Dry Caramel, salt
This time of year always reminds me of caramel. I grew up in a fairly small town (8 streets tall, four streets wide), and every Halloween, we joined forces with the neighboring town to host a big parade on the Sunday afternoon before Halloween. There were roller-skating clowns (which still to this day freak me out), and fire trucks decorated with orange streamers, cardboard skeletons, and that fake cobweb stuff. Politicians would ride on the back ledge of their car dealer-loaned convertible, followed by the local high school homecoming king and queen, Miss York County, and if we were really lucky, Miss Pennsylvania, waving to the crowds as they went by. The local VFW men in their jackets, service pin-laden sashes, and member hats, would lead the parade with a flag line, and we'd all stand and salute or put our hands over our hearts as they walked by. Marching bands, flag teams, majorette squads, old-timey cars, Cub Scout troops, and social and civic clubs from across the county would dress up and compete for what was probably a $50 "Best of" prize in their category.
In junior high and high school, I was in marching band (I know you're not surprised one bit), so I spent many a cold October Sunday in my polyester uniform and plumed hat walking the three-mile route playing Africa and Tusk and, yes, Celebration on my glockenspiel.
My grandmother lived along the parade route, and before I was old enough to be in the parade (which was the equivalent of being a total rock star) my cousins and I, all decked out in jeans and heavy sweaters, would sit along the curb, plastic pumpkin baskets in hand, waiting for the best part of the parade -- the fire trucks. Why? Because the firemen tossed candy from the truck, and it would scatter across the pavement and toward our feet like an accidentally overturned basket of crabs, and we'd elbow each other out of the way to get the candy we wanted. Smarties, Snickers, Sweet Tarts, Necco Wafers, Tootsie Rolls, Charms Blow Pops... you name it, they had it, and they threw it right at us. It was BETTER than trick or treating, because all you had to do was sit there and wait for it. None of that pesky walking around in your sweaty costume, breathing through the tiny airhole in your plastic mask. And did I mention the pesky walking around part? TOO MUCH WORK.
At the end of the parade, we'd all trudge up the small hill that was my grandmother's front yard (it's barely a slope but when you're six, it's Everest), and head inside for hot chocolate, doughnuts, and some heavy negotiations amongst us kids about who wanted to swap out some of our candy for the better stuff. For a long time, I was the youngest of many cousins, so I know I got swindled ("no Carol, I promise, it's totally fair that you give me seven of your full-size peanut butter cups for this Tootsie Roll that somehow didn't come in a wrapper"), so don't think when the tides turned and I was able to lord over my new set of younger cousins, I didn't do the same. I totally did, because the mission at hand was to amass as many Kraft caramels and Sugar Daddies as I could. Ah, Sugar Daddies... you had to just suck on them because chewing them would rip out a molar. But moreso, I loved getting caramels during the parade because I'd always unwrap one and drop it into my mug of hot chocolate and let it almost melt by the time I'd finished drinking. Then, I could scoop out the caramel with my spoon and it would be just the right smoothness, and it would be all warm and drippy.
So every year in October and November, I crave caramel. Even though it's one of my favorite flavors, it feels wrong to eat it at any other time. Almost like I'm cheating on fall.
So, now that I've made you suffer through tales of marching band and being the Don Corleone of my cousins, it's probably about freakin' time I talk about this dish.
So, Dry Caramel, salt: here we go --
In a medium-sized saucepan, I heated the sugar, glucose (the clear, bubbly stuff above that actually reminds me of this stuff), cream, and butter over medium heat until it reached 230 degrees (F).
I poured it onto a Silpat-lined sheet tray to cool. The book says it needs to cool to room temperature, but it mentions nothing about it hardening, which mine did. Hmmmmm....
After it has cooled, you measure/weigh a certain amount of the caramel base and put it in the food processor with some tapioca maltodextrin, then you process it until the "caramel base is completely absorbed." That last part quotes directly from the book and leads me to believe that maybe, perhaps, my caramel base wasn't supposed to harden (FAIL) and that I would probably break my food processor trying to do this step.
Can I get a what-what?
I think it worked.
I covet the glasses this dry caramel is served and photographed in in the book (p. 297), and wish I had thought to buy some, but alas, I did not. The only small-ish, shot-ish glasses I have are vintage and they're green, so I called my friend, Linda, across the street and asked what her barware situation was like and could I bring my dry caramel over and serve it there? She happily obliged, so I took the food processor bowl off the stand and marched it right over to her house where I spooned it into these little glasses, and topped it off with a pinch or so of sea salt.
So, how'd it taste?
I'd had a dry shot at Alinea in July, so I knew what it would be like to have something powdered go in and then explode with flavor as it hit your tongue. It was fun to see everyone's hesitant yet curious faces go from I-don't-know (as the powdered caramel hit their tongues) to Whoa-and-cool as it re-liquified in their mouths. We all had seconds and thirds, and it was delicious. I had some extra leftover, so I packed it in a plastic deli container and took it to my parents' house the next day when I went up for a quick visit. My dad and I bypassed the whole polite manners part of putting it in a glass, and just used a spoon, so it was kind of cool to be able to bring this new caramel preparation back to the same town where I fell in love with caramel as a child.
Note: You'll see in the right-hard margin a small "Links" section. In that section, I'm linking to a "Hydrocolloid Shopping" list that someone else put together and made into a Google Doc, and that my buddy, Joey, found for me. So, if you're having trouble finding some of the specialty items used in the Alinea cookbook, that link might be a helpful resource.
Up Next: Salad, red wine vinaigrette... or perhaps, if you behave yourselves, Sea Urchin, vanilla, chili, mint. Because, Scott, my trusty fishmonger, has put the entire New England coast on sea urchin duty. I'm a little scared.
Tapioca maltodextrin and Glucose from L'Epicerie
Organic Valley heavy cream
365 organic butter
Maldon sea salt
Music to Cook By: Sondre Lerche; Faces Down. I like to think this Norwegian poppy, somewhat-dare-I-say bouncing, strummy-strummy-la-la kind of music is the soundtrack playing as I'm walking down the street in some fantasy world I live in because I rarely walk anywhere and instead scorch the earth driving my SUV everywhere. But really, if I did walk down the street, in a jaunty cap of some sort, I like to think "Modern Nature" is what's playing as I do so.
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