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Sugar, Cream and Fire

January 14, 1998|CHARITY FERREIRA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Ferreira, a former Times Food section intern, is a pastry chef at Greens in San Francisco

Browning seems to make food more appealing in winter, whether it's meat, onions or the top of creme bru^lee. And then there's caramel sauce.

There's something satisfying about the burning of the sugar, something mysterious about the chemistry involved in turning a snowy white, granulated substance into a viscous amber-colored liquid. The resulting silky texture and complex flavor belie the simplicity of caramel's two basic raw ingredients, sugar and cream.

Caramel's distinctive, intense flavor is a godsend to pastry chefs this time of year, when the remarkable variety of spring and summer fruits is a distant memory and the winter palette of citrus, pears and apples seems modest by comparison.

Caramel is a rich accent to the hearty desserts that people crave when the weather turns cool. And I'm not talking about golden pulled-sugar bird cages housing miniature truffles. I mean sticky, gooey caramel sauce, the kind that seems to have been invented to melt into ice cream and that adds a professional finishing touch to the homiest of desserts.

Although the term "caramelaholic" isn't thrown around much, caramel inspires a devout following among both professional and avocational dessert makers.

Emily Luchetti, former Stars pastry chef and now pastry chef at Farallon in San Francisco, always chooses caramel when she finds it on a dessert menu. And she loves to cook with it.

"When you order a chocolate dessert," she says, "it tastes like chocolate. Caramel has such a strong, intense flavor that can go in many different directions."

Caramel desserts at Farallon this winter have included an "apple split" served with apple caramel sauce, a combination that is an age-old favorite in its opposite incarnation, the caramel apple. She also serves a caramelized pineapple sauce with a coconut creme trifle.

Pineapple and caramel may sound odd, but it's a combination that more and more chefs across the country are using. At Patina in Los Angeles, Joachim Splichal's pastry chef combines roasted pineapple with spices, pistachio and caramel sauce. But the best caramel dessert in the country right now is at New York's Jean-Georges, where Jean-Georges Vongerichten pairs roasted pineapple with salty caramel ice cream.

Basic caramel sauce is a familiar ice cream parlor staple, but it can be flavored with many of the ingredients it complements so well. With the addition of butter, it becomes butterscotch. It is also a basis for sauces flavored with fruits, spices and extracts, liquors and brandies and, of course, chocolate.

Campanile's Nancy Silverton, a self-professed lover of all caramel, makes passion fruit and other fruit caramel sauces by starting with caramelized sugar to add body to the sauce and round out the flavor of winter fruit.

Flavored caramel sauces give desserts a special finishing touch that shouldn't be limited to restaurant desserts. A simple French apple tart becomes an aromatic delight when accompanied by smooth lavender caramel sauce.

Espresso caramel sauce--think caramel latte--adds richness and dimension to chocolate. Bread pudding transcends its humble origins under a spoonful of warm pear caramel sauce. And coconut ice cream gives star anise caramel sauce a new way to fulfill its highest calling.

BITTERSWEET CHOCOLATE CARAMEL SAUCE

Spoon this over old-fashioned vanilla ice cream.

1 cup sugar

1/3 cup water

1 cup heavy whipping cream

2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped

1/2 ounce unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Whisk sugar into water in small bowl. Pour into heavy-bottomed saucepan and cook, stirring, over medium heat until sugar is completely dissolved, about 1 minute. Increase heat to high and boil mixture without stirring. Wash down sides of pan frequently with clean brush dipped in water.

Sugar will first begin to caramelize and turn golden around edges of pan. Very carefully lift pan and gently swirl mixture to ensure even caramelization. Boil until sugar is deep amber color, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from heat and place pan in sink.

While sugar is boiling, heat cream to simmer over medium heat in another saucepan.

Slowly pour hot cream into caramel, whisking to combine. Mixture will bubble. If caramel hardens on bottom or around edges of pan, place over low heat and whisk until dissolved.

Add chopped chocolate and vanilla and stir until smooth. While sauce is still warm, strain through fine strainer.

About 1 1/4 cups. Each 1-tablespoon serving:

97 calories; 5 mg sodium; 16 mg cholesterol; 6 grams fat; 12 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.07 gram fiber.

FRENCH APPLE TART WITH LAVENDER CARAMEL SAUCE

The aromas of lavender and Marsala make this simple dessert pairing extraordinary.

PASTRY

1 1/2 cups flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons sugar

1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons (1 stick plus 3 tablespoons) butter, cut into small pieces

1/4 cup ice water

FILLING

6 apples, peeled and cored

6 tablespoons butter

3/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 cup Marsala

CARAMEL SAUCE

1 cup heavy whipping cream

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