Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Caramel is evil

I was flipping through The Essence of Chocolate, and I see what appears to be a fairly simple recipe using ingredients I already have. There's only 5 ingredients, nothing seems overly complicated, what could go wrong? Nothing. On my third batch of caramel. On the bright side, sugar is cheap and plentiful. In one batch, i just dumped the sugar and water in the pot and put it on the burner. With so little water, I figured the sugar wouldn't dissolve, and I'd mix it in as it heated. I ended up with some dark caramel, with some completely undissolved sugar floating on top. Fail. On another batch, I did the unthinkable...I swirled too much, lots of sugar crystals formed on the sides, and I tried to scrape them off and mix them in. Fail. I ended up with an insane number of sugar crystals in the pot. Fortunately, the stars aligned for me on the third batch. Add water to sugar, mix thoroughly, put on burner, and ever so gently swirl occasionally. Exactly what the recipe said to do.

After finally getting the caramel made properly, I added the cocoa, and then the warm cream. Warm, not hot. Which immediately resulted in the caramel completely seizing. As the recipe states though, it did redissolve easily after heating it again.

The end result, a rich, chocolately, mousse-like dessert. Nom, nom! The caramel flavor wasn't very pronounced, but I probably could have cooked it a little longer. I probably pulled it off the burner a little earlier than necessary, in my desire to not screw it up a third time.

Cocoa Caramel Panna Cotta
by John Scharffenberger and Robert Steinberg
contributed by Michael Chiarello
from The Essence of Chocolate

Serves 8

2 1/2 teaspoons gelatin
1/4 cup cold water
1/2 cup superfine sugar
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
3 cups heavy cream, warmed

1. Arrange eight 4-ounce molds in a baking dish, for easy transfer in and out of the refrigerator.

2. Combine the gelatin and 2 tablespoons of the cold water in a small bowl. Set aside to soften.

3. Combine the sugar and the remaining 2 tablespoons water in a medium saucepan, bring to a simmer over medium heat, and cook, without stirring, for 5 to 6 minutes, swirling the saucepan occasionally to cook the caramel evenly. Test the color of the caramel by drizzling a few drops onto a white plate. If sugar crystals form on the sides of the pan, brush with a wet pastry brush. When the color is medium to dark amber, remove the pan from the heat.

4. Stir the cocoa into the caramel until it has dissolved. Carefully pour in the cream. Some of the caramel may seize, but it will dissolve again as it is heated. Stir, being sure to incorporate any bits of caramel that may be clinging to the bottom of the pan, until all of the caramel has dissolved. Remove from the heat, and stir in the gelatin until dissolved. Set a fine-mesh strainer over a large liquid measuring cup or a bowl with a spout, and strain the caramel mixture.

5. Divide the mixture evenly among the molds. Refrigerate until completely chilled and set, at least 4 hours or, preferably, overnight.

6. To unmold the panna cotta, fill a bowl with very hot tap water. Dip a mold into the water, then lift from the water, dry the bottom with a towel, and invert onto a serving plate. If it does not slide out, re-dip in the water. Continue with the remaining panna cotta. Be sure to replace the hot water in the bowl as it cools.

7. Serve plain, or with custard sauce or a bowl of cherries or figs.

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