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    Caramel

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    Caramel

    Transforming sugar crystals into aromatic liquid gold needn't be a sticky business, writes Eva King, whose simple step-by-step guide promises perfect results, every time. Caramel is sugar that's been melted then cooked into a thick, golden liquid. The longer it cooks, the deeper its colour and flavour. It's delicious in desserts such as crème caramel, and a versatile way to decorate puddings. It is also the key component in praline and essential in toffee apples.

    • Vegetarian
    • Preparation time: 20 minutes to 25 minutes
    • Total time: 20 minutes to 25 minutes 25 minutes

    Makes: approx 150ml

    Ingredients

    • 150ml water
    • 300g caster sugar

    Method

    1. Put the water into a heavy-based, deep saucepan, preferably stainless steel as this will allow you to see the colour changes in the caramel. Sprinkle in the sugar and, over a low heat, slowly dissolve the sugar, stirring occasionally. It is important to dissolve the sugar completely, as once the syrup starts to boil any sugar crystals can turn the caramel grainy. Use a wet pastry brush to brush any crystals from the sides of the pan.
    2. Increase the heat and bring the syrup to a simmer.
    3. Continue to simmer briskly and after around 15 minutes the syrup will start to colour.
    4. Swirl the pan occasionally to ensure an even colour, but don't stir. Once it is a deep amber (4-5 minutes more), take off the heat and immediately place the base of the pan in a cold-water bath to stop the caramel cooking (it will hiss). It is now ready to use.
    5. To set the caramel, pour it on to an oiled baking sheet to harden, then break into pieces or crush into crystals. Use these to top ice cream or other desserts. To make elegant caramel 'springs', lightly oil a thin metal cylinder (a knife steel is ideal) and use a fork to wrap a fine strand of caramel around the metal like a coil. Let it harden, then carefully remove. Use to top cakes or ice cream.

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    Cook's tips

    There are two methods for making caramel: wet (with water), which is easier; or dry (without water), which involves melting the sugar directly in the pan, and calls for careful temperature control.

    Caster sugar is ideal for making caramel as it dissolves quickly and easily, although you could use granulated if you want.

    You need to work swiftly when making caramel because it sets quickly. If it starts to harden before you've finished using it, gently reheat in the saucepan until it is warm.

    To clean a caramel-sticky saucepan, add water to the pan and place over a low heat until the caramel dissolves.

    Once set, caramel should be wrapped and/or stored in an airtight container or it will become sticky. Properly stored, it will keep well for 1-2 weeks.

    To make praline, add 200g blanched, toasted almonds to the caramel (no need to cool the pan in water - the nuts will stop the cooking). Pour on to an oiled sheet to harden. Chop (finely or coarsely) and use in ice creams or as dessert topping. Try making nut brittles in the same way, with pecans or hazelnuts.

    To make 300ml caramel sauce, remove the caramel from the heat when it has turned a deep gold and add 150ml double cream (it will spit and splutter). Stir till smooth, adding 2 tbsp rum if you like. Store in the fridge for up to a week.

    Take care: Hot sugar can cause bad burns. Pay attention to the syrup as it caramelises. It can soon overcook, giving a burnt, bitter-tasting result.

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