The only ingredient you need to make caramel is sugar. Caramel is essentially burnt sugar giving it a lovely toffee flavour and golden colour. However, if left to cook for too long the caramel will be very dark and have an unpleasant burnt bitter taste. So when making caramel you need to watch it closely as it can turn very quickly.
Caramel can be used in many ways. It forms the basis of classic desserts such as crŤme caramel and caramelised oranges, as a sauce itís delicious drizzle over ice cream and pancakes, or it can be left to harden and broken into pieces or shards to decorate cakes and desserts. It can be spun into fancy spirals and shapes or it can be crushed into powder form to flavour custards and creams or decorate cakes.
Making caramel is not difficult but there are a few simple rules to avoid it crystalising. You can add a little water to the sugar in the pan but itís not really necessary and itís quicker to make caramel without it. Donít stir the sugar when it is dissolving, this will only cause the sugar to crystalise again, just drag the spoon across the pan a couple of times. When the caramel starts to turn golden, swirl the pan gently occasionally to avoid hot spots so the caramel colours evenly.
When the caramel has turned a golden amber colour it must be cooled quickly otherwise the heat of the pan and the caramel itself will continue the cooking process and cause it to burn. Have a bowl of iced water to hand, large enough to hold the pan, so you can reduce the temperature quickly.
To clean the pan after youíve made caramel, just fill it with boiling water and the sugar will dissolve.
Place the sugar into a heavy-based saucepan and place over a medium heat until the sugar starts to melt at the edges. Shake the pan occasionally until all the sugar has melted. Stir just once or twice to make sure all the sugar crystals have dissolved.
Once the sugar has dissolved increase the heat slightly and bring the melted sugar to the boil. Continue to cook, without stirring, until the melted sugar turns a dark amber colour. Gently swirl the pan once or twice to ensure the caramel colours evenly. Donít walk away from the pan at any stage, stay close by and watch it carefully as it can burn very quickly.
As soon as the caramel reaches the required colour, remove from the heat and immediately place the pan in a bowl of ice cold water to prevent it cooking any further.
Pour the caramel onto a greased foil-lined baking tray and leave to set, or drizzle the caramel from a teaspoon into shapes on the foil and leave to set. Caramel will keep for 1 week in an airtight container but will dissolve and become sticky when exposed to the air, so if using as a decoration add to the cake or dessert just before serving.
Caramel pouring sauce
As soon as the caramel has reached the required colour, add 2-4 tbsp cold water (cover your hand with a tea towel as the water will make the hot caramel spit and splutter). Stir well and return to the heat, if necessary to make a smooth sauce. Serve warm or cold over ice cream, fruit such as bananas, pancakes, sponge puddings, desserts, cupcakes and cakes.
Add 50g chopped nuts (almonds or hazelnuts) to the cooked caramel then pour onto a foil-lined tray to set. Break into chunks or crush in a food processor to sprinkle over desserts, cakes and ice cream.
Oil the handle of a wooden spoon. Place the pan of hot caramel into a bowl cold water as in Step 3 above. Working quickly,dip a skewer into the caramel and lift it up to form long threads of caramel. Wind the threads around the wooden spoon handle. It will set immediately and will then slip off. If the caramel in the pan hardens just warm it slightly until soft again.
Oil the outside of a large round bottomed bowl or ladle. Place the pan of hot caramel into a bowl of cold water as in Step 3 above. Using a spoon drizzle quickly drizzle the caramel backwards and forward in a criss-cross pattern over the outside of the ladle or bowl. Leave until set then slide the cage off. These look fabulous over the top of individual pavlovas or desserts.
Salted caramel sauce
Place the pan of hot caramel into a bowl of cold water as in Step 3 above. When cooled but still warm, add a knob of salted butter and 100ml double cream. Stir well, return to a low heat and bring to the boil, stirring. Serve warm with ice cream, baked apples or sponge puddings.