Once upon a time there was a girl named Sarah who was terrified of making caramel. The only real attempt had been more than a failure- it had been an incredible mess.
She set out to make a caramel apple pie with the new, beautiful red Emile Henry deep pie dish her sister had given her for graduation. It was an overcast day in July and the crumb topping had sort of been a failure, but at least it tasted good (you can hardly go wrong with butter and sugar).
But when it came time to make the caramel to coat the apples, Sarah had no idea what she was getting herself into. The caramel sputtered on her old stove, and before she realized it, the amber color she was waiting for soon turned to a burnt ochre. It smelled terrible, and tasted it, too. That is, if you could lift a spoon out of the sticky mess to taste it. Instead of throwing the whole pot away, Sarah applied the bitter concoction to the sad apples, hoping that after baking nobody would notice the burnt flavor.
But she was wrong. The apple pie came out of the oven as disgusting as it had gone in. The sticky burnt goo on the saucepan took two days of soaking and scrubbing to give in and be cleaned. And instead of eagerly taking up the spatula once again, Sarah silently refused to make caramel again for a very long time.
If I, older, wiser Sarah, could go back and give some advice to the younger Sarah who was frustrated with her burnt caramel, I'd tell her this: 1) Watch the caramel very carefully; 2) Follow instructions closely; 3) Have everything ready and nearby, it's only a matter of seconds difference between amber-colored and delicious, and burnt and bitter; 4) Do your research on how to make different types of caramel (dry and liquid), the stages, the science, etc.
Now, over a year later, I can say I've made a successful caramel sauce. This is the easiest one I have found; it only uses sugar. Don't crank the heat up too high, and watch carefully so that you start stirring when the sugar starts to melt. The syrup will turn from a transparent white to a yellow color, and finally darken. If in doubt, add the walnuts a little early.
Roasted pears with caramel glaze and candied walnuts
Roasted pears with caramel glaze
Adapted from Three Many Cooks
Makes 8 pear halves
3 TBSP butter
4 firm but ripe pears, halved and seeded (I leave the skin on)
½ packed cup light brown sugar
4 cinnamon sticks, halved*
Candied walnuts (recipe below), for serving
Ice cream or whipped cream, for serving
Preheat oven to 350F with rack in the middle. Add butter to a 9 x 13-inch pan and place in preheating oven to melt while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
When butter is melted, sprinkle the brown sugar evenly over the butter. Place the cinnamon sticks in the pan and top with the pears, cut side down. Bake about 25 minutes, or until the pears are tender. Remove from oven, flip pears so that they are cut side up, and spoon caramel over them. Return to oven about 5 more minutes, or until they are golden and bubbling. Remove from oven, cool slightly, and serve with the candied walnuts and a little ice cream or whipped cream.
Note: You can substitute the cinnamon sticks for 2 tsp ground cinnamon mixed into the brown sugar. Also, you could substitute the pears for apples!
Adapted from Simply Recipes
Makes about 1 ½ cups
½ cup sugar
1 ½ cups walnut halves
⅛ tsp coarse salt, such as sea salt
Preheat oven to 350F with rack in the middle. Place walnut halves on a baking sheet lined with a silicone baking mat or parchment. Bake for 5-7 minutes, or until toasted and fragrant. Be careful not to let them burn. Remove from oven and cool, on the baking sheet, on a wire rack. (Don't skip this step).
Put sugar into a medium (I used 2 qt) saucepan with heavy bottom. Have walnuts and a wooden spoon nearby. Cook sugar on medium heat, stirring with a wooden spoon as soon as the sugar begins to melt. Stir almost constantly until all the sugar has melted (some crystals will form; don't worry, they'll melt later) and is medium amber in color. Add the walnuts to the pan, quickly stirring to coat each one.
When completely coated, spread the walnuts on a rimmed baking sheet with a silicone mat or parchment (I used the same one I had used to toast the walnuts). Use two forks to separate the walnuts and sprinkle with salt. Let cool completely, about 15 minutes.