I was about eight years old when I first saw caramel being concocted. As a child, it seemed to me to be a similar process to when the council was resurfacing the roads – laying the steaming hot tar with the white stripe down the middle.
I was helping out in a kitchen for the summer holidays and the chef was making the sweet treat. I marvelled at the colour of the mixture as it was changing by the second, from light brown to dark brown, right in front of my eyes. The chef said ‘‘taste it’’ and, like a fool, I did. I put my finger into the boiling-hot sugar mixture and it burned so sorely that I followed my next natural reaction, which was to stick it in my mouth. My finger stuck to my tongue and my love of caramel quickly disappeared.
Since then I have learned that you can stick your finger into caramel only if you have iced coldwater at the ready. The trick is to dip your finger into the caramel really quickly and then plunge it straight into iced cold water. The caramel instantly hardens and you can taste it safely.
To make caramel all you need is sugar and water, a heavy-duty pot, a pastry brush, coldwater and heat. However, the art of caramel-making is much more difficult than its ingredients would have you believe. Temperature and timing are crucial, so the only way around the problem of hitting the right temperature at the right time is by investing in a sugar thermometer.
A variation on simple caramel is nougat. The word comes from the Latin words ‘nux gatum’ meaning ‘nut cake’. The quality of the nougat depends crucially on the quality of the ingredients used – especially the nuts and the honey.
Honey comes in a wide variety of flavours, which reflect the area from which the honey is sourced. For example, honey from France’s Provence region will have a taste of lavender, while honey from parts of New Zealand will have a nutty or vanilla flavour.
When making nougat, bear in mind that the finished product will be soft if the temperature of the nougat is kept under 120 degrees, and hard if it rises above 150 degrees. The recipe below is for iced nougat. The nougat can be made in advance, poured on to rice paper, allowed to set and cut into blocks. Once it has cooled, it should be stored in an airtight container. The biscuits too can be prepared a few days in advance.
Iced nougat with biscuit and glazed Fruit
75g nibbed almonds
25g pistachio nuts
75g crystallised fruit (ginger, mango, orange peel, papaya, grapefruit peel)
4 tbsp cassis
40g egg white
75g icing sugar
25g soft butter
50g icing sugar
37g egg white
1/4 orange zest
5g crushed pistachio nuts
Seeds from one vanilla pod
White of one egg
2 tbsp granulated sugar
Fruit coulis (orange is best)
Dice the crystallised fruit and marinade in the cassis. Then whip egg whites to stiff peaks, fold in the icing sugar, and set aside. Next, whip the cream in a separate dish and add the marinated fruit.
Boil the sugar and water to 120 degrees until they form a soft caramel, then add almonds and pistachios and mix. Pour the mixture on to a greased tray and cool, then crush it up finely.
Boil the water and honey to reach 120 degrees, then let the mixture cool to 112 degrees. Mix in the crushed caramel and fold in the whipped egg whites using a metal spoon.
Place the mix into 5cm moulds. Cover and freeze for 24 hours.
Mix the egg whites, flour, sugar, pistachio nuts, orange zest and vanilla seeds together in a bowl. Then add the softened butter and place the mixture in the fridge for about six hours.
Grease a baking tray, roll out the biscuit dough and cut into shapes. Place the biscuits on a tray and cook in oven at 150 degrees for about eight to ten minutes or until golden brown.
Leave biscuits to cool on the tray.
Arrange the fruit around the plate. Remove nougat from moulds and place in centre of plate. Arrange biscuit around. Pour on the fruit coulis (I make my own, but M&S; does a range of fresh coulis). Place some orange peel or a mint leaf on top, dust with icing sugar and serve.
Kevin Thornton is a Michelin-starred chef and owner of Thornton’s Restaurant on St Stephen’s Green in Dublin. www.thorntonsrestaurant.com