In the course of my food research, I spend quite a lot of time reading about nutrition. I find this an exceptionally frustrating subject, with more completely oppositional opinions and stances that any other aspect of cooking and food. There are so many elements that inform the nourishment of the human body and ensuring that you get the full range of vitamins, minerals, fats, proteins and carbohydrates can be extremely complex, even if you have concluded what position you take on the myriad nutritional debates.
Which leads me to one of the conclusions that I have made on this topic – that sugar is toxic. I will spare you an overview of this particular argument, as there are many other sources that will do a far better job in illustrating the dispute, but that is what I have generally accepted.
So what is a recipe for caramel butter doing on this blog? It’s here because it tastes absolutely divine. I do avoid sugar in the vast majority of things that I eat (a task made very much easier by cooking everything from scratch myself), but who in life wants to give up the occasional, beautifully crafted dessert? Sugar, chocolate, billowy clouds of whipped cream… Mmmmmm… So that’s why it’s here. My motto:
“Everything in moderation, including moderation!”
I always use unrefined sugar when I cook. This is different to brown sugar which is rendered golden with the addition of molasses. Unrefined sugar is the same as table sugar, but in a more natural state. This is not to say that this is a healthy sugar, just that it’s a tiny bit better than highly refined white sugar. It also imparts a richer caramel taste to the food.
The colour of this sugar makes it a little more difficult to work with when making caramel, as is called for in this recipe. Because it is already coloured, it can be hard to tell by sight alone when your sugar has come to the correct temperature. I get round this by always using this thermometer, as I do for all temperature-sensitive cooking tasks, but if you don’t have one I suggest you determine your caramel’s consistency by using a guide such as this.
Although I am fairly used to working with caramel, when I made it for this particular recipe, it recrystalised. This is a common problem when making caramel, so I decided to share my relative failure with you (instead of attempting to conceal it!) so we can explore together what exactly went wrong.
Moving or stirring the sugar as it cooks is a danger factor. Sugar is naturally crystalline and although it can be melted out of this shape, it has a natural tendency to return to this structure and to reform chains of crystals. I gave my caramel a good swirl towards the end of the cooking process to ensure it was evenly melted which could have brought about this reaction.
I have also since discovered that wet caramel (that made with a little water added to the sugar) as well as raw sugar caramel is much more likely to recrystalise. You can read more about these factors, as well as a comprehensive guide to making successful caramel, here. Although in this guide they say you should never use unrefined sugar for this application, I have made many batches of caramel with this ingredient without incident. Just be aware that the risk of failure may be greater.
Having said all that, you can still use the recrystalised sugar in this recipe, should you suffer the misfortune. The texture and flavour will definitely not be as good – the butter will be grainy and taste more as if it is flavoured with sugar than caramel – but you may decide (as I did on this occasion) that this is preferable to throwing away perfectly edible food and starting again. Or you may not – you decide!
The reason I made this butter originally was for Christmas gifts. I have several relatives with a sweeter tooth than mine, so I thought they would enjoy it as a seasonal treat. The reason I decided to blog about this however, was that as I was making it, it was all I could do to stop myself shovelling great spoonfuls into my mouth. In fact, let’s be honest, I was in no way successful in stopping myself shovelling great spoonfuls into my mouth. God it tasted good. As my brother said after having received it as a gift:
“Thanks to you I am putting butter on a biscuit.”
If you would also like to make this as a gift for your loved ones, I have included instructions on how to form it into logs in the recipe below. Alternatively, you can form the butter into a rough square shape and trim the edges before wrapping it as pictured. Greaseproof paper makes a good wrapping paper – it helps stop the fat leaking out and looks the part.
You can use this lovely rich butter on a variety of treats. I thought it worked very well smeared on an oatcake as pictured (see my recipe for oatcakes here), offering a lightly savoury contrast. It is also excellent on a slice of tea cake or a scone. But I think its most wonderful application is on something warm such as a flaky croissant or a decadent brunch pancake.
There are many layers of flavour in this gorgeous butter: salt, vanilla, caramel, butter, cinnamon – experienced in that order as they play across your tongue. You can reduce the amount of salt in the recipe if you don’t want the salt-caramel element, but do not omit it completely. The salt helps enhance all the flavours and counteracts bitter notes in the vanilla and caramelised sugar.
If you are vegan, you could substitute coconut fat for the butter. I have not tried this personally, but the texture is similar and I see no reason why the extra flavour of coconut fat wouldn’t complement the vanilla, caramel and cinnamon. Yum!
- 100g unrefined sugar
- 125g unsalted butter or coconut fat, room temperature
- 1/2 vanilla pod, seeds scraped or 2 tablespoons homemade vanilla extract
- 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon flaky sea salt
- Melt the sugar over medium-high heat until dark caramel colour - this is more difficult to judge with unrefined sugar, so it is best to check with a thermometer. It should be around 170c. Pour onto a silpat or a rimmed baking tray and leave to set, about 20 minutes. See a complete guide to how to make caramel here.
- When fully cooled and hardened, break the caramel into pieces and pulse in a food processor. Try not to completely pulverise the caramel - think shards rather than powder. Set aside.
- In a food processor using the blade or a stand mixer with the beater attached, process the butter until fully softened.
- Add three-quarters of the caramel shards, vanilla seeds, cinnamon and salt and mix until thoroughly combined. Taste the butter - it should be deliciously sweet and cinnamon-y. Add more cinnamon or caramel as needed (I used 70g of caramel).
- Either press the butter into a storage container or roll it into a log. To create a log, lay a 40cm piece of clingfilm flat on the work surface and spoon the butter down the middle. Fold the clingfilm over and roll the butter into a log shape. Twist the ends of the clingfilm to tighten the log into an even, compressed shape.
- You can use any left over caramel as a sparkly garnish, but remember that caramel will soften if left in contact with the air for more than an hour or so.
- If you are making food gifts, the above quantities are enough for one present.
- If you would like to keep the butter for more than a week, it is better to cut it into useable portions and freeze it.