Want to Change the Way You Bake? We do. And no, we’re not talking about adopting eight sourdough starters or making cakes with a sous vide machine. We’re talking about smart, savvy, and totally simple tricks that change everything. Or, you know, at least your next batch of baked goods.
What would chocolate chip cookies be without chocolate chips? Or oatmeal raisin cookies without raisins? Or rocky road without marshmallows and nuts?
So many of our favorite desserts are defined by their mix-ins. But more often than not, those mix-ins are some combination of chocolate, nuts, and dried fruit. Maybe candy chunks, granola clumps, pretzel pieces, or even potato chips—but only every now and then.
Well, here’s a new mix-in to add to your regular rotation: caramel shards.
I stumbled upon these in The Violet Bakery Cookbook by Claire Ptak. She worked as pastry chef at Chez Panisse in Berkeley before moving to London, where she eventually opened Violet in 2010. The little bakery garnered so much acclaim that, last year, the British royal family tapped Ptak to make the wedding cake for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
In other words: Ptak knows her stuff. So when she raves about the DIY, one-ingredient mix-in that makes Violet’s butterscotch blondies “extremely popular”—well, then we have to check it out, right?
But first, caramel.
This is nothing more than caramelized sugar. Or, as I like to think of it, sugar that grew up and became a more intriguing and mature and, dare I say, sexy version of itself. Like, say, you went to high school with sugar and it was sweet but sort of one-dimensional and then you go to your five-year reunion and you and your friends are like, Whoa, sugar! Who knew? Is it single?
The scientific translation of this, according to Cooks’ Illustrated goes something like this:
Granulated sugar is an odorless substance with a relatively straightforward taste, but when heated to the point at which its molecules break down, a cascade of chemical reactions occurs that transforms some of the sucrose into literally hundreds of different compounds.
So, it becomes vastly more flavorful. Not just sweet, but bittersweet, like dark chocolate. And toasty. And nutty. And malty.
There are two basic approaches to making caramel: dry and wet. For dry, you add sugar to a saucepan (or other sturdy cooking vessel, but a saucepan is my go-to), set it over a medium-high flame, and cook it until it melts. Then wait until it turns clear, then golden, then amber, then chestnutty brown. But this is the most risky approach—vulnerable to the usual caramel pitfalls of crystallization and burning.
I personally prefer wet caramel, which means adding a little water to the sugar at the beginning. This helps the sugar dissolve—and, in turn, cook—more evenly. Another thing that helps? Not stirring the caramel. Rotating the pan or gently swirling toward the end, if it’s cooking faster in some spots than others, does the trick.
If you’re turning the caramel into a sauce or candies, at this point you would add cream or butter, maybe bourbon and vanilla extract, too. But Ptak’s caramel shards need none of these flourishes. You simply pour the caramel onto a parchment-lined sheet pan, let it cool, then break it into a million pieces.
In her recipe for caramel shards, Ptak writes: “We use these shards in our Butterscotch Blondies, but you could add them to almost any cake, cookie, or bar, and, of course, they would be awesome in brownies.”
Any cake, cookie, bar, or brownie!
What’s more, like any store-bought mix-in, these caramel shards keep well: “Any leftovers can be kept in a plastic container in the freezer for up to three months.” Though I suspect you’ll find a way to use them well before then.
When I reached out to Ptak and asked what inspired her to develop this jack-of-all-mix-ins, she told me it was because she wanted to recreate—and improve upon—store-bought butterscotch chips:
“I wanted people to be able to get that flavor without having to track down another ingredient and also I wanted something less artificial,” she explained.
Indeed, because the only ingredient in the shards is sugar, you get all the amazing richness of caramel, without adding more ingredients (and their flavors) to your baked good of choice.
“I developed them for the blondies, but they are basically just a hard caramel like you would use to make hazelnut praline,” Ptak said. “It was a bit of a eureka moment, I have to admit, because it’s so simple, but it really elevated the recipe.”
She’s used the shards to elevate many recipes beyond the blondies: “I love a handful in chocolate chip cookies or in my sesame tahini kamut cookies. They are also great folded into whipped cream and put on an ice cream sundae.”
I think it’s about time we started elevating some recipes ourselves. Ready? Set? Go.
I took the caramel shards for a whirl with two favorite recipes on the site:
Dorie Greenspan’s Classic Best Chocolate Chip Cookies. This standby from Greenspan’s James Beard award-winning cookbook has never let me down. The edges are crispy, the centers are chewy, and the flavor is as nostalgic as it gets with vanilla and caramely brown sugar. Can literal caramel make them even better?
Alice Medrich’s Best Cocoa Brownies. This recipe was dubbed Genius for good reason: “By taking out the chocolate, with its inevitable fat and almost-inevitable sugar, Medrich was able to control and fine-tune the proportions of both.” Adding more sugar—and caramelized sugar at that—is kinda scandalous with such a famously fine-tuned recipe. But! Let’s be scandalous.
The caramel shards recipes “makes enough for 24 blondies,” or two batches' worth (each of which are baked in a 12x8-inch pan). Which means adding them to other recipes is a choose-your-own-adventure situation. I added a full batch of shards to each of the recipes listed above, to experience the shards in all their glory. But like any mix-in, you can add them bit by bit, stopping when the amount looks just right to you.
Dorie Greenspan’s Classic Best Chocolate Chip Cookies. Classic, no more! But in a good way. Senior Editor Eric Kim loved how the caramel added a candy-like quality to the cookies: “They were like chocolate chip cookies in candy form, but not like brittle—more like the best monster cookie.” (Monster cookie is a category, right? Right.) “There was a nice toffee flavor,” Eric continued. “I was wondering why they tasted so incredible.” The shards! Long live the shards!
Alice Medrich’s Best Cocoa Brownies. These fudgy brownies became even fudgier thanks to the caramel shards. While they affected the bake time—mine took almost 10 minutes longer than the recipe indicated—they also made overbaking seemingly impossible. While I was worried the brownies might be dry, they were anything but. My co–recipe developer Ella Quittner described them as, “Like if fudge, dense chocolate cake, and candy had a baby. It's almost reminiscent of the best parts of a Twix.”
Like Ptak promised, caramel shards are the mix-in my baked goods have been missing. I expected them to influence a recipe’s flavor—make it sweeter, sure, but also more nuanced. What I didn’t expect was how much they would affect the texture. One bite, you get a gooey pocket of caramel in the center of a brownie. Another, you get the crunchy edges from when the caramel seeped out the side and crisped in the pan. More than anything, the caramel added a delightful chewiness that all our taste testers found borderline addictive.
Which leaves only one question: Which baked good will you treat to the shards first?
Caramel ShardsView Recipe
|150||grams (3/4 cup) granulated sugar|
|150||grams (3/4 cup) granulated sugar|