We had a friend once who had lived penuriously in solitude for years despite grand tastes and a big heart, and then found her circumstances much altered by happily finding love with a man who happened to have some cash.  She decorated a large house for the two of them to live in.  And I mean to say, she DECORATED a house.  “Rococo” does not begin to describe the gleefully over-the-top aesthetic she employed.  We went to a party there with my husband’s father not long after the house was done.  He is a person of radically different tastes than those of our hostess.  As we drove home, he struggled to find the most polite way to describe what he had just experienced.  “That,” he said eventually, “Was a very densely decorated home.”

When she gave us the house tour, our hostess had showed us the little gift presented to her by the interior decorator she had colluded with: a lily, gilded.

Which brings us directly to sauce.  It’s the end of Condimentia Week, and so naturally I am giving you dessert sauce.  Caramel sauce, to be precise.  Another essential vial in the holster of  bottles that give us our distinctive swagger through the kitchen.

For years I made a caramel sauce that I had discovered through a bread pudding I was making for a party, and I thought I had found the secret to life.  Three ingredients, five minutes, and transformative happiness.  I thought world peace could probably be achieved if only this substance ran out of the faucets at the UN. The sauce could be a little gritty, in truth, especially upon standing and reheating, but it tasted so good, especially when it came right out of the pan, that it was hard to object to it very energetically.  People didn't taste it and say, “oh, yes, nice--but I wish it were more X,” or slip it to their dogs under the table.  They just lapped it up.

So I never looked further into the caramel sauce matter.  I stuck with what I had.  It’s an excellent sauce for when someone calls out “Caramel Sauce to O.R. three—STAT!”  Except the other night, we had a caramel sauce emergency on our hands and I lacked one element of the holy trinity of ingredients: brown sugar.  I could have made brown sugar, but there really wasn’t time to do the stirring that requires.  It was urgent.  So I caramelized some white sugar, which as we know is a snap to do and only sounds scary, and what do you know but I made a true, real, caramel sauce and lo, it was far and away better than the other one.

But I made it in such haste that I didn’t really pay much attention to measurements, so I had to make it again to take notes.  Three times.  My poor family.  Swimming in the stuff.

Making it again (and again and again) brings us back around to gilding the lily.

As I said, I think it would be the rare human who would eat any homemade warm caramel sauce and long for it to possess some missing quality that they are able to name.  Their mouth is too busy.  Caramel makes people—people who like caramel, I suppose—swoon.  But if you happen to add something to it, you find that it is possible to swoon farther than you had previously imagined.  In this way, dessert is like yoga.

Smoothness is key here, in my opinion, so I didn't really want to add any kind of nubbin that would interrupt that.  Because caramelizing sugar is so much less fraught (though slightly slower) when you add some water to it, I began to eye this water with a waggly brow.  So plain, that water. Hmm.

So here are a few things you might consider infusing the water with, should you wish to gild the lily of the sauce that follows.  Infusing is not a new skill. If you have ever made a cup of tea, you have infused.

  • A roughly-torn dried chile pepper; mild, such as a guajillo, or hot, as you prefer.
  • A teaspoon of coarsely-ground or crushed black pepper.
  • A stick of cinnamon.
  • Several strips of lemon or orange zest.
  • Green tea.
  • Chai.
  • Coffee beans.
  • Saffron threads.
  • Rose petals.

Here in the R&P test kitchen, I made (L to R, above) the coffee (strong brewed coffee in place of the water), the green tea (brewing 1 t genmaicha and 1 t matcha powder in the water) and the chile versions (being sure to mix the scrapings from the inside of the guajillo pepper I used into the pot along with the soaking liquid).

In the interest of science and the vain hope of reconstructing what I made the other night (which like most things made in haste with no record-keeping was entirely perfect) I used different proportions of cream, butter, sugar and water in each batch.  Here is my conclusion: you cannot go very far wrong with butter, sugar and cream.  The differences between these three batches in terms of consistency are negligible at best, so do not sweat it if you have a little too little of one or the other ingredient.  In all likelihood, it is going to work out fine.  Adding the proposed infusions can make it slightly harder to tell how caramelized the sugar is, which I largely judge by color, but even that did not prevent all three jars from being something you would want to retreat to a corner with by yourself. Tips for achieving this outcome in your kitchen are below.

Words of caution: one, use a heavy skillet with high sides.  Two, hot sugar is way hotter than other hot things.  Be aware and careful.  Three, mise en place is your pal here.  Have everything prepped and ready, like someone is about to call "Action!" because caramelized sugar and burnt sugar are not terribly distant cousins.  Four, do not stir the sugar as it caramelizes.  This makes the caramel gritty.

All that said, this is truly not hard to do.  What kind are you going to make?

caramel sauce

makes about 2 cups

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 2/3 cup heavy cream
  • 4 T unsalted butter, cut in 4 chunks

If you are making the straight-up version with plain water, also include:

  • 1 t vanilla extract or (much preferred) the inside scrapings from half a vanilla bean
  • a fat pinch of good salt, like fleur de sel

Have a pint jar or pitcher near the stove, and a silicone spatula.

Combine the sugar and water in a heavy, tall saucepan. Swirl to combine, and heat over medium heat.  The sugar will dissolve rather quickly, and you can keep swirling the pan (but not stirring) as it cooks, especially as it begins to color at the edges so you can keep that process uniform.  It takes about five minutes for the sugar to caramelize; if you have added color-altering ingredients, watch the clock, watch for large bubbles to form and use your sense of smell to tell you when the right degree of caramelization has occurred.  When this happens, immediately remove the pot from the heat and drop in the butter, swirl, then add the cream.  It may foam up when you do this, hence the need for a high-sided pot, and it will undoubtedly look terrible and clumpy.  Now return it to the heat and stir to your heart's content, with a wooden spoon or a whisk, until it has smoothed out and comes to a good boil, and then take it right off the heat.  If you are adding vanilla and salt, now is the time.

Pour into the waiting vessel.  It will seem thin.  It will thicken magically as it cools.  If you do not use it all up, you can refrigerate the remainder, and reheat it by warming the jar in a pot of hot water and stirring it well.

Have a lovely weekend.