Change the Way You Bake

The Professional Baker–Approved Ingredient to Upgrade Any Brownie

And blondie and cookie...

January 28, 2019
Photo by Rocky Luten

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.

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Top Comment:
“Slightly worried that in a wet mixture I might wind up with pockets of liquid, as occurs with creme caramel. I think I’ll sneak out a bit of the batter and do a tiny test baby cheesecake this time, before committing to the whole shebang. (I am going to toast the sugar for the cheesecake though:)”
— Sherry B.
Comment

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.


The Experiment

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.


The Results

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.”


The Takeaway

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?

Tell us which baking recipe you'd want to caramel-ify in the comment section below!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Emma is a writer and recipe developer at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing stories about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now, she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter.

24 Comments

Lynda W. February 15, 2019
I already know just how good this will be. After everyone has consumed the English toffee that I make for the holidays, there are always a bunch of crumbles in the bottom of the tin. I save them and use to make toffee shortbread cookies. They are fabulous!
No idea why I didn't think of using the crisp caramel alone in other things.
 
Wendiamm February 14, 2019
Are the shards sharp? I could see adding them to something I was baking and having them melt a bit, but it also sounds like you use them as a topping. I would be worried they could be harmful.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. February 14, 2019
Hi! They can be sharp, yes. If you're sprinkling them as a topping, just make sure they're broken up pretty finely.
 
dotcalm9 February 14, 2019
Do the shards melt in for ex. the choc. chip cookies? In other words, do you see them?

thanks.
Terri
 
Author Comment
Emma L. February 14, 2019
Hi Terri! Some melt while others stay more noticeable—it seems to depend on the size. They're not as visually distinctive as, say, chocolate chips.
 
Sherry B. February 14, 2019
Hmmmm. In an espresso-flavoured cheesecake? Like the one I’m making for a dinner party this weekend? They’d melt....not sure how that would work out, but I’m intrigued. Slightly worried that in a wet mixture I might wind up with pockets of liquid, as occurs with creme caramel. I think I’ll sneak out a bit of the batter and do a tiny test baby cheesecake this time, before committing to the whole shebang. (I am going to toast the sugar for the cheesecake though:)
 
Lizabeth S. February 14, 2019
Have you ever sprinkled it with sea salt before it cools for salted caramel?
 
Author Comment
Emma L. February 14, 2019
Hi Lizabeth! I haven't tried that myself, since I like to sprinkle flaky salt on top of baked goods (and didn't want the whole thing to get too salty). You totally could sprinkle salt on top of the caramel (right after you spread it on the parchment)—just be mindful of how salty the other aspects of the recipe are.
 
Nancy February 15, 2019
I made this last night for some salted caramel macarons I'm perfecting. I poured the caramel out onto a sheet of parchment paper then immediately sprinkled it with Maldon sea salt flakes and it worked out very well. The flakes stayed on top of the hot caramel and were adhered, but still visible, after the caramel had cooled and hardened. Just what I was looking for.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. February 18, 2019
Yay!!
 
Gary S. February 3, 2019
Easier than knife-sharding is a metal pastry scraper. And maybe put the sugar sheet on a sheet pan, because the shards fly.
 
Tina February 2, 2019
When I was little, my mother (or someone assigned by her) made me a birthday cake one year and called it a caramel cake. She wasn’t a baker so it was never repeated. I actually don’t remember her ever baking anything....
Regardless, that cake has stuck in my head for almost 60 years and I now have had a eureka moment with this recipe! Why didn’t I think of this?? (I bake ALOT!!!)
Today I’m going to start by adding these shards or my favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe. Tomorrow, who’s knows. I am going to go “caramel shard” on some of my favorite recipes and see what happens. I’m so excited. I will report back w results.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. February 3, 2019
Yay!
 
Nancy February 15, 2019
Tina, please share your experiments! I bake alot too.
 
patty January 31, 2019
I must be missing something, as I don't see caramel shards listed as an ingredient in either of the example recipes. Added when, in what form??
 
Author Comment
Emma L. January 31, 2019
Hi Patty! I added the caramel shards to Alice's brownies and Dorie's cookies as an at-home experiment. The basic method is: You make the shards (recipe linked at the end of the article), then mix them in at the end of any baked good recipe, just like you would with chocolate chips, nuts, etc. And you can do this with cookies, brownies, or blondies. You can even sprinkle finely ground shards between cake layers, or sprinkle them on top of an ice cream sundae.
 
patty February 1, 2019
Aaah! Okay, cool! Thank you.
 
Heidi K. January 31, 2019
Wow this sounds delish!. I have so many questions. How many (much) shards do you add? In some of the recipes here you you heat up the ingredients do you add the shards after wards? Do you make the shards into a powder in food processor or just small?
 
Author Comment
Emma L. January 31, 2019
Hi Heidi! The amount of shards you add is totally up to you—but figure 1/2 to 1 batch of shards per baked good recipe. Just mix them in at the end (like chocolate chips, nuts, or any other mix-in) right before baking. The recipe (linked at the end of the article) recommends using a knife to break up the shards and this worked well for me. Hope this helps!
 
Ben January 29, 2019
Could this be done with brown sugar?
 
Leah January 29, 2019
We need Ptak's recipe for sesame tahini kamut cookies!
 
Allison January 29, 2019
Do you recommend decreasing the amount of sugar in either recipe if caramel shards are added?
 
Author Comment
Emma L. January 29, 2019
You certainly could! I didn't—and I didn't find the results too sweet. I feel like it all depends on your personal preferences, so maybe add the shards to a baked good, as is, and go from there. If you end up wanting to reduce the sugar next time, here's an article that might be helpful: https://food52.com/blog/15911-what-experts-know-about-reducing-sugar-in-baking-recipes
 
Judith P. January 28, 2019
Boxed yellow cake mix cupcakes, because they need elevating.