Friday, September 13, 2013

Somewhere, under the caramel sea....

A lot has changed since my last post. I finished up with the Green Giant, I moved to a different city from a 3 bedroom house to a tiny (crappy) college apartment, I have started my masters program, and I have obtained a new computer (yes, I got a mac. No comments!). That is really not "it", for there are all the small splendid things that have come along with the transition back to school. Less stress (for now!), more sleep (no more waking up at 4:30am), more friends and social activities that are less than 5 minutes away, no more 45 minute one-way commute to is really all good from where I am sitting (basement of Babcock...the dungeon. It smells of stale candy and ice cream sandwiches).

Grad school has been great so far. I have learned** how to operate and prepare samples for a DSC (Differential Scanning Colorimeter) and determine glass transition temperatures (and other thermodynamic properties) of candy glasses from the generated data, and also how to perform a the Karl-Fischer titration in order to determine moisture content of food samples. The collected data is for the undergraduates in the confectionary science and technology course (Candy Science), and their first written lab reports that will detail the fundamentals of sugar cookery.

In terms of progress towards my research and thesis, I am reading a thesis from a previous Masters student to a) learn about how I will design experiments to collect base-line data collection for my research and b) learn some basic knowledge about the primary tool I will be using: NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance).

**with much help and patience and awesomeness of fellow lab mates who put up with my need for repetitive demonstrations and instructions....

The first thing I decided to prepare that was remotely elaborate in my new kitchen (kitchenette with retro white porcelain coated steel cubboards from the 1950's and a Kenmore fridge that looks like it got into a fight with multiple college students, inadequate outlets, teeny-tiny electric oven, leaky faucet, and zero counter space) was for my cousin's bridal shower. Me being myself, and loving all things sweet and baking, decided to make a tart.

In light of starting my research on caramel, the tart had a caramel theme. And in light of my hardcore chocolate cravings lately all the time, the tart also had a chocolate element. Additionally, in light of my general state of being busy, I am posting three recipes in one here to account for my blog neglect.

The crust for the tart was totally improvised: pulverized olive oil brownies that I intended to bake and top with toasted cashews and salted caramel sauce for my last day of work. This was foiled by my damn oven, as the gas decided to stop working the night I commenced my last baking activity at my house. With lots of swearing, I wrapped up the pan of un-baked, sad brownies, and jarred up the caramel sauce.

Upon baking the brownies in my new teeny-tiny electric oven, I discerned that a 1 week aging period and traveling to another city resulted in very dry, crumbly and sad "brownies" that were not fit for consumption as brownies. I, again with lots of swearing, broke them into pieces and froze them. Their destiny not decided until called upon for this tart. Dried in an oven, pulsed in my food processor and patted into the bottom of a springform pan, they made for an excellent crust to hold a caramelized pudding tart.

The pudding was simple and fast to prepare, yet complex in flavor. I added some orange zest for another layer of mystery...or something. I really just love caramel and orange together.

To add some presentation and tasty pizzaz, I topped the tart with freshly whipped cream spiked with whiskey and orange extract, and created a pool (it's hot, let's take a dip in caramel sauce!) of salted caramel sauce in the center for extra fun.

The pudding had excellent stand-up and was suited well for a tart, and the flavors were well balanced with the bitterness from the brownie crust, burnt sugar notes in the caramel and pudding, and ever-so-slightly-sweet whipped cream topping spiked with whiskey and orange. This is a keeper, and would suite the upcoming autumn holidays!

Now, for the recipes.

Orange Caramel Pudding Tart
Makes one 10 to 12 inch tart

Orange Caramel Pudding
Makes about 5 cups
Prep time is approximately 30 minutes, plus overnight for chilling

4 cups 2% or whole milk
1 cup sugar
4 TB water
6TB cornstarch
Zest of 1 orange (washed, preferably organic in variety)
1 teaspoon vanilla or whatever extract you fancy

Large pot
Small pot
Small bowl
Zester or Microplane
Refrigeration bowl or dish
Plastic Wrap

In the small bowl, combine the cornstarch and 1 cup of milk, and mix thoroughly to make what is called a "slurry". You do this to separate the starch granules from each other, otherwise they will party, get all sticky and sappy, and make your pudding clumpy. No one likes a clumpy pudding around here. Next, heat the 4 cups of milk in the large pot. Gently does it-not need to scald it.

Meanwhile, in your small pot, pour in your sugar, and add in 4 TB water. Swirl and stir gently to dissolve. Heat on medium-high until dark amber color has developed. This is my opinion: better to over caramelize than under, for this is the main flavor player in this pudding. Do not stir this while it is cooking; if you have little sugar crystals on the sides of your pot, and they are bothering you, place a lid on top and let the condensation that forms drip down the sides and dissolve. We're really not too concerned about what is termed "seed crystals", or little bastard sugar crystals that hitch-hike on the sides of your vessel, only to jump into the sea of caramel when it is done cooking to make little seedy babies that will grow into a whole family of sugar crystals and ruin the texture of your caramel. Why? Because. I say so. Just kidding, it is really because you will be adding this caramel immediately to your hot milk mixture, which will dissolve any resemblance of sugar crystal left anywhere in your caramel cooking vessel.

