Consider butter, fire and the unfailing magic of alchemy. It’s fall and caramel is as apt and autumnal as the season itself. It’s as mutable as the aspens’ change to copper, as flaxen as sugar’s hue over a flame and as anticipated as the year’s first wood-stove fire. As temperatures drop and patios close for the winter, austere Manhattans, ablaze with the amber glow of smoky rye and bourbon, replace the ubiquitous margaritas of summer. Nary a symptom of fall is unlike caramel: its colors, its qualities and its endless variations.
While a friend prepped for a dinner party last week, the scents of caramelization that wafted out of his kitchen were maddening. I could smell bacon being candied (to be served alongside tarte tatin), garlic slow roasting until rendered into a rich marrow, and butter-bathed onions reducing low and slow until they melted into a sweet, silky tangle. If you like caramelized onions, I cannot sufficiently recommend Diane Kochilas’ pasta with yogurt and caramelized onions from Kassos—for which a recipe can be easily procured via google.com—which glorifies the infinite dimensions of caramel to the realm of the sublime.
Caramelization is, by definition, sugar grown nutty and brown through oxidization, usually from heat. Not all browning is the result of caramelization; for instance, the “caramelization” of milk to produce the caramel-like confections cajeta and dulce de leche is actually a form of the Maillard reaction, which involves the interaction of sugars and protein, and is why the rich aroma of seared meat is better than that of boiled meat, and why the smell of roasted coffee beans and fresh-baked bread is so irresistible.
Caramel is sugar that is intensified in a hot pan, at first clear as crystal and then deepening to a languid chestnut. It’s the savory crust on vegetables that have basked in the heat of an oven. What makes this the perfect season for caramel experimentation? The profiles of caramel complement fall flavors and nuances: poached apples and pears, braised meats, dried fruit, quinces, pumpkins, maple, cider, molasses, gingerbread, honey cake, date bars, Indian corn pudding, squash, cinnamon, vanilla and walnuts.
As a confection, caramel can be “short” or “long;” it can be bitter and resonant or milky and placid. It can escape from the center of a chocolate in a quick rush of liquid butterscotch or stay firmly put, fudgey and dense. Caramel can also be malleable as saltwater taffy or translucent like stained glass. With the addition of cream, it can become toffee, which shatters with a dull snap. Another brittle form of caramel is the delicate scorched sugar that decorates the top of crème brûlée.
Lebanese actress-writer-director Nadine Labaki released Caramel in 2007, a film whose title in Arabic translates literally to “Girls’ Sugar” and refers to the sugar-waxing technique for hair removal. The most compelling scene of the film shows its protagonist pulling a long strand of hot caramel destined for the legs of her illicit lover’s wife, winding it contemplatively around her finger and taking a bite; her momentary reverie suspended golden and slow, as though packed in syrup. It’s slightly Pavlovian, but after watching this scene, I immediately had to make a batch of caramel sauce.
Use a cheesy cultured butter while making caramel and it will have a haunting tang. Caramel without salt is like a beautiful woman with no personality—promising but vacuous.
This recipe is adapted from Vancouver, British Columbia-based Chef Neil Wyles’ caramel sauce: Melt one stick of unsalted butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium to low heat until melted. Add one and a quarter cups packed light brown sugar and bring heat to medium. Stir until sugar and butter integrate and begin to foam: Ideally, after several minutes, the mixture will form a mass that pulls away from the sides of the pan, but don’t worry if it splits; it will all come together later. When the butter is completely absorbed by the sugar and begins to smell toasty, remove the pan from heat and slowly stir in a cup of heavy cream. Add a hearty pinch of sea salt to taste. Store in an airtight container and chill for up to three days.
To make candied bacon, you need a half cup of regular light brown sugar for every half pound of thick-cut bacon. If you like, a few dashes of cayenne, ground ginger or ground cinnamon can be added to the sugar for a nice effect. Toss the bacon in the sugar mixture and then spread the bacon flat on a baking sheet lined with parchment, foil or a silicone baking mat. Spread any excess sugar mixture on the strips of bacon and slip into a 385-degree oven for about six to eight minutes, checking regularly. Flip bacon with tongs and cook another five minutes until sugar is caramelized and bacon is crisp. Eat warm or cool. Eat plain. Eat plenty. Wrap around roasted Medjool dates. Enjoy alongside French toast or crumbled into pancake batter. Try it on vanilla ice cream with the caramel sauce spooned over.