Tag Archives: salted caramel

Snow and Salt

Last week I got to enjoy a rare luxury. Not the actual maracons themselves, but the luxury of free time. My year at work has been rather fraught (in the understated British sense, which means absolutely manic) and thus no easy dates on which to take leave. Sure, I had a mega-trip in the US in November, but I’ve still ended up with way too much leave to carry over to next year. As a result, I’ve been enjoying the bonus of a few long weekends. As I’m the only one around on these random Mondays and Fridays, I’ve foregone the idea of foreign jaunts, and instead I’m able to enjoy a slower pace of life in my own big city. I can go to some of my favourite cafés and just walk in and get a table. No waiting, no sharing. I can go to galleries and enjoy them peacefully, standing in front of the same picture for ages without being jostled or moved along. I can also engage in small talk with some interesting people who are equally unhurried. Bliss.

However, last week was another story altogether. Those first hints of spring from a couple of weeks ago had gone, like some sort of Phoney Spring, and were  replaced with snow. Lots and lots of snow. On Monday, the new cats and I just did not fancy leaving the house, so I was left with a little time to fill. After spending an hour getting the cats to chase a piece of string (their joint favourite thing, along with clawing the sofa), I decided to hit the kitchen and have a go at my kitchen nemesis – French macarons.

I know there are some people out there that have “the gift”, who can just knock up a batch at a moment’s notice without a second thought. I, however, am not one of those people. I’ve grappled with them on numerous occasions with varying levels of success. True, I’ve made them successfully on occasions, but I think my hit rate is about one in four at best. So for every batch of picture-perfect delicacies with their smooth domes, frilly feet and perfect symmetry, I’ve ended up with three batches of cracked almond meringue biscuits.

Well finally, finally, I think I’ve nailed it. I think my mistakes can be put down not to faulty technique as such, but the fact that many of my attempts were small batches. The smaller the batch, the more precise the measurements need to be, and I fear that trying to make macarons with just one egg white was pushing things too far. You need to be bold and think big. Large batches are the way to go! And as you can see below, the results look pretty darned good! There is still some irregularity there, but I find it hard to put into words just how utterly thrilled I was to remove the tray from the oven and find perfect macaron shells with no cracks. Yay!

salted_caramel_macarons

I opted for the salted caramel flavour as it’s actually delicious when made well, and the filling is a doddle to make. However, the one thing that I didn’t go to town on was the colour the shells. I know some people like shocking colours, and that salted caramel is often some sort of day-glow orange. However, I wanted something more subtle.There are two reasons. First, I am not that happy about using colouring that is highly artificial – if it only takes a few drops to turn something bright yellow, vivid red or electric blue, then you have to wonder just what it is doing to your insides. Second, on a purely aesthetic level, I find the intense colours of some commercially-available macarons rather lurid! Instead, I just used a few drops of some natural vegetable dyes in the sugar syrup to provide a light caramel colour to boost the colour of muscovado sugar, which I think looks rather pretty.

When it comes to the filling itself, it can only be described as filthy. The base is a simple caramel made from white sugar. Throw in some salted butter, cream and a few drops of vanilla, then whip once cooled with even more lovely butter. The result is a silky-smooth salted caramel cream which can be easily piped into the macaron shells, but which does not leak out (which pure caramel, delicious as it is, is apt to do). You’ll end up with quite a bit of the filling left over, and you’ll probably just want to eat it with a spoon. As I said – filthy, and irresistible.

One final trick – these are worth making ahead of time. If you can, leave the assembled macarons overnight in the fridge, and be sure to leave them to come up to room temperature before serving. This will help make the inside of the shells lightly chewy and the creamy filling with be delightfully soft and fluffy. Things to make you go wow.

So what’s your baking nemesis? Have you managed to beat it?

To make salted caramel macarons (makes 25-30):

For the shells:

• 175g icing sugar
• 175 ground almonds
• 130g egg whites (about 4 eggs), at room temperature
• 175g light muscovado or brown sugar
• 75ml water

• caramel food colouring

For the filling:

• 150g white sugar
• 50ml water

• 180g salted butter (divide into 30g and 150g)
• 150ml double cream

• vanilla extract
• salt, very finely ground

1. Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F). Line two large baking trays with greaseproof paper.

2. Mix the icing sugar and ground almonds, and put into a food processor or spice mill. Grind until fine. Put into a large bowl.

