I did a baaad bad thing.
Would you believe me if I told you I hadn’t meant to do it?
The whole thing started off as an accident. I know you won’t believe me.
It started the morning of the party. Innocently enough really. With a small pan of freshly picked, home grown kumquats.
That in and of itself was not unusual. Nor was the fact that I soon found a small army of them following me home in a plastic bag. I had dallied with one after all, sharply sour and terribly addictive.
But really, it only came together a few nights later. When the kumquats, having lost their novelty and element of surprise, sat lonely in a plain white bowl.
They called to me.
Pitiful, tart wails begging for a place in culinaria. “Make us glorious.” They whispered to me warmly.
I knew that left to their own devices in their glowing orange skins they would be ignored. Neglected for their too acerbic bite. To temper their tempers I sought a sweet partner. A perfect marriage of sweet and sour.
I decided that I was going to candy them.
But that was not enough. A simple sugar syrup would just not do. It was too simple. The combination too classic. Sweet and sour. It was that which had me digging into the very recesses of my spice cabinet. Beneath the plastic boxes and behind a small invading force of bottle to my little, illicit treasure.
Szechuan Peppercorn. Fragrant, delicately floral the Szechuan peppercorns look like tiny, rust colored husks. But they hide a most tantalizing secret: they make the tongue tingle.
I couldn’t imagine a better accompaniment to the kumquats. So I threw in an immodest amount, lightly crushed beneath a measuring cup; then followed them up with a couple of star anise and a large handful of broken cinnamon bark.
That was when it happened. As the kumquats simmered away I found myself curious as to the flavors bubbling away in my small cauldron …er … pot. I really shouldn’t have, but I dipped my wooden spoon into the brew and pulled out something indescribable.
Tongue tingling my mind burned with the need to do something with this magical elixir. To nor waste it simply in the act of candying of a single fruit.
But what do you do with a sticky solution of sugar and spices?
It was then that it struck me!
I really wasn’t sure what I was doing. I didn’t even have any cream on hand. But with an adventurous spirit and a well stocked fridge I had already gone too far to turn back.
For the cream surely I could sneak in the last bit of crème fraîche that tarried indolently in my fridge. And I always had butter.
My heart raced as I strained the kumquats and spices from the deeply golden syrup laying the fruits of my labor on parchment to dry.
I heisted as I slipped the candy thermometer into place on the side of the pan. What was I doing? What was I about to unleash upon the unsuspecting world?
But it was too easy to lose myself in the process, picking out the spices from the kumquats as I slowly watched the candy thermometer creep up towards 240 degrees (soft ball stage). My uneasy mind quelled as I stirred in the butter and the warmed crème fraîche then put the nascent caramel back on the stove raising it to a mature 260 degrees (hardball stage) and just a few degrees beyond for good measure.*
It bubbles angrily at me as I removed it from its tempering ground and poured it into a foiled baking sheet to cool. In the pan it glowed a deep russet color. I waited for a few breathless heartbeats as the caramel cooled enough on my silicone spatula to taste.
Oh my God!
I have never tasted anything like it. It is required, as a food blogger for me to try. But I am not even sure where to start. Complex. Fruity. Floral. Sweet-Sour. Warm. Lingering. Buttery. Spicy. Tangy.
Aside from the slightly sticky chew it is not something I would immediately identify as caramel. The first bite announces itself with a floral sourness that warms slowly into a spicy fruitiness as you chew. The finish is buttery and warm. The peppercorns effect leaving your tongue with a pleasant tingling glow that last long after the caramels flavor dissipates. It’s subtle though. Not like a chili pepper, not a burn.
It’s just something you have to experience for yourself.
Are these worth making again? Oh hell yes!
I didn’t measure as I was creating so this is what I will use the next time I make it.
Szechuan Peppercorn & Kumquat Caramels
2 generous cups kumquats
1 ½ cups water
2 cups table sugar (I used vanilla sugar)
1 cup raw sugar
1 heaping tablespoon Szechuan Peppercorns
3 Star Anise
3 cinnamon sticks, broken
½ cup crème fraîche or heavy cream
6 tablespoons butter (about 3 oz)
To candy kumquats:
Wash and dry the kumquats and slice into ¼ inch rings.
In a heavy sauce pan over medium high heat toast the cinnamon, star anise, and peppercorns until fragrant. About 30 seconds. Add the water and then the sugar. Stir to combine and bring to a boil. Cook until all of the sugar is dissolved. Add the kumquats and bring to a boil again. Lower the heat until the mixture barely simmers.
Simmer for about an hour to an hour and a half or until the kumquats are translucent all the way through.
Remove from heat and strain out the kumquats and spices over a high-sided pot. Allow to drain for a few minutes then spread onto a parchment lined baking sheet.
Pick out the spices and discard.
Allow to dry over night then roll in regular table sugar.
Store in a cool dry place.
To make the caramel:
Return the sugar syrup to the stove over medium high heat. The high sided pan will keep the sugar from boiling over. Affix a candy thermometer to the side of the pan. DO NOT STIR. Allow the sugar to come to boil. The mixture will bubble voluminously. If it start to escape the pan, lower the heat and blow gently on the bubbles to get them to sink (do not blow too hard as this will cause the caramel to spatter and hot sugar is culinary napalm).
Boil until the sugar reaches 240 degrees, softball stage.
In the mean time remove the butter and cream or crème fraîche from the fridge. Slice the butter into 6 pieces. Place the crème fraîche into a microwave safe container.
Once the sugar has reached the softball stage, remove it from the heat and drop in two pats of butter. Stir gently until fully incorporated. Remove the candy thermometer if it’s in the way.
Microwave the crème fraîche on high until hot (about 30 seconds).
Add another pat of butter and pour in the crème fraîche, stirring continuously until incorporated. Continue adding the butter until it’s gone. The last pat should take a while to melt and the mixture should be glossy.
Return the caramel to the stove and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Reaffix the candy thermometer to the side of the pan. The caramel should have cooled off quite a bit by now. Cook on medium high, stirring occasionally until the caramel reaches 260 to 265 degrees, hard ball stage.
While the caramel comes up to temperature, line a baking sheet with non-stick foil or parchment paper.
When the caramel has reached 260 degrees, remove from heat and stir until the bubbles subside. Pour the caramel onto the prepared cookie sheet and chill until firm.
Cut the caramel into squares and wrap in waxed paper. Store in an airtight container; in a cool, dry place. I prefer to keep mine in the fridge.
* I should be fair here and explain something. This technique of making caramel is something I picked up from the love and terribly talented Chez Pim. So while the recipe is mine I must give kudos to her for introducing me to the method of making caramel from the remains of candying fruit. If it wasn’t for her none of this would be possible.