Sunday, May 16, 2010

on Salted Butter Caramel Mousse, Mistakes, and Magic

There is something you absolutely have to do immediately if you have not already done so in your life. Bored? Had a bad day? Having an existential crisis? Or simply craving dessert?


I personally made it for the first time over week ago, and now I can't stop making caramel. I don't want to stop making caramel.

All the times you make caramel will be delightful experiences, but the first is the best. I hear they say that about a lot of hard drugs, too. I guess caramel has a lot in common with hard drugs. But seriously. It's magical. You're worried, you hear that your sugar will reach a way-beyond boiling 338ºF and if you manage to drop it on your face you'll pretty much be sad. You watch your scalding sugar boil away and wonder if it will ever really turn to caramel or if it will simply disfigure you and your favorite saucepan. Does caramel only happen in the movies? Does it only happen to people richer, more attractive, and more successful than me? But then your sugar starts to turn brown, and then browner, and browner, and behold!


Here's how.

Step 1. Do not be afraid. Whatever you may hear, you do not need a candy thermometer. You do not need to wear safety goggles. You will not ruin your pan, and it's pretty hard to drop caramel on your face. You will be OK.

Step 2. Put some sugar in a saucepan. Add just a tiny bit of water, enough to wet your sugar. Have some butter and warm cream waiting nearby. Make sure there's no sugar on the sides of the pan. Give it a little wipe around with a towel. Now, boil.

Step 3. Watch your sugar boil, but don't touch it. No stirring. Remember, this is magic, pay attention.

After a few minutes of boiling, the water will have evaporated, and your sugar will start to cook. It will change color quickly once it gets going, so don't leave your sugar alone. Swirl the pan around every now and again. Keep watching. 

And voilà!

Step 4. You'll know when it's ready. Trust yourself. Don't waste time asking someone else for their opinion, because timing is super important. This is your caramel and you have to own it. If you trust your instincts, you will feel that it's ready; or, more specifically, you will see that it is dark-amber in color, and smell that it smells just like the caramel you dreamed you'd make. At that moment, turn off the heat. Add the butter, whisk whisk whisk. Add the warm cream little by little, whisk whisk whisk. You have just made caramel sauce. It's delicious. You can pour it on everything in your immediate vicinity.

Or, you can add some egg yolks, and then some frothy egg whites, and make caramel mousse.

At least that's what I thought.

It turns out that chocolate mousse gets its volume from the egg whites, but keeps its structure thanks to the chocolate which, when it cools, hardens, and holds the whole thing together. Recipes for caramel mousse that don't include chocolate generally include gelatin, but I was not aware of this, and did not bother to find out.

So after having patiently waited for my mousse to cool in the fridge, I stuck in my spoon for a nice, fluffy bite, and everything seemed to be going well...

The mousse was fantastically light and airy, more so than any mousse I could remember having! Just as I began to beam with pride, I saw it. The reason my mousse was so light was because the liquid had drained out and puddled at the bottom of the bowl. 


But wait--what was this liquid? I poked my spoon around to find out.

That's right. It was CARAMEL. I had made a weightless caramel mousse that was floating on a little pool of CARAMEL. While technically a failure, this was the most delicious failure of my life.

So I thought I'd share it with you.

If you'd like a recipe that is not technically a mistake, try this Salted Caramel Dark Chocolate Mousse, or this recipe for Caramel Mousse. But, if you like puddles of caramel, keep reading.

Molten Salted Butter Caramel Mousse, serves 5

3/4 sugar
4 tablespoons water
3 tablespoons salted butter, cut into pats
1 cup of heavy cream, warmed
3 eggs, separated
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Pour the sugar into a heavy-bottomed saucepan with high sides (3-4 inches higher than the level of the sugar). Add the water. Wipe the inside of the sides of the saucepan quickly with a towel or pastry brush just to be sure they're free of clinging sugar. Put on medium-high heat, and watch it closely but do not stir. Swirl the pan around occasionally to mix as the sugar cooks. Bring the cream to a boil, and keep it warm.

When the sugar has turned a dark amber color and smells like caramel, remove from the heat. Add the butter and whisk quickly to incorporate. The caramel will froth up at first.

Add the hot cream little by little to the mixture, whisking well. The caramel will froth up quite a bit at each addition, especially the first ones.

Beat the egg whites to stiff peaks while the mixture cools slightly.

Add in the vanilla to the caramel, then the egg yolks. When these are combined, fold in the egg whites. Pour the mousse into serving dishes (five 1-cup bowls) and refrigerate for about 5-6 hours. Top with whipped cream and/or sea salt if desired.

More caramel fun:

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