Caramelization: A Process That Starts as Science and Ends as Culinary Art

I planned to use the market’s abundance of berries, apricots, plums, and nectarines in both a salad (fruit combines well with sharpness of endives and firm slices of kohlrabi) and a fruit pie, for my friends this weekend.

I am not a good baker; I tinker with proportions to cut out extra fats and sugars and use shortcuts whenever possible. This time, I was determined to follow the rules to make short crust pastry, the base for my fruit pie. It took me a few tries using 1 cup of flour, 4 oz of butter (my first trial with ½ butter + ½ lard was abandoned, as I left it longer than the recommended 30 minutes in the fridge and it turned hard), and ice-cold water to make a soft pastry. I rolled out the pastry into a circle and brushed it with beaten egg yolk, so that the juice from the fruit wouldn’t seep through the pastry. I piled apricots, raspberries, black currants, and blueberries, mixed with ½ cup of sugar, onto the pastry. Finally, I brushed the fruits and pastry with whisked egg-white coating, and dusted everything with a little more sugar. I folded the edges of the pastry up toward the center, so that the fruits were secure in a pie basket, and set it to bake at 400°F. That was when things fell apart.

The nutty, smoky aroma of caramel wafted through my kitchen much before the recommended 35 minutes was up. When I checked, the pie was brown and the fruits soft and gleaming, but there were blobs of glowering, brown, syrup that bubbled and hissed in the corners of my oven! I didn’t count on caramelization, the complex process when the sugars in the fruits melt at high temperature. The water (juice) from the fruit first foamed before condensing and spilling over the pastry, which had me scraping the hot oven (melted sugar hardens and becomes much tougher to clean when cooled) with gloves and a long wooden spoon. The fruit pie wasn’t as sweet as I expected, as I had scrimped on the sugar having assumed that the sweetness of the fruit would be enough. However, the kitchen smelled rich with flavors of childhood – spun sugar and caramel pudding!

I had much more success when I caramelized onions for the onion dip.  Managing the unhurried process to draw out the sugars from the onion is easier in a pan. The resulting amber, gooey onions can be enjoyed in a variety of ways. I have had caramelized onions with melted Brie in a sandwich at a friend’s restaurant. I have also added them as a burger topping with crumbled blue cheese, and as a garnish in rice pilaf.

Caramelized Onions

Spanish onions – 2

Olive oil – 6 tbsp

Unsalted Butter – 4 tbsp

Salt – 1 tsp

Pepper – ½ tsp

Chili powder –1/4 tsp (optional)

  • Slice the onions into halves, and cut each half into thin slices on the diagonal.
  • Heat the oil and butter in a large pan.
  • When the butter starts to bubble in the pan, add the sliced onions.
  • Let the onions cook for a minute on high heat before adding the salt, pepper, and chili powder. I do like chili powder; it adds a nice warm red hue to the onions.
  • Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring the onion slices frequently.
  • Reduce the heat to medium and let the onions cook slowly for about 20 minutes. Stir occasionally.
  • The onions reduce in volume considerably. If they haven’t yet reached a reddish-golden color, turn up the heat and continue to cook, stirring constantly for another minute.
  • Cool and store in a refrigerator if not using immediately.

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Onion Dip: Combine and whip until smooth ¾ cup each of mayonnaise and sour cream. Add in the caramelized onions. Season to taste. Serve with celery, endives, and carrots.

Onion Soup: Once the onions are a reddish brown color, add stock (wine, if desired), thyme, and bay leaf. Cook for another 20 minutes. Just before serving, float a broiled/toasted cheese slice on the soup.

 

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