Keep an eye on your caramel as you monitor your warming milk. Once the caramel is done, slowly pour it into the warm milk, whisking constantly, and turn up the heat to help incorporate. If the caramel seizes, fear not, just turn the heat up, whisk, and let it dissolve (after all, it is just burnt sugar...).

Once the mixture is homogenous (i.e. all one happy mixture), add in the slurry made above. Whisk constantly. The goal is to cook the starch to first thicken, and then cook the starchy flavor out. Cook over medium-high heat. Once the mixture has started to bubble consistently, cook for 1 to 2 minutes. Taste before taking off the heat. You should not taste any starch or detect a gritty texture. If you do, return to the heat, and cook while stirring constantly.

A note on this stirring business: make sure you are getting into the corner (well, circles do not have corners, but you know what I mean) of your pot. If you don't, you may end up with extra thick chunks of pudding here. This is not a huge deal, just be wary when scraping the bottom of you pot when the pudding is done.

When done cooking, pour the pudding into a chilling dish. Allow to cool for a few minutes, then press plastic wrap directly on the surface. This prevents a skin from forming. Refrigerate until set, or overnight.

Once cooled completely, add the orange zest and the extracts of your choice. It is important to wait until the pudding is cool, otherwise you will vaporize (i.e. boil away) any alcohol based extracts, and citrus zest essential oils, rendering your pricey extracts and delicious citrus peels useless.

You can now consume this as is, add some whipped cream on to, throw it at your neighbors or what have you.

If you are feeling ambitious, continue on for the olive oil brownie recipe for the crust, salted caramel sauce and tart assembly with whipped cream topping.

Olive Oil Brownies
Makes 1 8x8 pan, or enough for a 10 to 12 inch tart crust
Prep time is approx 45 minutes: 15 to mix, 30 to bake

4 ounces un-sweetened chocolate
1/3 cup olive oil
2 medium to large eggs (see note)
1/2 cup brown sugar (I used sucanant, and then added 2 TB honey)
1/2 cup all purpose flour (you could easily sub whole wheat AP flour)
1 teaspoon salt
Optional: pinch of cinnamon, nutmeg and/or 1 to 2 teaspoons instant espresso powder

8 x 8 pan (I used my Pyrex), or any other similar volume pan
Medium sauce pan
Mixing bowl
Wooden spoon
Measuring cups and spoons

Preheat your oven to 350F. Grease your pan, or line with parchment.

In the small sauce pan, melt the chocolate on low heat. Once melted, remove from the heat. Add in the sugar and olive oil, and mix thoroughly. Add in the eggs, one at a time, mixing thoroughly after each. In adding, now is the time for cinnamon, nutmeg or instant espresso powder.

In the small bowl, sift the flour and salt (this is entirely optional, the sifting. I just really enjoy sifting with my fabulous antique sifter). Add the dry ingredients to the sauce pan with the wet mixture, and mix thoroughly with the wooden spoon. Pour batter into the pan, and massage into the pan with the spoon.

Bake for approximately 25 minutes, checking after 20. If you prefer gooey brownies, here's how to check them for perfection in the oven: insert a knife or toothpick approximately 1" from the side of the baking dish. Little to no crumbs should be adhering, and the middle will still look a bit "un-done". Take the pan out, and let them set while they cool for a bit. At this point, you can enjoy your brownies as-is with a tall glass of milk (or almond milk, or coffee, or wine, or whatever!)

For the tart crust application, go the full 25 minutes. Allow the brownies to cool until you can handle them, and break them into bits. Scatter them about on a cookie sheet or baking tray in a single layer, and then bake (dry them out...) at 300F for about 20 minutes. They do not have to be perfectly dry, so fear not!

Take the bits out, and allow to cool. Then, place in a food processor, and pulse until finely ground. Press into the bottom of a 10 to 12 inch tart or springform pan in an even layer for a crust suitable for any of your dessert desires. Your clean hands are the best tools for this.

To my vegan friends, you can easily omit the eggs and substitute the "flax seed" egg: mix 1 TB ground flax seeds with 3 TB water. You could also try omitting the eggs altogether if making the crust option, for the texture is really not that critical since the brownies will be finely ground, smashed in a pan, and topped with whatever vegan-friendly things you wish.

Salted Caramel Sauce
This produces a deep, intensely caramel sauce. Wonderful drizzled on pretty much anything (including caramel pudding!), stirred into coffee, and enjoyed by the spoonful.

