Monday, December 05, 2011

Caramel, or Not?

My son made some amazing salted caramel ice-cream some time ago, and it has found its way to my Christmas Food Wish List (are you reading this, Matt?) This sweet thought made me realise that, in spite of a week dedicated to candy in 2008, plus many other random candy posts, I still have not covered the subject of caramel.

The Oxford English Dictionary is not given over to passionate enthusiasm in its word definitions - nor should it to be - but the entry on caramel is profoundly unenthusiastic. Caramel is, first of all, “A black or brown porous substance obtained by heating sugar to about 210° C., by which it loses two equivalents of water; burnt sugar. It is used for colouring spirits, etc.” 

Colouring spirits! Is that the best that the OED editors could do, as an example of the use of this ‘brown porous substance’!? Why not crème caramel? Caramel toffee? Caramel ice-cream sauce? Admittedly, a brief second definition is that caramel is ‘A kind of ‘candy’ or sweet’, but this sits alone on its little line, as if in solitary confinement, completely unsupported by its own quotations. There is an almost reluctant inclusion of the candy in the brief list of the attributed uses in a quote from the Philadelphia Times of 1884 which mentions ‘An article so generally a favourite with all classes as caramels. They are made of cream, sugar, vanilla, pistache, etc.”
I set about finding a recipe that would make the brown porous substance sound appetising, and got excited when I found instructions on how ‘to make a caramel’ in Every Woman Her Own House-Keeper; or, The ladies' library (1796) by John Perkins. The recipe was not at all what I expected.

To Make A Caramel.
Peel and divide China oranges into quarters, taking care not to break the skins; lay the quarters before the fire and turn them until the skin is very dry; then having ready a  pound of sugar sifted through a fine sieve, put it in a brass pan over the fire, keep stirring till it is melted and looks pretty clear; then take it off, put in the quarters of oranges, one at a time, take them out quickly with a spoon, and lay them on a dish, which must be buttered, or they will stick to it.
In this manner may be roasted chestnuts, or any other fruit in summer; first laying the fruit before the fire to toughen the skin, for if any wet come out, the sugar will not stick. This is to be done just before they are to be eaten; for such preparations will not keep.

Interestingly, this recipe does not instruct to continue cooking the syrup until it darkens to golden brown, as the name of the recipe would suggest to us nowadays, and as was instructed in the 1807 recipe for ‘prawlongs’ (pralines) which featured in a previous post.

Instructions in old cookery books often appear to us today to be unclear, or to have missing steps, because writers assumed much knowledge on the part of the reader-cook. I don’t think anything has been omitted in this example however. Confectionary instructions were usually quite specific as to the stage to which sugar syrups had to be cooked, for that is crucial to the particular sort of candy being made. Perkins specifies in today’s recipe only that the syrup become ‘clear.’ In other recipes he instructs that it be boiled ‘to candy height’ or ‘until you see the syrup candy about the pan and peels.” I can only assume then that what the author intended was something that we would simply call candied oranges today.

Speaking personally, I think this dish would be improved by taking the syrup to that next dimension of colour, and then serving some of the remaining caramel poured over the fruit. If I remember correctly, caramelised oranges made in this way were quite fashionable a few decades ago, were they not? In the ‘80’s?  Methinks they are worth reviving, as a lighter alternative to holiday dessert to plum pudding.

Quotation for the Day.

There is such a thing as food and such a thing as poison. But the damage done by those who pass off poison as food is far less than that done by those who generation after generation convince people that food is poison.
Paul Goodman

1 comment:

Marmaduke Scarlet said...

Salted caramels seem to be so fashionable at the moment, but I am curious about whether this is a "new" thing or not. Any ideas? :)