Caramel sauce is probably my favorite variety of dessert sauce. It's sweet and buttery and can take average vanilla ice cream and transform it into nirvana. Or pair it with chocolate and just revel in culinary bliss.
Some caramel sauce recipes make caramel that hardens when cold. Others have a more liquid consistency that can be used on ice cream without hardening. Here are some of the ones I've tried, some of which have been culled from other recipes.
Culinary Institute of American Version
History - Before making this sauce, I pulled a bottle of Smuckers caramel sauce from the refrigerator and thought, "Well, might as well hold onto it." After tasting the homemade stuff, the Smuckers went straight into the garbage. Why? It was artificial flavor vs buttery rich. Gelatinous texture vs. creamy smooth. The homemade caramel sauce beat the store-bought hands down in every category.
This sauce is one of the few caramel sauces I've made that works well with cold desserts. While it thickens, it does not harden even if served over ice cream. It's a great recipe for using up that last cup of heavy cream before it goes bad.
The recipe is from the Culinary Institute of America's textbook, "The Professional Chef."
Rating - Roll of Honor
Preparation - Bring the cream to a boil in a small saucepan and then let cool. Place the corn syrup and sugar into a saucepan. Make sure the saucepan is big enough, or the caramel will foam over when the butter and cream is added. I usually make this in a 2 quart saucepan. Heat the corn syrup and sugar until it turns to a golden caramel color. Remove from heat and immediately stir in the butter and then the cream (watch for splattering and foaming). Whisk briskly to incorporate all of the cream and watch for chunks of hardened sugar at the bottom of the pan. Once the cream is incorporated, immediately cool the saucepan in ice water to stop the cooking process.
Bourbon Caramel Sauce from Bon Appetit Grilled Bananas
History - I'm a sucker for caramel. In chocolate, on ice cream, drizzled over just about any dessert. This bourbon caramel sauce came as part of a recipe from the July 2007 issue of "Bon Appetit" with grilled bananas, reminiscent of Bananas Foster. I liked the sauce so much that I started making it by itself.
The sauce is best used on warm desserts as it solidifies as it cools. On ice cream, for example, it usually is too hard to easily scoop up and mix with the ice cream. The flavor is top rate - the vanilla plus caramel plus flavoring that comes from the bourbon all work together to give the sauce something extra that sets it apart from other caramel sauces.
The original scale from the grilled bananas recipe is presented here. Usually I reduce it by a factor of three and just make the caramel portion.
Update March 23, 2010 - You definitely will want to cut the cooking time for the sauce down significantly if making a 1/3 scale batch. It usually takes me less than five minutes of boiling before it is ready. When you first start boiling, it'll foam up considerably (use a saucepan at least twice as large as you think you'll need). Stir constantly and when the foaming starts to go back down and you begin to feel a little more resistance to stirring, especially when scraping around the bottom and sides of the pan, you can stop the cooking and wind up with a sauce that is thick but still somewhat mobile. Cook it a little longer, and it'll turn solid once chilled in the fridge, almost like caramel candies from the store.
Rating - Roll of Honor
Instructions - Combine brown sugar, cream, butter, and honey in a heavy large saucepan. Scrape in vanilla seeds; add beans. Stir mixture over medium heat until sugar dissolves. Increase heat and bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and boil gently until sauce coats spoon thickly and is reduced to 3 2/3 cups, about 25 minutes. Note - how long you cook and reduce it will determine how hard it sets up when it cools. Mix in bourbon.
Bobby Flay Version
History - The flavor of this caramel sauce is decent but it has a very grainy consistency. This might not be noticeable in a milk shake (which is where the recipe came from) where the liquids would tend to dissolve some of the sugar crystals. On ice cream, it sets up into a hard, grainy shell. It's pretty solid and grainy at or even somewhat above room temperature. So, try it for milkshakes if you want but it is substandard for just about anything else. There are better caramel recipes out there. From Bobby Flay's "Burgers, Fries, and Shakes."
