I baked a custard cake earlier today and the number of photos overwhelmed me. So, I decided to create a separate “how to” entry for caramelizing sugar. After all, I will most likely refer to this process occasionally in the future as my repertoire of baking projects multiply. A how to caramelize sugar article will save me the trouble of having to photograph the caramelizing stage every time a baking project requires it.
Why do we caramelize sugar? For many reasons. Pasty chefs use hardened caramel to create pretty things for decorating. The hot caramel is shaped and swirled before it hardens and the result often goes on top of cakes and desserts. Caramelized sugar is also the traditional glazing for leche flan (although I have tried using molasses and it works too).
There are only two things you need for caramelizing sugar — water and sugar. The ratio between water and sugar depends on how thin or how thick you want the resulting caramel to be. I know some cooks who simply melt sugar without any water but sugar burns too fast that way.
For purposes of this entry, the caramel we are creating is of the consistency we need for glazing leche flan.
First, place the sugar and water in a thick bottomed pan. For about half a cup of caramel, use 1 cup of white sugar and 1/4 cup of water. Just place them in the pan — don’t stir.
Turn the heat to high and bring the water and sugar to the boil without stirring. Then, lower the heat to medium-high and continue boiling.
After about 8 minutes, the mixture will start to brown. If the mixture along the edges of the pan brown much faster, swirl the pan to even out the coloring.
Continue boiling until the liquid is the color of amber.
The caramelized sugar is of perfect pouring consistency at this stage. Use it at once. If you’re glazing leche flan with it, pour it into the mold immediately. Caramelized sugar hardens fast — within a minute, you will no longer be able to pour it. You can’t keep it on the stove either, even over very low heat, because if you continue to subject it to heat, it will go on cooking and turn dark. And a few seconds after that? That’s called burnt sugar already.
So, next time, I’ll show you my most sinful custard cake. Sinful? Yeah. The custard is thicker than the cake.