Decorative Caramel · GF (about a cup)
This is probably one of the easiest things in the Pastry Department Bag O’ Tricks. Whether enrobing chestnuts or hazelnuts in a glossy coating of caramel, or making a Florentine into a free standing garnish, it’s a simple way to jazz up desserts.
There are a hundred million ways to utilize this caramel, and it’s not my goal to cover them all at the moment, but rather to highlight a few simple uses.
Before you start
Since the caramel will go from liquid to solid in a relatively short period of time, having your mise en place will help significantly. The equipment you’ll need depends on what you want to create with the caramel.
Please read through this and make a game plan before you start. I’m breaking recipe-writing rules by putting this info at the beginning because I want you to succeed.
So figure out how you want to use the caramel, read the instructions to get a good feel of the steps required, and then assemble any equipment you’ll need to actually get the job done. Only then should you make up the caramel (recipe below).
Here are 4 ways to use this caramel.
Caramel Coated Nuts shown atop a Mont Blanc. Super easy. You’ll need a parchment lined sheet pan and some wooden toothpicks to skewer the nuts for dipping. Your goal is to secure the nut to the toothpick, so just push the toothpick in to the top of the nut by a fraction of an inch. Dip the nut into the caramel, let the excess run off, and set the caramel coated nut on the parchment to dry. Remove the toothpick once the caramel hardens.
Caramel Coated Nuts with a Spike a terrific garnish for chocolate torte. Just a tad tricky, but not really. You’ll need a parchment lined sheet pan, a heavy cutting board, and some wooden toothpicks to skewer the nuts for dipping. In this case, secure the nut to the toothpick from the side; push the toothpick into the nut just a fraction of an inch. Place the cutting board on the counter top, flush with the edge, and set a parchment lined sheet pan on the floor below.
Once you dip the nuts, rotate the toothpick so the “top” of the nut points toward the floor, then wedge the toothpick between the book/cutting board. The excess caramel will now drip down to the floor like a caramel icicle. Your floor will be cleverly protected by the sheet pan. Once the caramel hardens, remove the toothpick and invert the nut so the spike points toward the ceiling. Voila.
Making a Caramel Foot for Cookies Example here. You’ll just need some cookies, fully baked, standing at the ready, and a piece of parchment spread out on the counter. Florentines are my favorite for this type of project.
Some people like to use empty drinking glasses or jars as supports to hold the cookies up as they dry, but I hate to get dishes dirty if I don’t have to. If you dip the cookies two at a time, you can arrange them in a “T” and they will support each other.
Dip each cookie about 1/4” into the caramel, and let some of the excess run off, but not all. You need a little extra caramel to run down the cookie and pool on the parchment to form a “foot.” Make sense? So after dipping, stand the cookie vertically on the parchment paper, caramel side down, and hold it upright. Take a second caramel dipped cookie and stand it at a 90° angle to the first, so that a non-caramel edge of the second cookie touches the back of the first cookie. The two cookies will make a “T” shape and will support each other as the caramel hardens.
Of course, you can use any object to support the cookies as the caramel hardens, do what you feel most comfortable with.
Caramel Lace, a really easy multipurpose garnish.
Have a parchment covered cookie sheet standing at the ready. You will need this when the caramel is finished.
Make the caramel according to the recipe below. When the mixture has turned a nice amber color, shut off the heat and transfer the pot to a cooling rack or a pot holder.
Please use caution when drizzling the caramel, it is much hotter than it looks! Use a metal or wooden spoon to scoop out a little caramel. Hold the spoon over the parchment lined cookie sheet and allow the caramel to drizzle down to the paper. Drizzle the caramel into a pattern, whatever size and shape you like. You may need to experiment with the first few to get the hang of drizzling.
Allow the caramel designs to cool thoroughly before using or storing. To use, simply peel the parchment away from the caramel and garnish any dessert that needs a hint of caramel and a pleasant crunch.
To store, cut the parchment into pieces with the caramel still attached and store, stacked, in an airtight container. The caramel will keep indefinitely.
Okay, now that you understand what you’ll be doing with the caramel once it’s made, here’s the recipe.
Making the caramel
4 ounces water
8 ounces sugar
pinch of kosher salt
Make the caramel in the smallest pot you have that will hold the water and sugar (this creates more depth for dipping and also helps the caramel retain its heat/fluidity).
Put the water, sugar, and a pinch of salt into the pot. Put it on medium heat and just let it go. You don’t even need to bother with stirring; the mixture will stir itself up when it comes to a simmer.
The only thing you need to do is keep an eye on it. This will go from caramel to burned crap pretty fast, so don’t multitask. Let the sugar water simmer away until it begins to take on a caramel color. Shake or swirl the pan occasionally to “mix” and to get a good gauge on the color. When it begins to turn an amber color, shut off the heat and transfer the pot to a cooling rack or pot holder.
