Caramel, that chewy, gooey candy we associate with fall and Halloween treats, is no longer just for kids. Lately, this sweet confection with its haunting flavor is popping up in foods targeted for adults.
Although grown-ups still might crave a caramel apple on a stick, a box of Cracker Jacks or those little individually wrapped caramel candies at the grocery store, today they can find the flavor swirled through ice creams, blended in coffee creamers, mixed into custard-style yogurts and wrapped into cheesecakes.
Luna, maker of the nutrition bar for women, recently introduced Caramel Apple and Dulce de Leche flavors to its line. This fall Godiva chocolates unveiled its Caramel Nouveau Collection, which includes toffee almond with chocolate caramel; pecan and chocolate caramel; raspberry and caramel; and chocolate caramel.
"It's coming back. People are putting caramel on high-end apple pies and everything," said John Cooke, with Morley Candy Makers in Michigan, which manufactures caramel and sells it to food and dairy operations to incorporate in their finished products. The candy-making company uses about 30,000 pounds of half-and-half and / or whipping cream a week to make its caramel.
"Caramel sauces? We cannot make enough of them," Cooke said.
Caramel was first created in Chicago in 1875, according to Favorite Brands International. In 1913, Goo Goo Clusters, a Southern treat, was the first candy bar to combine caramel with peanuts, marshmallow and chocolate.
Over the years, caramel found its way into other popular candies, including M&M, which launched its Dulce de Leche Caramel Chocolate Candies in 2001.
Today Americans eat more than 10 million pounds of caramel in candy and baked goods a year, Favorite Brands reports. Perhaps this fondness for caramel is why October has been named National Caramel Month.
What makes caramel so popular with adults? Caramel is the food world's equivalent of the little black dress. You can accessorize it with other flavors and ingredients or serve it plain, and it never loses its classic appeal with the public's sweet tooth and dessert chefs, who adore its creamy texture, deep-amber color and versatility.
Perhaps the biggest draw for people who cook with caramel is that it's a snap to make and requires no more than three or four ingredients, depending on the recipe. Then there's the winning taste, that slightly burnt-sugar flavor that sets it apart from other sweet treats.
In April, the Pennsylvania Manufacturing Confectioners' Association featured caramel in a "back-to-basics" seminar during its production conference. Scientists and business representatives discussed sugar and corn syrups, water content, fat and caramel's key ingredient -- milk -- which can greatly affect the finished product.
Maurice Jeffery, a chemist who owns a consulting business, moderated the event held in Hershey, Pa. "Milk is critical in caramel because it forms that unique flavor that comes when you heat milk and reducing sugars," he said.
Jeffery added, "Caramel has always been popular and probably second after chocolate. It's universally liked for its flavor and texture, and if you look around the world you'll find it in Europe, Australia and China."
Au Poitin Stil, an Irish pub in Timonium, features an apple pie with a delicious caramel sauce and vanilla ice cream. What makes this sauce so good? Luck of the Irish or a tad more?
"We make our own caramel sauce, and we add Guinness [Irish Stout] to it for more flavor ... a nice bold flavor," said sous-chef Harry Sturgis. The dessert has been on the menu one year and brings rave reviews from customers.
At Lily's Southwestern Grill and Bar in Columbia a rich Dulce de Leche Cheesecake has been showcased on the menu since March. The dessert is infused with Mexican caramel. "I guess the word is spreading. People who come in ask for it," said owner Ricardo Vanegas.
So, as you sort through your kids' candy cache this Halloween, you can hold on to one sweet thought: Caramel hasn't lost its appeal. Like the little black dress that's always in style, this traditional flavor is being rediscovered and updated to suit our contemporary tastes.
Makes 1 cup
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
3 tablespoons water
2/3 cup heavy cream
In a heavy pot, combine the sugar, corn syrup and water. Cook over high heat, stirring constantly until the sugar is dissolved. Bring to a boil and cook over medium to high heat without stirring for about 5 minutes or until the mixture turns amber. This mixture can burn easily, so be careful. If you use a candy thermometer, cook until the thermometer reads 320 degrees to 340 degrees (no higher or the sugar will burn).
Remove the pot from the heat and slowly stir in the cream. The mixture will boil and emit hot steam, so again, be careful. Return to the heat and bring to a boil again, then set aside to cool.
-"Commander's Kitchen," by Ti Adelaide Martin and Jamie Shannon (Broadway Books, 2000, $37.50)
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