Today would have been my Grandad’s birthday. If he were still around, he’d be 105.
A few things you should know about my Grandad:
He’s the only one I had.
His name was Fred. Not Frederick – just Fred.
He went to University at 90 (or thereabouts) to learn how to use a computer. If memory serves, he finished with 90%. And worried what he’d do if he needed that other 10%.
Whenever he said goodbye, he said “see you on the salmon can!” – to this day no one knows what that meant, but it seemed like a perfectly normal salutation to me as a kid.
He always dressed for dinner, and sat at the head of the long dining room table that looked out on the Detroit river. Once my grandmother had served everyone, none of us could make a sound (in a playful, not a strict way) until he took a bite and approved. Of course he always approved.
These are his hands:
His favourite dessert was a scoop of vanilla ice cream with caramel or butterscotch sauce.
One day when I was a teenager my dad tried to sneak him some low-fat yogurt / frozen soy product. It didn’t go well.
My grandma bought those little tins of caramel sauce, and one can hardly blame her, as she was in her eighties and had spent most of her life making fantastic meals – and pastry from scratch – for my Grandad, my mom and her three brothers, and for subsequent families, aunts, uncles and cousins. She was known for her marmalade cookies, and the plum puddings she’d make at Christmas. But that’s another story. Point is, she’d have made great caramel, too.
Caramel can be an intimidating thing to make. But if it’s something you’d like to master, I suggest giving it a go, playing with sugar over heat, with water or without, just to get a feel for it. The best way to learn anything is by doing it, and sugar is about as cheap a practicing medium as they get.
A few things you should know about caramel:
To make it, all you need to do is heat sugar until it turns golden – into caramel.
Sometimes water or syrup or both are added, generally to help get things started and slow things down – it keeps the sugar from going from zero straight to deep golden.
Despite what many recipes instruct you don’t need to hover over your pot, washing the sides down with a pastry brush dipped in water. In fact, doing this adds more water to the caramel, increasing the cooking time because all that water will have to cook off. (This is done to keep the caramel from crystallizing, but it doesn’t, really – it washes down the crystals that have actually formed.)
If you add a few drops of lemon juice to the sugar-water-syrup mixture at the beginning, it will keep crystals from forming in the first place. Also? You can stir to dissolve the sugar, but once it starts boiling, keep utensils out of it. You need only occasionally lift the pot and swirl it around.
Once it turns golden, it’s caramel – the hotter and more deeply coloured it gets, the firmer it will be when it cools. Once it begins to turn, it moves fast – it will seem to take forever to start caramelizing, and then will darken at close to the speed of sound.
Caramel sauce is made by then whisking a liquid, like cream, into the caramelized sugar as soon as it reaches this point, which causes it to seize up (to set, really), and spatter and steam ferociously. But then it calms down and the hardened bits melt, and it turns into a sauce, rather than firming up into something chewy or hard. And so it’s an easy thing to make, since you don’t have to worry about temperatures or rely on thermometers and such. You just swirl your pan of sugar until it turns a deep golden, then whisk in cream. Butter too, if you like, but that’s it. And what you’ll wind up with is a sublime sauce – as thick or thin as you like, depending on how much liquid you add – and it will be better than any you’ll find on a grocery store shelf, yet cost under a dollar to make, depending solely on the amount of cream you use. You could get fancy and add chocolate or vanilla or espresso or orange or bourbon, but don’t underestimate the flavour potential of pure caramelized sugar and cream.
The problem, I must warn you, is that you’ll then have access to said caramel. And I like to think of it less as caramel sauce and more as spoon caramel, because mostly what I do is pause at the fridge door, pull out a spoon, dip it in, lick it off, and repeat until Mike wonders aloud what happened to all the spoons.
If my Grandad was here, I’d make him caramel for his sundaes.
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup water (or thereabouts)
1/4 tsp. lemon juice (or a few drops)
1/2 cup heavy (whipping) cream
1-2 Tbsp. butter (optional)
pinch salt (optional)
In a heavy saucepan, heat the sugar, water and lemon juice over medium-high heat. If you like, stir until the sugar dissolves. Otherwise, just swirl the pan occasionally.
Keep cooking it, swirling it occasionally, until it starts to turn golden. Don’t leave it after this point – swirl the pan more often until it turns deep golden. Have the cream and butter ready and pull the pot off the heat and add them (or just cream) immediately as soon as it turns deep golden – it will spatter and steam. Stir until smooth – if there are any set chunks of caramel in the pot, they will melt back in. If you like, stir in a pinch of salt.
Cool completely and pour into a jar to keep in the fridge.