Quick gift: Homemade caramel

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The last minute comes around swiftly, smacking the inattentive. Should you find yourself startled by its arrival, ill-prepared and gift-free, fear not.

The gift can be conjured from kitchen staples and minutes. Even those extra-quick last-minute minutes.

Make caramel. Here's what you need: sugar, cream and butter. Also about 15 minutes. Even if the boatload of surprise guests radio in their arrival, you can swirl caramel before they dock.

Here's how: Melt sugar, stir in cream and butter. If you've got spare seconds on hand, add sea salt, dark chocolate or bourbon.

Though such embellishment is optional. Caramel is so amber handsome, so sticky good, so creamy thick and butter soft it makes a delightful gift as is. Just pour it into a jar (you do need a jar). No need to wrap.

Caramel sauce keeps a good long time in the fridge. It's a welcome find, deep in the drab season. Warm, then lavish on ice cream, cake or fruit. That first luscious spoonful rekindles memories of the holidays — long gone, but worth making stick.

Leah Eskin is a Tribune Newspapers special contributor. Email her at leahreskin@aol.com. Twitter @leaheskin

Emergency gift

Prep: 5 minutes

Cook: 15 minutes

Makes: About 1 ½ cups caramel sauce

For caramel:

1 cup sugar

¼ cup water

1 pinch fine salt

1 cup whipping cream

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut up

For optional flavoring:

¼ teaspoon flaky salt, such as Maldon

1 ounce bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped

1 to 2 tablespoons bourbon

Prep: Find a 2-cup (or larger) heat-proof glass measuring cup. Keep it handy.

Caramelize: Stir together sugar, water and fine salt in a small saucepan. Heat over medium-high, without stirring. In about 4 minutes, mixture will turn from cloudy to clear and begin to bubble. In another 5 minutes the syrup will begin to turn tan and give off a caramel scent. Swirl the pan, letting the caramel turn a deep amber, 1 to 2 minutes.

Cool: Pull pan off heat. Carefully stir in cream; caramel will foam up. Pour the caramel (don't scrape the pan) into the heat-proof measuring cup. Stir in butter.

Flavor: Caramel is delicious as is. Or make a variety of flavors. To one warm batch add either the salt, the chocolate or the bourbon.

Give: Pour into a clean glass jar, let cool, seal and chill. Choose plain (consider a 1/2-pint mason jar from the grocery store), fancy (maybe a spring-top cutie from Ikea) or inspired (perhaps an antique egg coddler from the flea market). Save or give.

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