3. Divide the egg whites into two portions (2 x 65g). Add one half to the almond/icing sugar mixture and mix until you have a smooth, thick paste.

4. Next, make an Italian meringue. Put the water and muscovado or brown sugar into a saucepan. Add caramel/brown colouring as desired (I used enough to enhance the brown tint from the sugar, probably 20 drops of water-based colour). Heat to 114°C (237°F). In the meantime, whisk the rest of the eggs whites until frothy. Acting quickly, pour the hot syrup into the frothy eggs and beat the living daylights out of them! The mixture should quickly start to turn pale and fluffy, and increase in volume. Whisk for 5 minutes until the mixture is stiff and glossy – it should easily hold its shape.

5. Take one-third of the meringue mixture, and fold into the almond paste mixture to lighten it. Fold in the next third, then fold in the final third. Try to do this gently, and don’t mix too vigorously or for too long.

6. Fill a piping bag fitted with a 1 cm hole nozzle. Pipe out the macarons, leaving a few centimetres between each. Leave to dry at room temperature for around 20 minutes.

7. Bake the macaron shells for around 12-15 minutes until the shells have developed little feet but they are not browned. You might want to open the door briefly during baking to let any steam escape. When baked, remove from the oven, allow to cool, then peel from the baking sheet. Arrange on a cooling tray and prepare the filling.

To make the filling:

8. Put the sugar and water into a small saucepan. Place on a medium heat until the mixture turns into a medium golden caramel (don’t be tempted to stir it at any point – it will turn into a crystallised mess!). The colour should be rich but without any burnt or acrid smell.

9. Remove the saucepan with the caramel from the heat, add the butter and stir well. It will sizzle, so watch out! Add the cream and vanilla to taste (just a drop or two) and stir until smooth. Put the pan back on the heat, and cook until it reaches 108°C (225°F). Remove from the heat and leave until almost cooled.

10. Put the cooled caramel and soft butter into a bowl and beat with an electric mixer until perfectly smooth. It might seem like the mixture has curdled at one point, but keep going and it will come good. You should end up with a very smooth cream. Add a dash of powdered salt (to taste, but go a little at a time).

11. Fill a piping bag with the salted caramel cream and use to fill the macarons.

12. Leave the macarons in the fridge for 24 hours, and remove from the fridge a couple of hours before serving.

Worth making? A complete faff, but the results are superb so it’s worth trying when you’ve got a few hours to yourself.

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Salted Chocolate Tart

I was invited to a dinner last night, where the hostess was promising curry. Then came the casual request…and you can bring dessert, yes?

So I was up at 6:30am yesterday, reading some cookbooks for inspiration. My inclination was to start with something Indian, but I quite quickly realised that most of the recipes involved making some sort of paneer cheese and then frying it (yup, deep-fried desserts). I’ve bookmarked them to try another time, but I was left scratching my head nevertheless.

I had initially resisted the idea of something with chocolate as I was not too sure that it would be a good follow on from hot, spicy food, but then I came upon a recipe from the Paul A Young cookbook for a salted chocolate tart, topped with caramelised pecans. It looked like a winner, especially when I remembered that I had a tiny pot of edible gold leaf in the cupboard. I could make that, then top it off with gold leaf! And that’s basically the thought process that was going on in my head as I was drinking a cup of tea and finishing off toast with marmalade.

I made one large tart that I took along, and had enough extra pastry to make two small tartlets for later. Sadly I don’t have a picture of the big one, so you’ll have to be content with these two. I have to say, small as they are, they are still just about the richest thing I’ve made for a long, long time.

I really liked the way that this recipe turned out. The pastry is pretty easy, and the filling is a complete doddle – equal weights of chocolate, cream and muscovado sugar, then round out the flavour with some sea salt. Think salted caramel meets dark chocolate. As a flavour experiment, it was quite interesting to taste a spoonful of the cream and sugar mixture on its own (very sweet!) and then appreciate how much it changes once you add the salt. The flavour becomes so much deeper and richer.

