Plain-Jane Dessert? Caramel Sauce to the Rescue

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You’ll know I’ve been kidnapped by alien creatures the day I serve a dessert bare, such as a plain-Jane portion of bread pudding or an uninspired square of gingerbread cake. Anyone who knows me knows I’d doll up either of those desserts with a dusting of powdered sugar or a mini scoop of ice cream or a drizzle of something. 

To me, serving a naked dessert (we’d have a whole other meaning if I switched those last two words, which is why word order is so, so important) is like handing someone a gift without the wrapping. I think this is especially important with comfort foods, because it raises them to a level of sophistication that most people don’t expect.

Besides, just because something’s a comfort food doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy to prepare.  To my way of thinking, as long as I’m going through the work of preparing a great classic dessert, whether it’s a spice cake or banana cake or even homemade ice cream, I may as well bump up its appeal by adding what I call food accessories, and I’m not just talking about a sprig of mint or parsley. (I’ve talked about this regarding soups, too.)

When it comes to drizzling, I find that my recipe for caramel sauce does such a great job of covering all the dessert bases that I keep jars of it in the refrigerator on stand-by to dress up even the most bland or dull-looking dessert. You know, with a sauce like this waiting in the wings, there’s no reason you have to actually make the dessert yourself, either. A little ladel of this caramel sauce can turn a scoop of store-bought ice cream from ordinary to OMG.

About my caramel recipe. Well, actually, it’s not mine, but mainly Julia’s. I feel comfortable calling Julia Child by her first name because I interviewed her for a story a number of years ago, and actually got to later meet her in her home. (I still have a thank-you note from her.) But I digress.

This caramel recipe is based on the classic from Julia Child’s “The Way to Cook”, which, btw, is a great cookbook, but I confess, my TWTC book flops open to just a few recipes (like the one for caramel) but other than that, I’ve not prepared much else from it. As an aside, I don’t think Julia would have minded that I didn’t set aside a year of my life to make every recipe in “The Way to Cook” and then write a book about it, which might get made into a blockbuster movie. Or not.

The main difference between Julia’s caramel sauce and mine is I double mine, so I’ll have plenty for later. Of course, you can cut the recipe in half. Or you can do it my way, and make lots to keep in the refrigerator so you have ever-ready gifts or a way to enhance desserts that needs a little oomph. Fruits — like apples, pear and bananas — go well with this sauce. Or you could pour it over cream puffs or creme brulee.

Or you could grab a spoon and eat the sauce sans dessert.

Say the aliens made you do it.

 Julia’s Caramel Sauce

2 cups sugar
2/3 cup water
2 cups heavy cream
1/8 teaspoons sea salt
4 teaspoons vanilla extract

In a large heavy saucepan use a wooden spoon to stir the sugar into the water. Now set the pan over medium-high heat and bring the liquid to a simmer. From this point on, put down the spoon and forget about it.

To dissolve the sugar, gently swirl the pan by its handle until the sugar dissapears and the liquid is clear. (Resist the temptation to use a spoon.)

Put a lid on the saucepan for a few minutes and allow the sugar-water mixture to come to a nice, rolling boil. (This is when one of those clear lids comes in really handy. It saves on too-frequent peeking.) A word about that lid: having it in place while the caramel boils for a few minutes (like 2) causes condensation to collect on the lid’s underside, which washes down the pot sides and helps prevent crystals from forming. Speaking of crystals, maybe some science-type person can provide a deeper explaination behind what I’m about to say, but for some reason, stirring can contribute to the formation of crystals (which you don’t want, because it’s  gritty and grainy).  That’s why I asked you to put away that spoon early on.  Which you did. Right?

OK, keeping the saucepan on that medium-high heat, remove the lid and allow the liquid to continue its boil. Every minute or so, carefully swirl the pan (by the handle), as you do, notice that the liquid is getting a nice honey hue. 

When it’s a light rootbeerish-amber color, remove the pan from the heat. Now pour in the cream and watch the magic. The mixture will bubble in protest, but that’s what it’s supposed to do. In fact, at first the scalding caramel will be so shocked by the introduction of the foreign cream that the liquid will actually seize up and harden. Don’t panic. This is normal, too.  A little heat will take care of everything.

Return the pot to the stove, but this time over low heat. NOW you can retrieve your wooden spoon to stir the mass in the pan until the heat softens and remelts the caramel enough to allow it to accept the cream. The two will become one and transform into a gorgeous light brown.

Finally, remove the pan from the heat.  Stir in the salt and vanilla. Congratulations. You’ve made caramel sauce. Pour it into clean jars and keep refrigerated until ready to use. (Make sure the jars cool down a bit before chilling or the glass will crack.)

Adapted from “The Way to Cook” by Julia Child.

Independent online journalist Doni Greenberg founded what’s now known as in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Greenberg was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.

Doni Chamberlain
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain is an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, California.
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