I met my friend Jérôme on Twitter (the same place where he met his boyfriend) and we instantly bonded over bugnes, a sweet beignet eaten before Lent in the area around Lyon and St-Etienne. When I visited Lyon to research my book, he took me on a tour, pointing out pâtisseries flaunting hot pink tarts made from the city’s famous pralines, leading me through hidden “traboule” alleys, and past storied bouchons. In Paris, we often meet for lunch or tea, cake or cheese, coffee or wine, museum expositions or dinner with our partners, or all of the above, to talk about the things we love most: books, cooking, travel, family, and all the other bits in between. “Friendship is one of the most beautiful gifts life has to offer,” Jérôme has said. And I agree.
Now that I live in New York, I don’t see Jérôme as often as I’d like. Happily, we’ve found a way to continue our conversation via our very own cooking club. There are no rules, just the urge to try a slightly-more-complicated-than-usual recipe, and share the experience. We swap opinions and tips. We snap photos. Most recently we ventured into the tricky world of sugar, attempting a sauce caramel au beurre salé.
I first discovered salted butter caramel sauce at Breizh Café in Paris, a crêperie in the Marais, where it was drizzled over a dessert crêpe, a sticky, sweet, deep, and nutty trickle. I licked up every golden drop. Because I first ate it in a crêperie, and because it’s made of salted butter—a Breton staple—I assumed the ambrosial stuff hailed from Brittany. And because it was dribbled so sparingly over my plate, I also assumed it was difficult and expensive to make. Wrong, wrong! To learn the true history of sauce caramel au beurre salé, you’ll have to read chapter three of my book :) But today I’m happy to share the recipe.
I started with two cups of sugar, a dash of water, and a fair amount of trepidation. (I’d heard many horror stories about working with melted sugar and I have an active imagination.) I very assiduously did NOT stir the mixture, for fear of crystallization—despite my best efforts, however, crystals soon formed. The surface became covered in a white, sandy layer, while the sugar underneath rapidly melted and browned—it was like watching molten lava boil beneath the earth’s crust (and, seriously, it seemed just as hot). I was afraid of burning the whole thing, so I removed the pot from the heat and swirled the contents (without a spoon). The liquid was SO HOT, it melted the crystals, while the color continued to deepen. I then beat in a measure of hot, heavy cream, and several lumps of butter.
The color of the sauce was glorious, nut brown and glossy as a polished chestnut. Alas, I could see rocky grains of crystallized sugar dotted throughout. I feared that reheating the sauce would cause the sugar to recrystalize, but when brought to the boil, the butter and cream seemed to stabilize the mixture. The clumps melted and I was left with my own pot of dark gold.
“I’m always nervous when making caramel,” wrote Jérôme, when we exchanged emails about our caramel capers. “But it’s also marvelous to see the magic of chemistry at work!” (This is why we’re friends.) As a certified pâtisser, he gave me a little tip: “To avoid crystallizing the sugar, many pâtissiers add a tablespoon of glucose [corn syrup]. This helps prevent the sugar crystals from gathering. It’s very useful, and you can also use it for candied fruit, bonbons, pulled sugar… I think it makes the caramel sauce even more smooth and rich, and the sugar is more stable.”
I’ll have to try his trick before we move onto our new cooking project. What’s next, Jé? Une bûche de Noël? :)
Sauce Caramel au beurre salé/
Salted butter caramel sauce
Makes 2 cups
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup water
1 tablespoon corn syrup (optional)
3/4 cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons salted butter
Pinch of fleur de sel (optional)
Heat the cream in the microwave, or on the stove in a small saucepan. Cut the butter into cubes.
In a large, deep pot (larger than you think you will need), pour in the sugar and add the water, and corn syrup (if using). Heat the sugar over medium heat. If the sugar melts unevenly, swirl the pot gently, but do NOT stir with a spoon. Continue cooking until the sugar achieves a deep, dark brown color. If you’re getting nervous about burning the mixture, remove it from the heat and continue swirling the pot. The sugar will retain enough heat to continue browning, even off flame.
Remove from the flame. Beat in the hot cream with a whisk, followed by the cubes of butter, and the pinch of fleur de sel (if using). Return the pot to medium heat and bring to a boil for 2-3 minutes, until the sauce is smooth and glossy. Allow to cool, then transfer to a storage container.
A few tips:
–DO NOT lick the spoon or otherwise touch the hot caramel—you will be sorry! Wait at least 15 minutes before tasting it.
–The sauce gets thicker as it cools and is almost solid in the fridge. Before serving, microwave it for about 15 seconds to warm it up, check the consistency and stir in a drizzle of cream or milk if needed, and microwave for another 10 seconds.
–I forgot to add the fleur de sel, but stirred in a pinch after I transferred the sauce to its plastic container.
–The sauce lasts for about two weeks (or, honestly, three to four weeks).
–It’s delicious on crêpes, pound cake, waffles, pancakes, a spoon…