Yesterday’s musings on the sweet subject of ‘mocha’ made me think of other sweet treats, and I realised that, apart from a few paltry mentions, and recipes for caramelcoffee and caramel oranges, I have hardly given that wonderful browned sugar flavouring much mention.
The Oxford English Dictionary is very minimalist on this important topic. Essentially it says that the origin of the word is uncertain. It quotes one authority who suggests that the word represents the
Latin calamellus, meaning little tube, ‘in reference to its tubular form.” I have no idea what is tubular about caramel, do you? Another authority thinks it is from medieval Latin cannamella, indicating sugar-cane. Did the Romans know about sugar-cane? A third, ‘Arabic source; is also conjectured. Sadly then, no real insights into the history or meaning of caramel there.
As for the definition of caramel, the OED is also rather minimalist and decidedly dull on the topic. Two explanations are given:
a. 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.
b. A kind of ‘candy’ or sweet.
I much prefer the entry in The Steward's Handbook and Guide to Party Catering (Chicago, 1889) by Jessup Whitehead, although I don’t believe for one minute the bit about Viscount Caramel!
CARAMEL Burnt sugar. Said to have been named from a Viscount Caramel. It is the stage in
boiling sugar when the boiling ends and it begins to turn brown. At that stage it has a pleasant taste
like some brown candies.
CARAMELS Name given to various kinds of candies, generally of a dark sort.
CARAMEL COLORING Sugar burnt in a frying pan till it smokes and turns black, water then added, boiled, strained; used for giving the brandy color to soups, jellies and spirits.
CARAMEL PUDDING Sugar melted brown in a mould and run all over the interior while cooling; rilled up with custard of cream and yolks; steamed.
CARAMEL ICE CREAM Brown almond nougat made by melting sugar to caramel with almonds mixed; when cold, pounded fine and mixed in ice cream instead of sugar.
There is a type of ‘caramel’ that the OED does not consider. It is demonstrated nicely in the following recipe:
Fowls a la Mommorency.
Having a Fowl, singe, gut, truss, and blanch it over a Charcoal Fire; then lard it with thin Bacon j being larded, split it in the Back, put into the Belly a small Ragoo with Sweetbreads of Veal, Champignons, Truffles, and some Bottoms of Artichokes; put it a stewing in a Stew-pan with Slices of Bacon, Ham, and Veal j being stewed, take it off and put in it a little Broth j let it have a Boil, then strain it off in a Silk Strainer, and skim the Fat well off; then set it on again and let it stew 'till it turns to Caramel, then put it in your Fowls, and put your Bacon Side into the Caramel, put it upon hot Cinders, that it may glaze as it should: Being ready to serve up, put a Cullis of Ham, or a Sauce made the Italian Way into your Dish, then your Chickens over it, and serve it up hot for an Entry.
The whole duty of a woman, or, an infallible guide to the fair sex. (1737)
For most of us of course, caramel is an achingly sweet, dark, flavour which stops just short of burnt – like toasted sugar, perhaps. Surprisingly, recipes for caramel sauce do not appear in cookery books until the second half nineteeth century – rather later than I would have guessed. For those of us who like to gild the lily, here is a caramel custard with caramel sauce.
4 cups scalded milk, 5 eggs, ½ teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon vanilla, ½ cup sugar.
Put sugar in omelette pan, stir constantly over hot part of range until melted to a syrup of a light brown color. Add gradually to milk, being careful that the milk does not bubble up and go over, as is liable on account of high temperature of sugar. As soon as sugar is melted in milk, add mixture gradually to eggs slightly beaten; add salt and flavouring, then strain in buttered mould. Bake as custard. Chill and serve with Caramel Sauce.
½ cup sugar, ½ cup boiling water.
Melt sugar as for Caramel Custard, add water, simmer ten minutes; cool before serving.
The Boston Cooking School Cook Book, (1896) by Fannie Merritt Farmer.
Quotation for the Day.
At about the age of ten, during a late summer visit to Sears to buy school clothes, I became aware of the concept of candy by the pound. This was revolutionary. Here were entire stalls of candy, naked as the day they were born, piled up two feet high and God knows how deep. What it was beauty.
From History of Food, by Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat (translated from French by Anthea Bell):
(On the source of the name:)
[the Arabs] obtained a new product, dark brown, sticky and highly fragrant: kurat al milh, or 'ball of sweet salt'.
Of course! I should have checked this further. Thanks for letting us all know about this. The authority who suggested an arabic origin was clearly correct. I am now quite happy.
Toussaint-Samat is unfortunately completely unreliable. It is full of nonsense and has no footnotes, so you can't trace things back. It seems to be compiled from a lifetime of clippings uncritically collected from all manner of sources, both good and bad. Since there is no way to tell the good from the bad, it's best just to ignore it.
An example of her nonsense on the topic of sugar: "The Arabs installed the first 'industrial' sugar refinery on the island of Candia or Crete -- its Arabic name, Qandi, meant 'crystallized sugar'." Qand indeed means 'sugar', and qandi means 'candied', but they have nothing to do with Crete or the name Candia, which comes from the Arabic word khandaq 'moat'.
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