However, my eyes did pop open when I saw how much salt was supposed to go into the mixture – I had made one-and-a-half times the filling, but still thought the suggested 10 grams was too much. I measured it out, and just didn’t trust it, and I didn’t have enough other ingredients to make another batch if the worst were to happen. I went with my gut, and added about two-thirds of the amount suggested, and the taste was great. So if you’re going to have a go at this tart, I recommend mixing the cream and sugar in a bowl, and add just enough salt to the cold mixture to suit your taste. There is a fine line between tongue-tingling salted caramel and a salty, sugary mess, and this is a recipe where less is more and you may wish to err on the side of caution.

So how was this tart received? The recipe book said it would silence a table of dinner guests, and it seemed to have the desired effect. This is definitely a keeper for the dessert portfolio, and I’m already planning to use the filling as the base of a tart to be topped off with fruit. I’m seeing great things involving passion fruit, or a few punnets of juicy ripe raspberries.

To make a salted chocolate tart:

For the pastry:

• 175g butter
• 75g caster sugar
• 2 egg yolks
• 35ml water
• 20g cocoa powder
• 250g plain flour

For the filling:

• 300g dark chocolate
• 300g light muscovado sugar
• 300ml double cream
• 1 heaped teaspoon sea salt (or more or less, to taste)

For the topping

• 100g nuts (pecans or skinned hazelnuts)
• 100g caster sugar
• 1 level teaspoon sea salt, finely ground

To make the pastry:

1. Cream the butter and sugar until soft. Add the egg yolks and water and combine. Add the cocoa and flour, a quarter at a time, and mix to a dough. Wrap the dough in cling film and chill for an hour.

2. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). Roll out and use to line a 24cm loose-bottomed flan tin (no more than 5mm thickness). Place the pie crust in the freezer for 15 minutes.

3. Line the pie crust with greaseproof paper, and fill with baking beans. Bake the pie crust blind for 20 minutes, then remove the greaseproof paper and baking beans, and bake for another 8-10 minutes (the base should look dry and cooked, but the edges should not be dark). Leave to cool completely.

To make the filling:

4. Put the sugar and cream into a bowl. Stir well, then add salt to taste, then add the chocolate.

5. Place over a pan of very hot water, and allow everything to melt together. The mixture is ready when the chocolate has melted completely and the mixture looks thick and glossy.

6. Once ready, pour into the prepared tart shell, allow to cool slightly, then chill in the fridge for two hours.

To make the topping(*):

7. Lightly toast the nuts in the oven – they should be just toasted, not dark. Remove from the oven.

8. Put the sugar into a saucepan with a dash of water, and warm over a medium heat until you just have a light caramel. Don’t be tempted to stir it.

9. Once the caramel is done, add the salt, stir well, then add the nuts. Stir briefly, then turn out onto a sheet of non-stick baking parchment.

10. Leave the nuts to cool completely. Break or roughly chop the nuts into smaller pieces, and sprinkle generously on top of the tart.

(*) The topping can be made ahead of time – if you do this, be sure to store in an airtight container to stop the caramel from getting sticky.

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Get Oaty!

You may or may not have appreciated from past posts that I’m Scottish (see here, here, here and here). Our cuisine is, in many ways, quite curious. On the one hand, you have fantastic products like wild salmon and fabulous fresh fruit (like these), but it’s also a nation famed for the deep-fried Mars bar. Contradictions. We love our sweet things (tablet and macaroon bars) but we also love our porridge.

In fact, I think this last comparison is one of the most contrary of all – tablet is about the sweetest things you can imagine, whereas porridge is just about one of the healthiest things you can eat – low GI, higher protein than other grains, low-fat and plenty of fibre. That, and it’s quick, easy and tasty.

I have always been a porridge fan, and it’s the perfect way to start the day when it’s nippy outside. This week we’ve been hit by a cold snap, so I’m grateful for a warming bowl of the stuff before I venture out onto the frozen pavements of Olde London Towne. But last week, I went along to a very intriguing evening, where the world of oats would be lovingly folded into the world of chocolate, thanks to Rude Heath and Demarquette Fine Chocolates.

The evening kicked off with a few wise words about all things oaty and porridgy from Nick Barnard from Rude Health. I would go so far as to say that what this man does not know about oats can be safely assumed to be not worth knowing. How serious is he? Well, he regaled us with tales of his participation in the World Porridge Championships in Carrbridge near Inverness, where he competed against a collection of “gnarly Scots” for the coveted Golden Spurtle. There were two parts to the competition – a “classic” round where participants made porridge from oats, water and salt, and a “creative” section where all manner of fantasy and whimsy could be deployed, provided that the results included porridge.

