“Do you say care-a-mel or car-mel?”
We were divided on the pronunciation of the word, but we were united in our appreciation of it.
“We are making a caramel sauce.”
Now, I am not above eating caramel sauce with a spoon, straight out of the pot, but I felt that in order to maintain some sense of propriety we should also make something to eat the caramel on.
“And apple crêpes.”
Now, a cheer.
Since crêpe batter should sit for 30 minutes or so before using, we decided to make that first.
The easiest way to make the batter is in a blender or, in our case, with an immersion blender.
They measured the milk into a pitcher.
And added the eggs.
The butter we had put on the stove to brown was ready and it smelled amazing.
After mixing the browned butter into the other ingredients, we set the resulting batter aside and the kids gathered near the stove to start caramelizing the sugar for our sauce.
Except nobody could see into the pot. So, some chairs were brought in and children were rearranged.
“What does sugar smell like?”
“And caramel? Does it smell the same, or different?”
They considered the question.
“How can caramelized sugar smell so different from regular old white sugar?”
I explained that granulated sugar, or sucrose, is made up of fructose and glucose, and that when heated, it breaks down into these two component sugars. Eventually, these molecules break down into other molecules that react with one another to form new compounds that make up the delicious aromas and flavors of caramelized sugar.
There are two classic methods to making caramel: wet and dry. The wet method involves moistening the sugar with water and cooking the mixture. As the water boils away, the sugar breaks down and caramelizes.
The dry method is simply sugar cooked in a dry pan. Because sugar is partially water, heat easily liquifies it.
Of the two methods, I personally prefer the dry caramel. I am an impatient person and because of the added water, the wet method takes longer. A wet caramel is also more prone to crystallization. Again, as an impatient person, I just don’t have time for that.
I reminded the kids that melting sugar is very, very hot. They agreed to be mindful of each other at the stove.
We sprinkled an even layer of sugar into the pot and began cooking it over moderate heat.
After just a few minutes, we could see some sugar liquifying at the edges and a little browning under the surface, near the center.
“Wow, that happens fast!”
As the browning and melting continued, we used the spoon to pull the sugar from the outside of the pot towards the middle.
The kids took turns using the tip of the spoon to mash and distribute chunks of sugar, allowing them to melt into the darker liquid.
While we didn’t want any one spot to get too dark, (you can’t salvage burnt sugar), I cautioned against stirring too much to avoid excessive lumping and crystallization.
We did end up with some chunky bits, but we lowered the heat and those soon softened into the rest of the caramel.
The color of caramel at its tastiest point is something like that of an old copper penny. Smell is actually the best indicator of when the sugar is ready. We kept smelling the pot, and as the familiar scent of rich caramel wafted up, we watched the darkening sugar like hawks. Once we could see the caramel start to smoke, we turned off the burner. The caramel would continue to cook from the residual heat of the pot.
We had butter at the ready and carefully dropped it into the molten sugar.
Cream went in next.
The cold cream caused the caramel to seize up a bit, but as we did earlier, we just turned the heat to low and stirred everything together.
“That smells so good!”
Now that the sauce was finished, we could turn our attention to cooking the crêpes.
We strained the batter and poured it into a jar tall enough to accommodate a 2-ounce ladle.
I demonstrated how to deposit the mixture onto the hot pan, tilting and swirling it to cover the surface with a thin layer of batter.
I used a small offset spatula to loosen the edges of the crêpe and quickly flipped the thin pancake over.
A few seconds on the other side, and the crêpe was cooked enough to turn out onto a cooling rack.
I handled the ladling for the first round, while the kids focused on tilting the pan.
They were more confident the second time around, and did most of the ladling themselves, though they still needed a little help with the flipping of the crêpe.
We had a bit of fretting over the lack of coverage, but I assured them that we could add a little batter and smooth it with the spatula, and if that failed to produce a perfect crêpe, they wouldn’t notice the difference once the crêpes were filled and folded.
I quickly sautéed some apples and reheated the crêpes briefly on the pan.
With the addition of a scoop of the cooked apples and a little of the still warm caramel sauce, everyone was happy.
It was definitely a clean plate kind of day.
Salted Caramel Sauce
1 cup granulated sugar
6 T butter, cut into pieces
1/2 cup heavy cream, warmed just slightly
1 t sea salt
Have all ingredients ready and near the stove. Place the sugar in a heavy-bottomed pot and shake it to make a fairly even layer. Cook the sugar over moderate heat, using a wooden spoon to help push and pull the solid sugar into the liquid sugar. You don’t want any one spot to get too dark or burnt. If the sugar gets really clumpy, just turn the heat to low and continue cooking it and it will eventually smooth out. Keep a close eye on the color, it should be the color of an old copper penny when it’s ready. It should smell strongly of caramel and the pot will start to smoke. Immediately turn off the heat and carefully add the butter, followed by the cream and salt. Return the sauce to low heat to incorporate all the ingredients. Cooled sauce can be rewarmed over low heat.
Makes about 15 crêpes
7 T unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 3/4 c whole milk
4 large eggs
1/2 t sea salt
1 t vanilla
1 1/2 c unbleached all purpose flour
Brown butter over low heat until quite dark (see here), immediately pour into a small dish to stop the cooking and cool slightly. Measure milk, eggs, salt, and vanilla into a blender and combine. Add the flour and blend until smooth. Add the butter and blend again. Set aside for 30 minutes or up to 24 hrs in the refrigerator. Strain batter before using.
To cook the crêpes:
I use an 8″ crêpe pan, but you could use a similar size skillet. Heat the pan over moderate heat and lightly butter it, (I only do this for the first crêpe). When the pan is hot but not smoking, (a few drops of water should skitter across the surface), pour or ladle 1/4 cup of batter on it near the center while simultaneously tilting and swirling the pan. It takes a little practice, and it usually takes me a crêpe or two to get into a rhythm. You should hear it sizzle. Any excess batter can be poured back into your container and the resulting “tail” can be cut off. Once the top of the crêpe is set, you can use a small spatula to loosen the sides. I use my fingers to flip the crêpe over, but you could also use a larger spatula to do so. Let it cook for a few seconds and then turn the crêpe out onto a cooling rack. The first crêpe is always a throwaway for me, well, we eat it, but it’s generally an ugly one. You can begin stacking the finished crêpes as they cool. Any unused crêpes can be wrapped and frozen.