Rating - okay
Instructions - Combine the sugar and water in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat, swirling the pot occasionally (do not stir) to even out the color. Cook until deep amber in color, 10 to 12 minutes. While the caramel is cooking, pour the heavy cream into a small saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Remove from the heat and keep warm. When the caramel has reached a deep amber color, slowly whisk in the heavy cream. Be careful; the hot mixture will bubble and foam significantly. Whisk until smooth. Remove from the heat and stir in the rum, if using, and the vanilla extract. The sauce can be cool, covered, and refrigerated for up to 1 week. Reheat over low heat or in the microwave. Serve warm.
Butter Rum Caramel Sauce from Gourmet Beignet Recipe
History - The sauce is weak in terms of texture and flavor. Might work better on a cold vanilla ice cream. From the October 2007 issue of "Gourmet."Rating - okay
Instructions - To make sauce, heat sugar in 12-inch heavy skillet over medium heat, stirring with fork to heat evenly, until it starts to melt, then stop stirring and cook, swirling skillet occasionally so sugar melts evenly until it is dark amber. Stir in butter, water, rum, vinegar, and a pinch of salt. Caramel will harden and steam vigorously. Cook over low heat until caramel has dissolved. Add cream and bring to boil, stirring, then remove from the heat. Cool to warm.
Coconut Caramel Sauce
History - The flavor of this caramel is a standard caramel sauce with a hint of coconut to it. It seems a little sweeter than most caramel sauces, but that may be because of how far I let the sugar and corn syrup mix darken before stopping the cooking. It is definitely a warm dessert sauce, however, as once it cools, it becomes first gelatinous and then incredibly sticky. At refrigerator temperature, trying to get a spoonful out of the bowl is a very messy affair with sticky strings of caramel everywhere.
Aleta sent me a link to the recipe, but I don't have it on this computer at the moment. I'll have to go back and find it to add it here.
Rating - okay
Instructions - Place the sugar and corn syrup in a pan. Heat on low-medium heat until the sugar dissolves. Increase heat and gently swirl until the mixture is amber colored. Immediately remove from heat and add the butter (it will boil up). Add the coconut milk (it will boil up some more). Stir continuously while adding the butter and coconut milk and be sure to get down to the corners of the pan. Once everything is well mixed. Cool the pan in water to stop the cooking process.
Honey Caramel Sauce
History - I love the idea of this sauce: a basic caramel sauce except with all of the added flavor that comes from honey. The problem is the execution is so difficult. Knowing when to stop the caramelization process is next to impossible. The color of the honey masks the color of the caramelization and all you can really do it watch like a hawk for the first whisp of burnt sugar smoke and pray that you're fast enough to stop the cooking process with the heavy cream before it gets too burnt. I thought I did a decent job but it still came out with a slightly burnt sugar flavor. I've heard that some people like that slight bitterness, but I just can't enjoy it.
I found the recipe in "Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams at Home" cookbook.
Rating - okay
Instructions - Combine the sugar and honey in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan and heat over medium heat, stirring, until the sugar is melted. The cook, without stirring, swirling the pan occasionally. The mixture will become foamy at first, then the buttles will turn to huge glassine spheres and subside into smaller shiny bubbles. At this point, the sugar will begin to brown rather quickly; it will darken around the edges first and slowly begin to darken into the center. Use a heatproof rubber spatula to stir until the caramel is a deep butterscotch brown, then remove from the heat [if you start to see whisps of smoke, immediately remove from heat and add cream]. Immediately but carefully drizzle the cream into the caramel, stirring until completely dissolved. Add the butter pieces and stir until melted and smooth. Add the salt and stir well. You can cool the pan in a water bath in the sink to help stop the cooking.
Room temperature - okay
Refrigerator - excellent
Freezer - unknown
Store it in the refrigerator. If it is sealed in its own container, it'll keep there for several weeks at least but will gradually start to get a little grainy after a couple of weeks. Even cold it'll still be gooey, but if you want to make it even easier to spread, warm it very briefly (only a few seconds) in a small bowl in the microwave.