Makes about 1 1/2 cups
Prep time is 15 minutes

Ingredients (see my notes below for details, we take our caramel seriously here):
1 cup sugar
3 TB unsalted butter
3/4 cup heavy whipping cream
1 to 2 heaping teaspoons sea salt

Medium sauce pan with lid
Measuring cups and spoons
Wooden Spoon or silicone spatula rated for 400F and above
Jars with lids or bowls to hold finished caramel
Optional: properly calibrated thermometer

In the medium sauce pan, pour the sugar in the bottom, taking care to not get sugar on the sides of the pan. In this application, we are concerned about seed crystals (see recipe for caramel pudding above, and note below) since we do care about the final texture and shelf life of our caramel sauce. Turn the heat on to medium-high, and allow the sugar to cook. Gently swirl the pan to encourage even cooking.

Once the sugar reaches caramelization temperatures (      ), or is a deep amber color, take the pan off the heat and set on a heat stable surface. Pour in the heavy whipping cream slowly-the mixture will bubble violently for a moment. Return the pan to the heat to melt any caramel bits that seized. Once the mixture is smooth, add in the salt and the butter, stirring to incorporate.

This would be the time to carefully taste-but caution-it is EXTREMELY HOT. Take a spoon, dip it in the sauce, let it cool for a minute, THEN taste.

Off the heat, and pour into storage jars with lids or a bowl to facilitate chilling. Immediately soak your caramel cooking pan with water. If you plan on storing your caramel sauce for other applications, the sauce can be stored chilled with a lid for up to 3 weeks.

Notes on the ingredients:

The Sugar: unless you have a thermometer, I highly recommend starting your caramel adventures with plain ol' white cane sugar. Why? Until you get used to the caramel making process, it is difficult to gauge degree of caramelization of sugars that contribute color (like raw cane sugar).

The Heavy Whipping Cream: unless you can somehow stabilize the various heat-sentitive albumin proteins in a lower-fat milk, use the real thing. The fat protects those heat vulnerable proteins, preventing denaturation and coagulation (read: no chunks in your caramel).

The Butter: I know, this is salted caramel sauce, so why not use salted butter? Salt is the most commonly used preservative in the industry, wait, the WORLD. It is cheap, accessible, and enhances flavors. Generally speaking, salt can be added to mask off-flavors of older cream used to make butter. There are regulations out there, so let's not be paranoid, but if you care about your butter, buy unsalted always.

The Salt: There are many types available. In fact, I have jade bamboo salt, hickory smoked salt and black himalayan salt in addition to regular sea salt in my kitchen right now. Feel free to be creative, however, just be aware that even though this is a "salted" caramel sauce, the level of addition is still quite low in comparison to the other ingredients, so please don't waste your fancy-schmancy salts here.

Notes on Preparation: For caramel making newbies or if it is humid outside: if you are really freaked out about burning (in a controlled manner!) dry sugar, you can add 1 to 2 TB water to the sugar to help dissolve and reduce the risk of sugar lumps forming. I recall a fond recent memory of making caramel with a good fried of mine on a humid July afternoon, which resulted in sugar lumps forming while the sugar cooked, and a sticky lumpy mass resulted that in no way resembled caramel sauce.

Tart Assembly and Whipped Cream Topping

Ingredients for the whipped cream topping:
1 1/2  cups heavy whipping cream
1 TB sugar or honey
Optional: 2 teaspoons whiskey or other liquor of your choice
Optional: 1 teaspoon orange extract

Whisk with large bowl, or beater, or mixer of sorts
10 to 12 inch tart or springform pan (if making the tart, that is)
1 recipe caramel pudding
1 recipe salted caramel sauce
1 recipe olive oil brownies, dried, pulsed and patted into your pan
Off-set spatula or any type of spreading tool
Optional: circular ring, such as a ring from a mason-jar or canning jar

Take your caramel pudding and caramel out from the fridge. The caramel is much easier to pour when room temperature.

Pour the pudding into your olive oil brownie crust. Spread into an even layer with your spreading tool.

And I know what you are thinking right about now, just after you poured the pudding onto your magnificent crust: should you oil the tart or springform pan sides? Well, to be honest, I did not out of shear neglect on my part. And the tart released itself perfectly. But, if it makes you feel better, go ahead and grease the sides of the pan with oil or butter.

Next, make your whipped cream topping by pouring the whipped cream, sugar, liquor and extract. Whisk vigorously or whip with a balloon whip attachment until medium peaks are formed (don't over-do it, or else you will start to over-shear the fat globules, coalesce said globules, and create butter).

Place the circular ring in the center of the pudding in the pan, gently pressing down so it does not move.  Using a spatula, scoop the whipped cream onto the outer edges of the tart and spread around the ring to the edges of the pan in an even layer. The empty circle in the middle will now hold the caramel sauce. Using a spoon, gently pour in room temperature caramel sauce into the empty circle, taking care to not over-fill it.

If you do not care about the circular ring and having a pool of caramel in the center of the tart, spread your whipped cream in an even layer. Then, drizzle caramel sauce all over the tart in whatever artsy-fartsy way you please.

Chill the tart for at least 1 hour, up to overnight to allow all components to set. Remove from fridge, and using a thin knife or spatula, gently loosen the tart from the sides of the pan, and repeat a few times for re-assurance. Using a sharp knife, slice and enjoy!

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