The caramel is incredibly hot, so please use caution while dipping and don’t touch it with your fingers. It looks really shiny and delicious, so it’s easy to forget how hot it is when a trickle of caramel runs down the side of the pot. Don’t touch it!
Now you’re ready to use it however you like. Follow one of the above sets of instructions.
Store the caramel-dipped-whatevers in an airtight container until ready to serve. The caramel is very sensitive to humidity, so it may become sticky if it’s particularly humid or if you don’t store them properly.
A note on clean up: The easiest way to clean your caramel coated pot is to fill it with water and bring it to a boil. Let it boil for five minutes or so, until the caramel is dissolved, then pour it down the drain.
Alternately, return the caramel pot to the stove top and heat it until it becomes fluid again. Then hit it with some heavy cream (oh, 6 ounces would be a good start) to make a simple caramel sauce. You’ll probably need to strain this to remove stray cookie or nut bits.
May 17, 2011 · 7:16 AM
Another great post, Stella. Love your comment about not multi-tasking. I tried to be clever once while caramel was heating and completely forgot about it. Needless to say, I ruined a lovely saucepan and the house was reeking of burnt caramel for days.
· Jill · MadAboutMacarons.com
May 17, 2011 · 9:01 AM
What a great post! I really like the ones with the spike and the lace. I just got two bags of chestnut from my mother in law and had no idea what to do with them. Now I do!
· Annie's Dish · anniesdish.com
May 17, 2011 · 10:11 AM
I adore the lace! Thanks for the simple recipe and for sharing these techniques
· Winnie · www.healthygreenkitchen.com
May 17, 2011 · 10:42 AM
@Jill, yes I definitely wrote that caution as the voice of experience. Such a bad, bad smell!
@Annie, the chestnuts are so especially good when dipped in caramel because their tender texture contrasts the crispy shell. So much fun to eat! Enjoy your chestnuts; your mother-in-law sounds like an awesome lady.
@Winnie, you’re welcome. I hope you give it a shot someday. It took me more effort to write everything down than it did to actually make the recipe. I have to do this at least once a week, so I’m biased, but it’s pretty easy.
May 17, 2011 · 1:53 PM
This is really, really clever. Love the taste and crunch of caramel. They do make everything look spectacular.
· Adora's Box · www.adorasbox.net
May 18, 2011 · 8:19 AM
This is amazing!! So beautiful
· Beth Michelle · bethmichelle.com
May 18, 2011 · 12:24 PM
@adora, @beth michelle, thank you! The other thing I love about this kind of caramel is that it’s not calorie intensive, so it’s never “too much” even on a rich dessert. Thanks for stopping by!
May 18, 2011 · 7:05 PM
i want to come play in your kitchen!!
· vanillasugarblog · vanillasugarblog.com
Sep 08, 2011 · 2:07 PM
Dec 29, 2011 · 11:57 AM
@Laura, All of that’s only for getting a caramel coated nut with a spike. For a simple caramel dipped nut, just follow the directions under, “Caramel Coated Nuts” which is much simpler. Cheers!
Jan 25, 2012 · 4:13 PM
Dear Cousin, may I suggest using a sheet or block of styrofoam for producing Caramel Coated Nut Spikes of Doom? I’ve found when producing them en masse it’s ever so much faster to lay a block of styrofoam on the table edge and jab the toothpicks into it rather than slipping them under the edge of a cutting board.
Jan 26, 2012 · 2:10 PM
Dearest Cousin, what a clever man you are! An elegant and practical solution. I will amend my ways. Wherever are you working these days? Are we still just down the street from one another? We must imbibe something together soon.
Jan 26, 2012 · 5:40 PM
Of late I’m part of the Dupree Catering crew, cooking here there and everywhere, be it in the kitchen or scullery of a grande manse, a field, a broom closet, or any variety of like venue. Also I freelance in Mandarin interpreting and translation, and attend the odd class at UK. Ho hum. Co-imbibation is needed indeed.
May 26, 2012 · 4:18 PM
@Claudia, oh that’s awesome, I’m glad I could clear things up. Happy baking!
Jul 30, 2012 · 10:16 PM
Thanks for the very useful post. I’ve seen the nuts with the caramel spike and was looking for them with an eye to some wedding cupcakes I’m making later this month.
Can you tell me if they are likely to be OK overnight, or if I really should make them on the day?
(since the bride is hoping for a miniature croquembouche on each of the top two cupcakes, which I really do have to make on the day, I’m hoping these keep a little longer)
· Catherine · catescates.com.au
Jul 31, 2012 · 9:19 AM
@Catherine, these will keep great in an airtight container (especially if you have a packet or two of a desiccant). Of course once they hit the buttercream, the clock starts ticking. Hope that helps!
Sep 20, 2012 · 9:15 AM
Hi Sarah! It sounds like maybe the caramel is still a bit hot. Try letting the caramel cool down a little more before dipping, it gets nice and thick as it cools. I hope that helps!
