A Caramel Sundae

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%.

He started a construction company, and built the Ford factory in Detroit, and Hiram Walker in Windsor. (Now they build wind turbines. He’d think that was pretty cool.)

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.

Caramel Sauce

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.

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January 30 2012 11:25 pm | dessert

35 Responses to “A Caramel Sundae”

  1. Lisa @ Dinnerversions on 31 Jan 2012 at 1:04 am #

    I love this post! I love that you included the photo of your grandfather’s hands.

  2. Jennifer Jo on 31 Jan 2012 at 5:00 am #

    This is helpful (the caramel) and beautiful (your grandfather). What a substantial, satisfying post. And beautifully written, too.

  3. suchalab on 31 Jan 2012 at 7:21 am #

    love the hands photo, and the recipe too of course! Sounds like he was a wonderful character to have had in your life :)

  4. CathyH on 31 Jan 2012 at 8:21 am #

    What a lovely story! Thank you for sharing your memories of your Grandad and the photo of his hands.

  5. Stephanie on 31 Jan 2012 at 9:09 am #

    This is my dad’s favorite kind of dessert too! No caramel is better than homemade! Esp with a few good pinches of salt

  6. Bonnie White on 31 Jan 2012 at 10:23 am #

    I loved the picture of his hands and your ability to show his personality. See you on the salmon can! What a character! And the caramel sauce sounds like a perfectly delicious dessert for a Tuesday night.

  7. kickpleat on 31 Jan 2012 at 12:09 pm #

    What a wonderful story & tribute to your grandfather! Love his goodbye greeting :) And this caramel sauce looks sooooo tasty. Nice job.

  8. Ashley on 31 Jan 2012 at 2:02 pm #

    Love the words about your grandfather. He sounds like an amazing man. And I love how you’ve simplified caramel making so that it seems less intimidating.

  9. Leah on 31 Jan 2012 at 2:05 pm #

    Thank you for sharing such wonderful memories of your Grandfather. My dad LOVED caramel sauce from the can on his ice cream.
    Do you use white or brown sugar for this?

  10. Carol S-B on 31 Jan 2012 at 5:57 pm #

    Just… beautiful.

  11. Barb on 31 Jan 2012 at 6:28 pm #

    Happy Birthday Grandpa!

  12. lovetocook on 31 Jan 2012 at 6:41 pm #

    I say we keep photos of the hands of our love ones. I can still picture my grandparents, my parents, and now my daughter’s hands. What a study in genetics. We all love caramel too. Is that genetic?

  13. Sandy on 31 Jan 2012 at 8:30 pm #

    Lovely story, Julie. My Dad’s goodbye is “Thank Mother for the chicken and tell her yes.” No one knows what the heck it means either.
    You make something as simple as caramel sauce sound heavenly – I’ll have to give it a try.

  14. Laurie from Burnaby on 31 Jan 2012 at 10:03 pm #

    That’s a wonderful story Julie :)

  15. Erica B. on 01 Feb 2012 at 8:13 am #

    Aw I wish I could have known your Grandfather, he sounds like a great guy.

    Lovely story Julie… and just the prod I needed to start experimenting with caramel.

  16. kathy on 01 Feb 2012 at 11:28 am #

    nicely written….thanks for the story

  17. kathy on 01 Feb 2012 at 11:30 am #

    i am caramel challenged….but will (heavy sigh) give it a try, my grandchildren like to dip the apples wedges in caramel

  18. Sujata on 01 Feb 2012 at 11:37 am #

    Very moving, Julie; made me think of my grandfather; thank you.

  19. stacey on 01 Feb 2012 at 4:54 pm #

    Julie – this makes my heart so happy! mine used to make reference to a bicycle pump with everything. With presents, he’d say “looks about the size of a bicycle pump!” and inside pies “is it bicycle pump kind?” Thanks for the walk down memory lane.

  20. rose on 01 Feb 2012 at 9:44 pm #

    Thanks Julie. Lovely. I want to make caramel sauce! Why do I feel so timid about trying it? I’ll just do it tomorrow…..


  21. JulieVR on 01 Feb 2012 at 10:00 pm #

    Wow, what an awesome story! Grandads have great stories, don’t they? A bicycle pump! A salmon can! Hilarious!

  22. Khadijah on 01 Feb 2012 at 11:00 pm #

    Oh you made me miss my grandpa so much. His hands looked so much like your grandad’s hands. He was a farmer in South Dakota… farmed until he was 92, died at 94. He was so gentle and always called me Suzie Cue. Thanks for bringing up some lovely memories.

  23. LAC on 02 Feb 2012 at 6:08 am #

    Loved this, Julie!

  24. Jan @ Family Bites on 02 Feb 2012 at 7:04 am #

    This is so lovely. I adore the fact that he went back to school so late in life AND he dressed nicely for dinner. What a gentleman.

  25. Amy on 02 Feb 2012 at 7:15 am #

    What a wonderful description of your grandad. I could feel the love just reading it. Just lovely.

  26. Cheryl on 02 Feb 2012 at 7:51 am #

    Love the picture of his hands.

    Your Grandad and I would get along. I’ve been eating lots of caramel sundaes lately.

  27. Manon from Ontario on 02 Feb 2012 at 8:30 am #

    I make this with maple sugar….it’s to die for ;p


  28. tara on 02 Feb 2012 at 9:30 am #

    this is the nicest post. thank you for sharing, julie. and happy day with him in our thoughts!

  29. Anonymous on 02 Feb 2012 at 12:37 pm #

    This was a beautiful post. I love your Grandad’s hands. Thank you for sharing your memories and obvious love for this man.

  30. Lana on 02 Feb 2012 at 12:38 pm #

    Ooops- didn’t realize that would come up as Anonymous. I wrote the above comment. :)

  31. pauline on 02 Feb 2012 at 3:33 pm #

    Oh what a lovely memory you have. I have never thought of taking a picture of my mums hands. Mum is 91 and those hands still make the Christmas cake and Christmas pudding, triffle. Also still cut the grass, thank goodness I am going to visit her next week and those hands will be photographed. I was just at Costco Julie and picked up your new cook book. Love it what great pics and recipes can’t wait to try the recipes.

  32. Lori on 02 Feb 2012 at 9:16 pm #

    Well that doesn’t sound scary at all. I was always afraid to make carmel because I don’t have a thermometer and couldn’t make sense of all the rules about water on the sides of the pan and bla bla bla. Thanks for breaking it down for me.

  33. heather on 04 Feb 2012 at 1:02 am #

    Thanks for sharing your stories. They are wonderful! My grandpa does the same at the dinner table. We all wait until after the first bite is taken to eat (sometimes we sneak a bite!). The recipe looks yummy! Can’t wait to try it!

  34. Angela on 07 Feb 2012 at 8:16 pm #

    When our daughter was about three, she started saying ” I love you more than all my chickens.” She’s turning 40 next month and that phrase comes up very often. No idea where it orginated – sometimes think maybe Sesame Street.

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