It's a Caramel Kind of Piece of Cake
Sugar is fussy stuff. I am no confectioner — nor do I ever intend to be — but as an amateur baker and cook, I’ve found that a deft hand with sugar is undeniably valuable. In an attempt to produce silky, luscious caramel sauce to swirl into ice cream, drizzle over cake, or flavor cream-based sauces and desserts, I have failed on multiple occasions. My caramel burns, crystallizes, and does everything other than become a perfectly light amber syrup. It wasn’t until I took my first job in a restaurant kitchen that I conquered the sweet, yet finicky, beast — and oh, how sweet the victory is.
As one of the least experienced cooks in the kitchen, I was solely responsible for just a few very basic tasks. The menu items that I was regularly required to prepare and cook from start to finish were the bar snacks, the simple snacks: spiced nuts, potato chips, and caramel popcorn. Potato chips are potato chips. Nuts are nuts. But caramel popcorn is part caramel, part popcorn, and my caramel track record is far from exemplary. Within my first few days of work, chef demonstrated to me how to prepare these snacks, including the caramel, flawlessly. It seemed so simple: in a tall saucepan mix 1 quart granulated sugar mixed with water until it feels like wet sand, place over high heat and boil until the sugar reaches 260 degrees (read on a candy thermometer), slowly add 1 cup of cubed unsalted butter, cube by cube, and continue to cook, stirring sparingly to incorporate the butter, until the caramel is light amber in color. Once the caramel is done, pour over and mix quickly into the popcorn until evenly coated.
I tried this recipe once… twice… three times and each time that I reached the desired caramel color and began to pour the syrup over the popcorn, the sugar crystallized, forming soft, irreparably grainy caramel corn. Dear sugar, let me wave my white flag: I surrender! Fortunately and unfortunately, the other cooks in the kitchen wouldn’t let me give up so easily despite the fact that I had already thrown a few cups of butter, popcorn, and nearly a gallon of sugar in the garbage. I stepped aside as chef demonstrated one more time for me how to make this elusive caramel popcorn.
Can you guess what happened? That’s right — his caramel popcorn failed too. The caramel crystallized just like it had when I attempted it. I may have stirred the caramel too much, encouraging crystals, but in the end the problem wasn’t just me — it was the butter. Composed of a lower percent butterfat than chef had originally used, the new butter created a caramel that was too wet. The solution? Add less butter!
The good news for home bakers is that there are easier alternatives to producing caramel flavor without ever having to flounder through creating straight-up sugar caramel. After a week of caramel-induced headaches, I lavished in the glory that is Baked’s caramel-less Antique Caramel Cake. Stir as much as you want because this cake won’t ever crystallize.