You know how trends pop up gradually - you hear about them here and there, not paying complete attention, but the term enters your conciousness. Then one day it reaches critical mass - you've heard about this 'thing' - ingredient, bar, item of clothing, song, whatever, just one too many times to not investigate what's so darn hot about it. Obviously I am not an early adopter.
Recently the concept of 'salted caramel' came into my sphere of recognition. I'd heard about it on plenty of Melbourne Gastronome's fabulous degustation adventures (surely a sign of an 'It' ingredient) and pondered it quietly to myself. I'd heard countless other chefs and food bloggers gush about it, whether as a flavour for the equally fashionable macarons, or an icecream recipe, or some molecular gastronomical desert involving foams and highly calibrated temperature control equipment.
Caramel. With salt in it. Such a simple thing, but I constantly daydreamed of what those two flavours would taste like, mingling with each other. I couldn't figure out how to get some of this salted caramel for myself - I'd never seen it on a restaurant menu, not in the low-end restaurants I frequent. I considered making it myself but didn't know where to start. Should I make caramels, ie the sweets? Or something with caramel sauce in it? And why did caramel sauce recipes always seem to come with danger warnings? Off putting to say the least! Each caramel sauce recipe I read had some associated flesh-searing story that alluded to caramel being for hard-core trained chefs, not flavour-curious apartment dwellers with no kitchens (ie me).
One day whilst walking home my dear Andrew was eating a Magnum Ego - that decadent icecream with a layer of caramel sauce in the middle. I asked him to let me look at the wrapper rather than throwing it out, and I analysed the ingredients. There it was. Hidden amongst the vegetable gums and numbered sugars - SALT. And I thought - yeah, salt goes where caramel goes. They follow each other around. Caramel so sweet, salt so... salty, why wouldn't such different things taste just inexplicably wonderful together? I had imagined the flavour so much by now that I didn't even really think I needed to try it anymore.
Until I came across a recipe for salted caramel cupcakes. They contained dark beer, and they looked amazingly over the top. But I couldn't make them. I was smack bang in the middle of exams. At work at the time, I covertly copied down all the ingredients I would need, and kept the list in my bag. Every so often I would look at the list and pique my excitement for life-post-essay - the cupcakes were my light at the end of the tunnel.
Final deadlines for uni came and went and I bought everything I needed for the cupcakes, including corn syrup ( ?! - it's an American recipe). I excitedly made the caramel sauce to top the cupcakes with, wearing rubber gloves whilst pouring cream into hot bubbling sugar as the recipes all recommended. Nothing dangerous happened. No flesh searing. I stirred in the half-teaspoon of sea salt flakes into the brown sugary goo and hoped for the best.
Once the sauce cooled, I had a teaspoon full as a taste test. It was caramel alright. Not caramel I'd tasted before, but richer, fuller-flavoured and more rounded. It was addictive. I now knew what all the fuss was about. Caramel needed salt! It was just too plain sugary without it. I went through quite a few spoons of it before I forced myself to stop. I needed some caramel left for the cupcakes!
I felt satisfied in my discovery, which was exciting but certainly not unique. I came to salted caramel the way I do to so many things - by endless pondering followed by gradual action. Welcome, salted caramel! I will be making it again.
Salt is a wonderful thing, if used sparingly and in the right place. Which brings me to another story, for another day - the endless search for sulphurous pink salt...