It can't be surgarcoated: Caramelizing isn't easy

February 09, 2005|By ROB KASPER

IF AT FIRST your sugar doesn't caramelize, try, try again.

That is what I did recently when I wrestled with an orange-caramel dessert. I lost the first two bouts, but bounced back for a victory in the third.

Basically, this is a pretty simple dish. It is thick orange slices, heated in butter, then served with a sauce made of sugar, water and orange juice.

The trick is to caramelize the sugar, that is heat it with water, until it reaches a golden-brown color, then fold in the orange juice.

When you do it right, you have delightful bittersweet sauce. When you do it wrong, as I found out, you have either a sweet molten slab or sugary orange juice.

Caramelizing is a chemical thing and in my initial attempts, the molecules weren't moving for me. While sugar is a common ingredient, it sure can have an attitude. For instance, if any sugar granules cling to the sides of the pan, they can fall into your sauce and totally change the proceedings, not for the better.

To eliminate any troublesome clingers, I tried to steam them into submission. While the water and sugar were heating up, but before the solution reached a boil, I put a lid on the pan. The idea was that steam created by the lid would then wash down the sides of the pan, taking the clinging granules into the liquid at the bottom. Another tactic is to brush the sides of the pan with a pastry brush that has been dipped in cold water.

Once the pan sides had been cleansed of clingers, I removed the lid and watched the bubbles in the pan, a sign the solution had come to a boil. When the bubbles got bigger and slower, I occasionally shook the pan. A caramel sauce, like a good martini, is shaken, not stirred.

Poised over the pan, I waited for the moment when the sugar and water solution would turn golden-brown. The first time I thought I saw this golden moment, I was a little slow adding the orange juice to the solution. When the juice hit the pan, the sugar solution had a seizure. Instead of a sea of golden-orange sauce, I got craggy islands of rock candy.

It was an impressive display of chemistry, but awful cuisine. It turned out this is one of those rough spots in life, like your kid's becoming a teenager, that you have to wait out. After it hardens, the caramel will soften with heat. It is normal. But I didn't realize that, and tossed the molten mess.

I grabbed more oranges and made more juice. I had plenty of fruit because the Arizona in-laws, feeling sorry for those of us stuck in dreary winter climes, had just shipped us a big box of navel oranges.

The arrival of the fruit brightened up the kitchen and made the house smell better, but also resulted in "orange creep" in the family menus. Oranges were served for breakfast, carried to work for lunch, tossed in a salad at supper, and finally ended up making an attempted appearance as the orange-caramel dessert.

The next time I tried to make the sauce, I got a little itchy and added the juice to the pan well before the golden moment. I think the solution had barely turned tan when I poured in the juice. I got fooled by the pan. This time I used a large metal pan but it was the wrong color -- black. This threw off my color cues as I watched the solution bubble and made me think I saw gold when I didn't. The result was something soupy, not pretty and certainly not a sauce.

Finally, I got it right. I used a large, stainless-steel pan. I made sure there were no clingers. I waited until the edges of the boiling solution turned golden. I shook the solution to ensure even cooking. Then I added the fresh orange juice. The mixture seized but with additional heat, and stirring (which is permitted after the molten moment), the sauce was born.

The third time was a charm. The sauce was a success (although like most things, it tasted better with a shot of cream) and a bright orange dessert lifted up an otherwise dim day.

Caramelized Oranges

Serves 6

9 medium navel oranges

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup water

1 tablespoon melted butter (divided use)

Squeeze 3 oranges to produce 1 cup orange juice.

Combine sugar and water in heavy 1 1/2 -quart saucepan. Bring to boil over moderate heat, without stirring, using pastry brush dipped in cold water to brush sugar granules from sides of pan.

Cook over moderate to high heat until sugar begins to caramelize, as edges of the sugar-water solution turn golden-brown, 8 to 10 minutes.

Tilt pan away from you, add orange juice (caramel will harden and steam vigorously) but simmer and stir until caramel juice is dissolved, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat.

With sharp paring knife, cut peel and pith from remaining 6 oranges. Cut each orange, horizontally, into thirds.

Melt a teaspoon of the butter in a 12-inch, nonstick skillet; heat until butter is hot but not smoky. Place some of orange slices in skillet, heat on both sides until golden-brown, about 4 to 6 minutes, total. Transfer to plate and cook remaining oranges with remaining butter.

When all slices are cooked, return them in batch to skillet, add sauce, heat 1 minute, then serve.

-- "The Gourmet Cookbook," Houghton Mifflin, 2004 Per serving: 186 calories; 2 grams protein; 2 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 48 grams carbohydrate; 11 grams fiber; 5 milligrams cholesterol; 13 milligrams sodium

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