Now, first things first…if you’re wondering, a spurtle is a special implement (basically, a stick) used to stir porridge. Some people swear by it. I’m inclined to the view that it’s probably one of the silliest things that you could use to make porridge, and you’re far better off using a normal wooden spoon.

We started off with the “classic” version – porridge made from a mixture of course and medium oats, made with milk and water with a dash of salt. Having been identified as a Scot, I was asked what sort of oats I used. I told him I went for pinhead oatmeal, and I think that earned me some serious brownie points – for it seems this is the really hardcore stuff for, eh, gnarly Scots like me…

Now, I should confess that by this stage, having walked all the way from South Kensington tube station in the cold, we had been warmed up with a cup of hot chocolate made with oat milk, whipped cream and whisky (which was delicious, by the way). We’d also been able to nibble on a selection of chocolates and caramels. So by the time Nick had made his porridge, it’s fair to say that the version hearty, savoury porridge was actually rather welcome.

We were also offered some sugar, honey or cream to top it off. As a gnarly Scot, I stood there, skulking, and ate it unadorned…and I’ll let you muse on the idea of me standing in a shop, full of luscious chocolates, eating porridge…

Once we’d sampled the classic version (and I was shocked to see that not everyone devoured their bowl), it was time to see the “creative” section. Now, this was pure fantasy, combining decadence with Dalí: a dark chocolate cup, filled with warm porridge and salted caramel. The trick is that the filling is warm rather than hot, so that everything combines and melts slowly, such that the cup slowly collapses into sticky deliciousness. Think of those melting watches, but tastier.

As Nick made more porridge with an admirable focus of purpose, the resident master chocolatier Marc Demarquette got to work on the salted caramel sauce. In true Blue Peter fashion, everything was laid out ready for work!

I’ve made salted caramel before, but I have to admit that it tends to be a bit of a hit-or-miss affair, and it has, in the past, taken more than one attempt to yield the desired result. Helpfully, Marc shared some tricks of the trade with us, and mercifully for me, in clear and simple terms that I could understand!

Firstly, how to make the base caramel? It’s sugar with a dash of water, heated until lightly golden (too dark and it gets bitter) and you’re looking for “champagne bubbles” – that is to say, the small-ish bubbles you have once the initial larger bubbles subside. Next, adding the butter – the trick here to have it at room temperature, not straight from the fridge, and then drop it into the caramel and then let it sit without stirring. The butter melts, and then you are stirring hot melted butter into the caramelised sugar, which should help to stop things from seizing up. Then move onto adding the cream and salt (or, in this case Halen Môn vanilla salt) and you end up with a lovely, smooth, sticky salted caramel…

…then you fill the chocolate cups with a little porridge (or as the French probably call it to seem fancy – crème d’avoine) and top with a generous amount of salted caramel. As you can see, this causes the Dalí-like slow melting of the cup. Just lovely!

As the cup melts, you get to enjoy all three flavours together. All in all, a fun and very different little dessert. I’m pretty sure that chocolate and salted caramel have never been enjoyed in such a healthy way!

Now, a little damper on all this excitement – Nick told us a sorry tale. He’d fought the good fight last year to win the Golden Spurtle, but he was pipped at the post. Having just tasted this fantastic little dish, I was stunned. However, Nick assured us all that he’s going to have another go – and we all wish him good luck!

If you want to get some idea of the day, check out this film on Implausibleblog.com.

If you’re interested in getting hold of these chocolate cups, either for the porridge-caramel recipe, or for something of your own imagining, they’re available from Demarquette’s boutique in Chelsea, which I can highly recommend. I say this because below you can see some of the other chocolates that we sampled that evening. I know, after all that porridge and caramel (not forgetting the hot chocolate) I should have been full, but they were so tempting.

These little domed chocolates are a range of caramels with exciting flavours like winter berries, festive cinnamon and apple, Scottish raspberry and Cornish sea salt caramels. We also got to try the Medina chocolate, an award winner based on a whipped ganache filling. Given that this was the server’s first day in the boutique, we all think she did pretty well in guiding us through the display and served those chocolates with great aplomb!

Demarquette Fine Chocolates, 285 Fulham Road, London SW10 9PZ. Tel: 020 7351 5467. Tube: Gloucester Road or South Kensington.

LondonEats locations map here.

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