Saturday, November 23, 2013

A Sticky Situation: Homemade Caramel Sauce

The snow started to really fly today - all day - here in Tijeras, and that can only lead to one thing: Me in the kitchen, trying something new. (The only time I'm not cold from September to March is when I'm in the kitchen.)

Today, I had my sights set on trying something that I'd been salivating over for more than three weeks: Apples dipped in caramel. Now, the rest of the American world might have just bought some prepared sauce, but after the research I'd done, it just didn't look that hard. Nor would it cost as much as the jarred sauce.

Besides, it's fun to try new things!

I read recipes and tips. I bought the missing ingredient (in this case, all I was lacking was heavy cream). I read about a hundred different ways to go about it. And I narrowed it down to two. Two different methods and recipes that appeared everywhere on the web. Unlike so many of the other recipes that I track down and meld two, three or four into one, these two were apparently the culmination of either the 1) "Easy" method or, 2) "The traditional" method. There were hundreds of identical recipes for each, but there was no "blend" like I normally see, so in my mind there were only two ways to go about it: Easy, or Traditional.

For reasons that elude me now, I decide to go the traditional route.

Mistake. BIG mistake.

The recipe that I used first is here, but make no mistake - the author of that post is NOT at fault in the outcome of my creation; I am. It turns out that candy making, which this essentially is, is an art. The recipe advised that I should use a candy thermometer (which, ironically, I actually had because of a previous craft project including wax and candles, but I digress), and I did, but it still didn't work out well. Let me explain.

The "traditional" method of making caramel sauce is to take your standard granulated sugar and "melt" it into liquid, then lightly brown it to "carmellize" it and add flavor. Sounds easy enough, right? No, not so much. I had liquid coming in at the edge of my pan, and I followed the instructions and tried to whisk all the sugar together, but all I had was a bunch of carmellized clumps of sugar, and NO liquid. And it was carmellizing FAST! My goal temperature (for the melted liquid sugar) was 350°F, and I hit it way before I had liquid sugar. The color looked good, but I had a pan full of sugar clumps (plus a TON of them stuck to the side of the pan that would have taken a culinary-grade chisel to get off). [I really wish I'd taken pictures!]

Being a cook by nature (not a chef, certainly not a candy master), my first thought was "add some liquid to dissolve," so I did, by way of the butter. This was NOT a good solution - no clumps disappeared AND now I had oil floating on top of them.

At this point I must have been making noises in the kitchen. My husband called in, "Do you need some help?"

"No," I replied, "I need a miracle." This was a total failure, without doubt, unequivocably.

Looking over my whisking shoulder, we went over the possibilities as I realized that this particular culinary event was going to be a total failure.

(Again, if you could see it, you would really understand.) I had a bowl full of little brown bits of sugar and a ton of butter floating on top.

After little debate, we decided to try the microwave. 3 minutes at level 1 (10% of full microwave power).  I was amazed that many of the clumps had disappeared and become syrup. Success looked to be at hand!

Several successive minutes at same low power level produced similar results, until it was ready to put back into the pan, where I whisked it merciously to get the butter to actually incorporate and then added the heavy cream and salt.

The result: Something like a Heath bar. Dark, heavy caramel, with just a hint of burnt. I was not impressed.

Of course, this was all on me: too high a heat, altitude changes things like this, etc., etc.

I'll revisit this recipe again another day.

After a boiling of the pan ( the ONLY way to get the burnt-on sugar off), I decided to try the alternate - even though it felt like a cheat. Here's what I finally did (cuz it worked!):

EASY Salted Caramel Sauce Recipe:

Over Medium-Low heat, in saucepan, combine, whisking until combined:

  • 1/2 Stick UNSalted Butter, mostly melted (Or, melt first, turn off heat, then add other ingredients, whisk and turn the heat back on - at least, that's what I did)
  • 1 tsp. Good Sea Salt (shop here)
  • 1 Cup Light Brown Sugar (use whatever brown sugar you have on hand - the darker the sugar, the darker the final result; tastes about the same - I had regular Brown Sugar; flavor was awesome, but I wish the color had been lighter so my mind would have equated it more to my memory of it.)
  • 1/2 Cup Heavy Cream (aka, Whipping Cream; don't take regular milk and turn it into this - it's not the same; fresh cream milk - if you own a cow - would, however, work perfectly)

Whisk until well combined, Then (& only then), turn the heat to high, bring to boil, then immediately lower the heat to simmer and let simmer for EXACTLY 6 minutes, stirring / or whisking about once every minute or two.

After 6 minutes of simmering, remove from heat, add 1/8th to 1/4 tsp. Real Vanilla (careful - it will bubble up!), stir in and then just wait for it to cool and enjoy.

If you don't have the time to fail, just go with the "easy" version - no one will be disappointed and there's no room for failure. In the future I WILL try the "traditional" version again - if not for caramel sauce, then just to know how to make a decent candy base in general. Besides, what am I going to do with this candy thermometer if I don't?

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

This Old Dog Learns a New Trick: The Superior Pot Roast

We love roasts. Pork roasts, beef roasts, weenie roasts, celebrity roasts - we love them all. My personal favorite is the old-fashioned Beef Pot Roast. It's sleeting outside and since Winter looks like she's just around the corner, it seemed like the perfect night for a fork-tender, melt in your mouth Pot Roast.

Like most cooks, I've been making Pot Roasts for years, never varying from the standard "water, flour, veggies, seasonings, all dumped in the crock pot" method. And I've always had good results. But one day, I was faced with a non-standard cut of meat and went in search of the proper way to cook it. And boy oh boy, did I come up with a total winner.

