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“Appetzing Tawny Brown” - Butterscotch Crème Brûlée by Ron Skaar


“Appetizing Tawny Brown”

Butterscotch Crème Brûlée by Ron Skaar

by Ron Skaar

with photo by Jon Russo

Kernel’s popping in the embers of primeval fires was probably the original way of cooking corn. 3,000 year old popcorn kernels have been excavated in west central New Mexican caves. Pre-Incan popcorn poppers (vessels with a hole on top and a single handle) have been found on the north coast of Peru. On a 4th century Zapotec funeral urn, a maze god is carved with primitive popcorn adorning its headdress.

Popcorn was an important food among the Aztecs, Incas, and North American tribes. Hernando Cortes noticed that the Aztecs decorated themselves with the white puffy grains. By the 19th century, American cooks had turned popcorn into a breakfast cereal, adding it to porridges, puddings and cakes. The popped kernel accompanied soups, salads and even embellished the main course.

Caramel corn is only about 150 years old. Patents for adding a candy coating to the  popped corn emerged in the 1880’s. At the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair the Rueckheim brothers served their molasses coated kernels, to a tepid crowd. The coating made the popcorn heavy and messy to eat. Once the brothers had perfected the art of caramelizing corn, theirs became “Cracker Jacks”.

Caramel candies and syrups have been around for centuries. The use of “burnt” sugar for its deep amber color and flavor is an ancient culinary skill. Used in many preparations, caramel is the initial rich, brown, fragrant syrup produced in caramelizing sugar. The word caramel is first mentioned in French during the 17th century.

The browning reaction of sugar seems simple enough, but not really. When sugar is heated to a higher temperature its molecules begin to break apart. This elevated heat  hatches hundreds of new compounds which contain the intense flavor, aroma and the deep brown color of caramelizing. This chemical reaction contributes heavily to the many candies and confections we delight in devouring.

Originally, the tart Tatin was baked over a charcoal fire with a metal oven placed over it. The intense heat from below caramelized the sugared and buttered apples. When the tart was finished, and inverted onto a serving tray, the apples had become an appetizing tawny brown. Nowadays, we caramelize the butter and sugar in the pie plate before the fruit is arranged, and baked, in the tart.

The omnipresent Crème caramel is produced in a similar manner. Vanilla flavored custard is baked in a mold that has been coated with caramel sugar, which runs down its sides when unmolded. Called caramel cream in English cuisine, this dessert is better known as flan in Spain and Latin America.

My favorite sweet concoction, Crème Brûlée, is luxurious baked custard finished with a brittle, dark caramel crust. Invented in the 17th century, at Christ’s College in England, it was a stove top or stirred Crème anglaise. Back then, they used a red hot poker or “salamander” to create that breakaway crust.

This recipe is a very luscious contemporary custard with substantial flavor. I embellished it with caramel corn for a caramel crazed client.


Butterscotch Crème Brûlée 

3 cups heavy cream

1 cup whole milk

1 cup dark brown sugar

¼ teaspoon salt

2 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips

2 tablespoons pure vanilla

9 large egg yolks

1/3 cup granulated sugar

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Butter ten ½ cup ramekins lightly. In medium saucepan combine cream, milk, brown sugar and salt. Cook over moderate heat, stirring until the sugar melts and small bubbles appear around rim. Remove from heat, whisk in chocolate until melted and add vanilla. In medium bowl, whisk egg yolks, gradually adding hot cream mixture into yolks. Set ramekins in roasting pan, pour custard into them and add enough hot water to pan to reach one third of way up ramekins. Cover pan with foil or parchment and bake for 30-35 minutes, or until the brulees are set but still slightly jiggles in center. Remove from pan, let cool and refrigerate at least 5 hours. Set the ramekins in freezer for 20 minutes. Preheat broiler and position a rack 6 inches from the heat (or use blow torch). Sprinkle about 2 teaspoons of granulated sugar on the tops of each crème and broil until the tops are caramelized. Refrigerate for 15 minutes and serve.