Nov 21, 2012 · 4:32 PM
Hi Fairy. It sounds like your heat source isn’t crankin’ out like it should. Turn up the heat and see where that gets you. Sugar will, inevitably, caramelize after reaching a certain temperature so if it’s not coloring it’s just not hot enough. Good luck!
Mar 19, 2013 · 2:09 AM
Hmmm….Never turned amber but seized up. Wondering what I might try….
· Deborellah · photomambo.com
Mar 19, 2013 · 6:21 PM
Hi Deborellah. Hmmm, that’s weird. It sounds like you must have been cooking it over a fairly low heat, or that you had an especially heavy bottomed pot. Next time you might want to crank the heat up a little more…
Jun 06, 2013 · 12:36 PM
Hello, I just wanted to say how much I LOVE LOVE your blog. I am a small town caterer and really enjoy surprising my clients with the little extras. All these “tricks” and tools of the trade will bump up my game more then anything I have done today. I have just tried the Carmel spike with chestnuts and will see how they keep. I am a bit worried they may soften overnight because the chestnut have more water in them then other nuts but I will see. I did not have any desiccant’s so I put rice under parchment paper. Thanks again for your generosity in sharing all this information.
Jun 06, 2013 · 6:29 PM
Hi Saskatoonevy! I’m so happy to be of help to you, hurray! I’ve definitely noticed the chestnuts do not like to be done very far in advance. They’ll keep for a few hours, but after that their moisture begins to dissolve the caramel. You might try toasting them in the oven to dry them back out, if using the canned or frozen type.
Sep 04, 2013 · 10:07 PM
Hey shabnam! Yayy! So glad to solve a mystery for you. Hope you have good success trying it yourself.
Oct 07, 2013 · 1:35 PM
Hi! Was so excited to try this, the lace specifically, as a garnish for cupcakes I was going to make over the weekend. The first attempt – I pulled the pot from the heat when it took on the amber color. The consistency and texture were perfect and it set up perfectly, BUT, the residual heat in the pot must of kept working on the sugar and it tasted bitter and burnt. Threw that batch away. The next two batches foamed up and then seized up, or crystallized rather than staying in the syrup form and making caramel. They never turned the right color either. I was so flabbergasted, especially after I got so close to having it right the first time. I decided to stop after wasting three cups of sugar and about 4 hours of my life. Any suggestions or ideas on what may have happened??
Oct 11, 2013 · 11:27 AM
Hi TractorBoysGirl, sorry for the delayed response! How frustrating. What kind of pot were you using? Some retain heat more than others (like enamel, etc) which can exacerbate the post-cooking cooking, if you know what I mean.
If you like, you can try shocking the bottom of the pot in cold water, to halt the cooking. I don’t usually do this because it can really cause the syrup to thicken much, much faster.
I’m not sure what might have caused the foaming (some sort of residue on the pot, or some sort of acidic ingredient— honey and molasses are notorious for foaming), but crystallization is the result of a rogue sugar crystal working its way into the mix (maybe stuck to a reused spoon or pot?). It can also happen when you cook the mixture too fast, evaporating too much water out of the caramel. I hope that gives you some extra info to go on!
Jun 03, 2014 · 2:22 PM
Hi Channing! A few packs of of Silica Gel Desiccant (you can buy on amazon if your food service rep doesn’t sell) should do the trick, presuming the container is truly airtight to begin with. Without the desiccant, it’s almost impossible to keep them crisp in an environment as humid as a restaurant.
Jun 19, 2014 · 9:20 AM
Thank you so much for the reply! There are so many tricks of the trade that I find you can’t learn without hearing it from a chef directly, in their own kitchen, and only if you ask a very specific set of questions.. I can’t seem to find very much written material on these things! I guess nobody wants to share what they’ve learned, lol.
Jun 25, 2014 · 9:57 AM
Hi Channing! I’m happy to help. Honestly, when it comes to chefs, we don’t even realize what’s helpful to the average person. We’ve been doing this our whole lives, so it takes a lot of prodding before we’ll realize some practice that’s a boring bit of our day is actually a “trick” for someone else. It’s hard to step back and realize how much we take for granted! It definitely can take some specific questions to prod out this info, haha.
Jul 14, 2014 · 1:00 AM
Tried caramel three years ago to make buttercream, and failed miserably; I had been turned off of it for that long! Finally got the nerve to try it (doing creme brulee cupcakes for Bastille Day) and the only thing I will say for the lace – work quickly!! I fixed part of the issue by keeping the stove on, but the caramel cooled faster than I could drizzle on with a spoon! Again, no issue as I just put it back on the stove for a quick 30 seconds or so to soften it. Excited to garnish tomorrow! Thanks!
Jul 17, 2014 · 11:18 AM
LC, I’m so happy to hear it! Working quickly is definitely key, but another helpful issue may be the type of pot used. Heavy bottomed pots in particular are helpful because they’ll retain heat and keep the caramel fluid and warm. Whereas a thin pot would allow the pot (and caramel) to quickly cool. Good luck with your cupcakes, they sound adorable!