Moments after finishing my first pot of caramel sauce – first melted sugar, first caramel anything – I pulled up an apron corner, wrapped the burning handle and carried it down twenty-seven steps, past an audience of snickering older students, past my teachers, not breathing until the pot finally reached the hands of a famous West coast chef standing onstage, waiting with a microphone and tapping a plate.
At twenty-three I cooked more than most and baked swell pound cake, but the fact remained that I’d been in culinary school just 32 days. Famous Chef was visiting to perform a cooking demo, his advance food prep so demanding that a scroll-length memo was issued to teachers, lists and diagrams attached.
Dori was my bench partner, and we were deep in earnest chopping, piles of 1/4-inch carrot dice, when our teacher, Chef Karmin, pulled my jacket from behind. “You two,” he said, handing us a stapled sheaf, “I have a job for you. Make sure your knives are sharp.”
He turned to leave, and I glanced at the list. Searing tuna, burning sugar, chopping exotics. “Um. Chef,” I said, “it’s just…Chef, we haven’t done any of this. This stuff.”
He talked out the door as he left. “It’s not too bad,” he said, “and you’ve got oh, two hours. You can do it.”
We gaped. Dori looked sick. I regretted those gobbled croissants off the sheet rack, now rising as we grabbed steels and began frantically honing knives. I finished quick but Dori kept sawing, blade flying like a mad violinist. Back and forth, back and forth, five minutes gone and the list untouched.
My assigned partner was ambitious but nervous, moved slow in the kitchen as she thought before moving. Dori asked permission to peel potatoes, carried tiny handwritten points on scaling fish. She measured the carrots. Now she ground knives while I studied the list, bobbing her tiny head and dark brows. It would be a long two hours.
The list gave her fits. We were to prepare complete versions of Famous Chef’s dishes, all requiring various first-try skills: searing tuna with lavender and peppercorns, shaving priceless deep woods fungi, braising eggplant he’d carried in-flight. I flinched at the clock, flabbergasted. Why would the powers entrust rookies, one more neurotic and green than the next, with their crucially high-priced plans? The last task was dessert, a bread pudding. Soak currants in rum, okay, bake brioche, I don’t think so, and make caramel sauce. Caramel sauce from scratch. Melting sugar. I looked up and saw Dori across the room, hunting for books about tuna.
The brioche was mercifully baked by advanced students who, delivering bread and surveying our challenged kitchen, got the best laugh of their day. We struggled down the list, producing a string of near-disasters until there was fifteen minutes left, and we’d finally reached the caramel. A little butter, some sugar, how hard could it be? While Dori mulled the perfect pan, I dumped sugar in the pan we had. She returned to the stove and saw me cranking the heat.
“We can’t do this,” she said. “We don’t know what what we’re doing. I don’t want to do this.”
I told her me either. I have no idea, but we have twelve minutes left. They are waiting for us.
“What, we have to go in there?” Good god, I’d met someone crazier than me. Stirring water into sugar, I was lifted by this thought.
“Okay,” I said, “let’s watch it. It’s supposed to bubble, then turn colors.”
“Someone set a pan on fire last week,” she said. “They walked away and it caught fire.”
“Uh-huh,” and I looked at the clock. “It’s bubbling.”
“Take it off,” Dori said, “it’s turning!”
“Not yet,” I said. It doesn’t look right. I had no idea how it was supposed to look. But not yet.
The clock ticked and the color inched forward with each second, now gold, now golden.
“TAKE IT OFF,” Dori begged, “we’ll get it wrong. It’s wrong.”
I swirled the pan, by now pleasantly deviant, blind but going for broke. I didn’t know anything but knew enough to keep going, despite Dori yelping and the hot breath of time. Better too much than too little, better mahogany than beige, trust whatever it takes to get this thing done.
Now the color was toffee and it smelled like caramel, only better. I showed Dori. “What do you think?”
“OH MY GOD they are in the auditorium.”
We yanked it off, whisked in the butter, the vanilla and cream. Dori! I think we made sauce.
She nodded her brows – well, I guess – but would not walk in there. So I ran across the hall clutching an apron-wrapped handle, running as fast as any person who is late with scalding liquid. The sauce shimmered left to right as I wobbled down the aisles, passing students step by step. Most had already interned, already worked the line, and here’s me with unsupervised caramel, not breathing, feeling naked but getting it done. Finally, I climbed three stairs to the stage and gently set the pot on the table. Empty-handed, I stepped back to leave.
“Let us thank our little helper,” Famous Chef boomed, and while the students were roaring, he glanced at the sauce and whispered to me. “Color could have gone longer.”
My face burned. Hey – if it was up to my partner, you might have been looking at clear.
Still, I was grateful it hadn’t been said at the mike. Chef isn’t too bad, I thought, everyone has to fly blind sometime, he must know. The Chef motioned for me to stay, stay up there; things seemed to be working out. Then he drizzled our sauce on the plate, and held it up to show the crowd. “It should not look like this.”
Okay. Maybe not.
He paused and raised it higher, so caramel stripes dripped off the rim. “But alas, this is how it looks today.”
Josie’s sundae: vanilla bean ice cream, caramel sauce and fresh cherries
Make your own caramel sauce – it’s taste years away from jarred and the perfect pair for ice cream. Think you can’t? Of course you can. As in all caramel matters, I recommend not thinking at all. Run sweet and blind. It comes out better that way.
Classic Caramel Sauce
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup water
1 cup heavy cream
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
pinch sea salt (optional)
Put the sugar in a medium-sized heavy saucepan. Pour water over the sugar, swirling until sugar is “moisturized.” Cook over high heat until sugar dissolves. Dip a pastry brush in hot water and use it to brush down any crystals from side of pan – OR – cover pan with tight-fitting lid to steam off crystals, then remove to continue cooking.
Continue cooking over high heat, watching closely, until mixture starts to turn a rich amber color, but does not smell burned. Remove pan from heat and carefully add the heavy cream, whisking. Mixture will puff and steam, and some sugar might harden. Return pan to heat and cook, whisking, until mixture appears smooth. Remove from heat and add butter, stirring to smooth. Finish by whisking in vanilla and, if desired, generous pinch of sea salt.
Serving: serve sauce hot, first cooling to desired thickness. May be refrigerated for several weeks and reheated in microwave or on stovetop as needed.
Makes 2 cups, enough for several ice cream bowls and more than a few spoonful snacks.
adapted from Favorite Old-Fashioned Desserts, by Pat Bailey