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How to Make Your Caramel 100x More Exciting: Replace Cream with Fruit

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It feels like we've known about caramel since the beginning of time.

But the Romans, the Byzantines, the members of the Ming dynasty, the dinosaurs (!) did not spoon caramel sauce over their ice cream. Because in 1993, its existence was still news (in the U.S., at least).

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Photo by Bobbi Lin

In a New York Times article, Flo Fabricant defined it ("Pristine white crystals are transformed by heat into a molten glaze") and then reported:

The flavor is becoming increasingly popular on dessert menus, giving chocolate, the perennial favorite, some stiff competition.

Twenty-two years after FloFab's article, caramel is the rule, not the exception: Show me a cupcake/macaron/chocolate/ice cream shop that does not serve a caramel option, and I will give you...a caramel (?).

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The genesis of caramel.
The genesis of caramel. Photo by James Ransom

But just when I thought I'd never be excited by caramel—or salted caramel (so 2002)—again, I found out about caramel sauce made not with butter or cream as the liquid, but with fruit juice.

First it was Suzanne Goin's Crème Fraîche Plum Cake, rippled with layers of "plum caramel": To make it, you purée plums in a food processor with 1 tablespoon of lemon juice, then whisk the thick liquid into a deep amber caramel until you have a sharp, sour, sweet, dynamic sauce.

Photo by James Ransom

Then, Alice Medrich, who gave us a technique for candying cranberries and a variety of ways to use them, told us to use excess cranberry syrup to start a caramel.

And finally—in what can only be called a caramel trend sweeping the nationKristen reintroduced us to Lindsey Shere's Baked Caramel Pears: Here, the juice from roasted pears is used as the base of a caramel sauce that, in the closing of the circle of life, is spooned back over the cooked pears.

Drippy plum caramel, from above.
Drippy plum caramel, from above. Photo by James Ransom

So I knew it could be done with plums and pears and cranberry syrup, but would other fruits work, too?

Yes! Yes, they would. I tried blackberries (frozen), grapes (unpeeled), cranberries (raw), and orange juice. Because I didn't strain the fruits, the caramels were more textured than a traditional caramel. But what they lacked in smoothness, they made up for in a flavor that is much more complex and less purely sweet. And if you do want a silky texture, strain your fruit and use its juice instead!

Here's how to make your own fruit caramel sauce:

  1. Purée the fruit in a blender or food processor. I used 3/4 pound of fruit, which yielded about 1 1/4 cups fruit-stuffs. (I also made orange caramel sauce by using orange juice in place of cream, but that required no processing or blending.)

  2. If the fruit needs a little help to liquify, can add lemon juice (1 tablespoon), alcohol (Goin's recipe calls for 2 tablespoons of Cognac or any brandy), or water. Since the blackberries were frozen before I processed them, I stuck them in the microwave in 30-second intervals until the mixture had relaxed into a liquid.

  3. Make a caramel like you know how. I brought 1/2 cup water and 3/4 cup sugar to a boil over medium heat without stirring. (You can add other flavors, like vanilla bean or cardamom pod or cinnamon stick.) When the mixture was a deep amber color (after about 10 minutes), I slowly poured in the fruit purée (or juice), whisking constantly until all sugar is dissolved.

  4. If you want a richer, more viscous sauce, add cream or butter. You can also allow the mixture to simmer and reduce at this point.

  5. Use your caramel. Spoon it over ice cream, swirl it into cake, spread it over a scone.

Clockwise from top left: blackberry, cranberry, orange, and grape caramel sauce.
Clockwise from top left: blackberry, cranberry, orange, and grape caramel sauce. Photo by Linda Xiao

Tags: caramel, fruit