds utterly divine! (love the Ego cups too ;)) I'm with you about 'high/low' aspect, just remembered I used to go to Steinberg & Tolkien...

9:05 pm, March 28, 2006  
Blogger Joycelyn said...

hi copticcooking, thanks; the honey vanilla ice cream recipe is based on one found in robin weir/caroline liddell's frozen desserts book, as for the machine, i use a gaggia gelatiera.

hi cathy, given your great facility in the sweet kitchen, i'm sure whatever caramels you choose to make will turn out perfect!

hi cath, thanks! there's nothing like a caramel for an instant sugar fix of the first order ;)

hi ruth, thanks for your very kind words; always glad to be of service!

hi tana, sure, in exchange for some of that lovely produce you have such great access to ;)

hi tokyoastrogirl, thanks! i'll be in touch

hi michelle, thanks! please, be my guest and immerse away ;)

hi pille, i am so glad you love werther's too! i have tried their soft ones (which, as you say, are totally divine) but sadly, they are not readily available here. the hard ones, i can finish a tube a day if i'm not careful ;)

hi linda, thanks, thanks, thanks ;)

hi anthony, i can totally empathise - amongst my many weaknesses, little tartlet tins with no particular use in mind rank right up there!

hi sha, have a terific trip! can't wait to read all about it (sicily is one of my favourite places too)

hi a, thanks! have a handful of caramels left (they keep for weeks) which we can dip into rather soon ;)

hi gustad, glad to see i'm not the only heartless murderer of live, writhing crustaceans ;)

hi lindy, thanks for visiting and your kind words; really happy you like the pictures

hi cath, thanks! always happy to tempt ;)

hi nicholas, thanks! certainly, the vanilla, salt, and creme fraiche all helped to lend nuance to the caramel flavour

hi bea, thanks! i always amuse myself when chewing on carambar, seeing how long i can last with one stick!

hi stefoodie, if you like the flavour of macadamias, than the tart is definitely a recipe for you!

hi anon, thanks! you are very kind

hi dana, thanks; the sherry yard book is truly fabulous, chockfull of interesting trucs. glad the creme fraiche addition was to your taste!

hi paz, thanks; honey vanilla is one of my favourite ice cream flavours too!

hi melissa, thanks! i thought of you as i was writing this post (i still can't get your maison du chocolat chocolate caramel tart and bonet recipes out of my head!)

hi michele, me? sneaky? you bet ;)macadamias are just about my favourite nut (hazelnuts come a very close second)

hi keiko, thanks you are very kind; claudia fleming's book is truly wonderful (i loved your rhubarb post). i am a scandinavian design addict and so am a bit obsessed with iittala ;)

6:59 am, March 30, 2006  
Blogger So said...

I've missed your food...your desserts just look scrumptuous as usual j

10:29 am, April 04, 2006  

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