Thursday, May 24, 2012

Unbelievably Dairy-Free Caramel Creme

Unbelievably Dairy-Free Caramel Creme

I photographed this delicious creation in a jam jar because that's the best way to eat it: with a spoon straight out of the jar. Caramel is my favorite confection. I'll eat those cellophane wrapped caramel squares that are so sweet they hurt your teeth. I'll even eat the "caramel" topping on the McDonald's ice cream sundaes (not that I ever take my kids to McDonald's, right?). The best caramel has a slightly smoky, nutty flavor that comes from the holy marriage of butter and sugar and a silky mouth-feel. It should feel both thick and airy on your tongue. Kind of like a perfect silk duvet should be lightweight but blanket you in warmth. I thought it would be impossible to re-create this complexity without butter. Indeed, I had a lot of epic fails at the stove. Attempts with almond milk never became creamy enough - not enough fat. Trying to mimic the caramel consistency by making a really rich pudding with corn or tapioca starch yielded just really rich puddings (next post).

The key ingredients here are coconut milk and a ton of elbow grease. As is usually the case in my kitchen, I stumbled upon a success in the attempt to salvage a mess. In this case, I began a fairly straightforward coconut milk based caramel. It was cooking into a beautiful tawny sauce, thick and pudding-like, but honestly with a very one-dimensional flavor. Luckily, I was distracted by my kids and the damn thing burned. The bottom was black and the coconut solids had separated. I swore and swore and beat the burnt mess out of frustration. And then, all of a sudden, it started to come back together, only this time I could even smell that subtle smokiness and the caramel had shed its creamy-matte appearance for a shiny gloss. I beat the caramel with my hand mixer for about five minutes. This is a long time to be beating anything. I took like breaks to taste the caramel, switch arms, drink wine, and then in the end, had this airy, silky caramel. It has a rich coconut base, but also the essential nutty-smoky flavor.

This is a thick caramel, which I might use as a filling in a sandwich cookie or a very special layer cake. If you like a thinner sauce-type caramel, just stop beating it after a minute or two.

Dairy-Free Caramel Creme:

1/2 cup corn syrup
1/2 cup water
1 1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 can coconut milk (not the light kind, mind you)
1 tablespoon coconut oil

In a sturdy saucepan, add the corn syrup, sugar, and water without stirring. Cook over medium heat, without stirring if you can help it, until it's a deep amber color. Very carefully, pour in the coconut milk, scraping out all the solids, and add the salt and coconut oil. This might bubble up and splatter you and your stove top with hot liquid candy, but it's all worth it in the end, so remain calm. Lower the heat and while stirring cook until it returns to that deep amber color. This is the tricky part - you need to let it burn just slightly. Turn the heat up just shy of medium and once you detect a whiff of burnt sugar, remove from the heat and star stirring with a wooden spoon. Once the caramel has cooled slightly (about two minutes of vigorous stirring), take your hand mixer and begin your beating. Three to five minutes later, you should be done and spooning this creamy, silky caramel creme straight into your mouth.

I presume this keeps in the fridge for a while, but we usually finish it in a day or two so I couldn't tell you for sure.