I’ve been a chocolate-hater since I was a kid, which means when someone speaks of a crazy-delicious dessert that doesn’t involve the brown stuff, my heart skips a beat and I smile like I’ve seen a unicorn. Last week, a magic moment like this went down when my buddy Francis Lam mentioned he knew of the best banana pudding in the world. Its secret lies in lacing homemade pudding with banana caramel—yes, banana caramel! Even more genius is the technique behind it: Cook the sugar until it’s dark amber-colored and then stop the caramelization by mixing in the whole pureed fruit. You end up with a luscious, velvety caramel that’s got sweet, pure fruit flavor up front balanced by a hint of bitter from the burnt sugar at the end.
The technique got us thinking. What if you could make raspberry caramel? Pineapple caramel? Mango, peach, blueberry, holy shoot….lime caramel?!
After a marathon of experimenting and tasting (thank you to my fiancé), yes, it turns out that you can make all of the above. The best of my experimental bunch, however, and the one I’ll be using as a sweet condiment all summer long, was the batch I made with big, juicy, strawberries.
Spooned over French toast, hidden in layers of a birthday cake, slathered on toast over an oozy slice of brie, dolloped into a trifle or drizzled over a scoop of vanilla ice cream, this is one spectacular strawberry sauce.
Thoughts on cooking sugar into caramel
Caramel is just sugar cooked to where its chemical structure (and flavor) changes and deepens. But cooking sugar is, I admit, not for wimps. Pull it from the heat when it’s too light, and you’ve got a boring, too-sweet, sticky mass, but let it go even just seconds too long, and you’ll have a burnt, bitter mess in your pot. No worries, though. You can go from newbie to expert if you just give it a few shots (and maybe burn a batch or two). The more you do it, the more familiar you’ll become with the timing and the color that you like. And relax, it’s just sugar and water, not an expensive standing rib roast.
Remember, even when you take the bubbling sugar off the heat, it continues to cook, so it’s better for beginners to pull too early vs. too late. Then you stop the reaction by adding something that will cool it down – traditionally it’s cream or a liquor, but here we’re using fruit. I recommend first-time caramel makers stop the cooking when it’s amber colored; it won’t be as full-flavored, but it’ll help you get the hang of it.
Do not walk away
Stay in the kitchen when you’re cooking sugar. It takes a little bit of time to get going (8 to 10 minutes) but once it starts to take color, it’ll go from golden yellow to dark brown very quickly.
Use a clean, heavy, light-colored pot
First, you’ll want to cook your caramel in a pot that actually lets you see the color of sugar as it changes. And you want it clean: One of the pitfalls of this project is the crystallization of sugar, which happens when a little bit of sugar goes rogue and sets up a little crystalline colony, which can grow. The best way to avoid crystallization is to use a clean pot and agitate the cooking sugar as little as possible. If you need to stir, give the pot a gentle little swirl instead of using a spoon or spatula. And, do not use a wooden spoon since wood is porous and may introduce an impurity into the sugar.
If you burn it….
Don’t bother scrubbing. The best way to clean the pot is to fill it with water, and bring it to a boil. The burnt sugar will melt away into the water.
Strawberry Caramel Sauce
Makes about 2 cups
1 pound fresh strawberries, hulled and rinsed
Pinch of salt
1 cup granulated sugar
½ cup water
A pastry brush (only if you want to be perfect)
Blend the berries: Toss them all in a blender with the pinch of salt and buzz away until it’s super smooth. If you want to get fancy and strain the puree through a sieve to remove the seeds, go for it, but it’s not necessary. Measure out about 1 cup of puree. Save the rest for a smoothie.
Get the sugar going: Neatly combine the sugar and water in a 3-quart, clean, heavy saucepan. You don’t want sugar water to splash on the sides of the pot, because it can burn or crystallize. No fear: use a pastry brush, dipped in fresh water, to clean the sides of the pot as it cooks if need be. Turn the heat on high and when the mixture begins to bubble, turn it to medium-low.
Cook and watch: Cook the sugar until the bubbles slow to a gurgle. It’ll take a little time (about 10 minutes), but this is when you want to start paying attention. You’ll notice the mixture getting thick and syrupy and it will start to turn golden yellow around the sides of the pot. When you start to see color, daintily swirl the pot to distribute the color and continue cooking.
Watch closer, then add puree: When it gets to a dark amber color, pull it from the heat and immediately but carefully pour in the strawberry puree (it’ll sizzle!). Using a good rubber spatula, stir well while it bubbles up like a witch’s cauldron. If you end up with some small chunks of caramel, no biggie. Put the entire mixture over low heat and stir until the caramel chunks melt into the sauce.
Serve hot or cold. If the sauce is a little too sweet for you, feel free to add a hit of lemon juice, champagne vinegar or heavy cream to cut the sweet.