The Basic Method:

  • Take your cut of meat and place it in a hot, dry pan (cast-iron is ideal, if you have one), giving it a quick sear on all sides. (Don't skip this step! Seriously, it makes all the difference.)
  • Place 4 beef bouillon cubes in the bottom of your crock pot. Place the browned meat on top of the cubes like they were little trivets.
  • Cook on Low in crock pot for 6-8 hours. Serve & enjoy!

That's right - 3 steps & 2 ingredients. Does it get any easier than that?

But what about the seasonings? The vegetables? The LIQUID???

I know, I know - but the first time I made this I wanted some Au Jus for French Dip Sandwiches, and I didn't want to taint the juice with any additional flavors. And my oh my, was I glad I did it that way.

Tonight, I complicated the recipe a bit, but it turned out to be THE BEST POT ROAST EVER (yes, EVER - I didn't know that the meat could have so much flavor without any of the added liquids or my standard Worchestershire sauce or anything else - not even salt or pepper!), so I'll share what I actually did.

The Best Pot Roast You'll Ever Eat - Promise!
  • Take one roast (I used a standard "Pot Roast" but tonight, but you can use whatever hunk of meat you have.
  • Heat a large skillet (cast-iron is best, if you've got one) over medium-high heat.
  • Using tongs or a meat fork or whatever you have, give each side of the meat a quick sear - you'll know it's enough when the meat gets a little brown and kind of shiny. Like this:

  • Make 3 or 4 little slits on the least fatty side of the roast (we'll call it the "top") and slide a small, peeled whole clove of garlic into each slit. (This turned out to be one of the major flavor success factors - try it, you'll never skip this step after you do; use two smallish cloves per pound of meat - try and get them near the center. If your roast is thicker, feel free to put some into the sides.)
  • Place 4 Beef Bouillon cubes in the bottom of your crock pot like little trivets to hold up the meat. (If you're trying to reduce your sodium intake, look for sodium-free bouillon cubes.)
  • Place your meat on top of the bouillon cubes, set crock pot on low, and set a timer for 4 hours.
  • What if you don't have a crock pot? Just use any deep, oven-safe cooking vessel (a Dutch Oven is perfect for this!) and know that the average crock pot temperature on low is 200°F and on high is 300°F.
Now you've got a dirty pan. What to do, what to do? I know - we'll deglaze it!
  • Reheat your pan over medium-high heat.
  • Add a small amount of liquid (about 1/4 cup) to the hot pan. (I used sweet white wine, but you can use ANY wine, some liquid broth or even just water).
  • Use a pan-appropriate utensil to scrape up the brown bits and basically scrape the leftover meat bits from the bottom of the pan.
  • Pour from pan and set aside - we'll add it to the crock pot later (yes, LATER).

Meanwhile, for your veggies...
What, you mean we're not going to just toss them into the crock pot with the meat? Nope, not if you want a truly flavorful roast. Today we're going to go the extra mile and make this dish truly special.
Here's how:
  • Take that "still-dirty" pan and add 1 Tbl. Water, 1 tsp. Worchestershire and 1 Tbl. Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
  • Add whatever vegetables you like with your roast. I used 2 whole baking potatoes, washed, skin-on rough chopped; 3 large carrots, cleaned and rough chopped; 1 stalk of celery, washed and cut into about 3 pieces. (I also used 1 whole yellow onion, peeled and cut into about 1" wedges (like quartered, but smaller quarters), but if you like onions, don't add them to the pan yet.)
  • Sprinkle with 1/8 tsp. Beef Bouillon Granules, 1/4 tsp. Harley's Seasoned Salt (Never tried Harley's? You should - it's addicting.), and just a bit of fresh-ground Black Pepper and some good quality Sea Salt (here's a place that sells ONLY 100% natural salts, in case you need a source - spoiler alert: It's me!).
  • Give it a quick "toss" (I personally stir it, because otherwise it ends up all over the kitchen), and add more Olive Oil, if it seems like it needs it.
  • Put over low heat with some kind of cover for about 15 minutes.
  • Remove from heat, add the Onions mentioned previously, stir and place in a cold oven, uncovered. (You can transfer to an oven-save vessel if your pan has a plastic handle or is otherwise not oven-safe.) Set oven for 350° F and let cook for 1 hour, stirring a time or two.

When your veggies have been in the oven for an hour, or at the 4 hour mark on the crock pot if that hasn't happened yet, add the roasted veggies to the crock pot. Try to maneuver everything so that the root veggies are on the bottom, then the meat, most of the onions on the top. (It doesn't have to be perfect.) Also add the liquid you set aside from the pan de-glazing.

What if you still don't have enough liquid? How much IS enough?
The perfect amount of liquid in your crock pot, assuming that most of the veggies are on the bottom and the meat is on top, is enough so that the liquid line - now that the meat is mostly cooked and it's given up all it's going to contribute - about halfway up the hunk of meat. You don't want it fully submerged (that's called stewing, and it leaches the flavor from the meat), but you don't want it out of the liquid entirely.
Tonight, I do NOT have enough liquid, so I'm adding some restaurant-quality Au Jus mix & water to bring the liquid level up to midway up the side of meat.

Continue to cook on low for 2-4 hours, or until you're ready to eat.

I'm watching my carbs, so all I had was the meat. I have NEVER had meat with so much flavor. THIS IS THE WAY TO DO IT - I'm convinced!

Try it and you'll be convinced too.