Thursday, September 17, 2009

Banana Pancakes with Salted Caramel Sauce

Cre·a·tion n.
1. the bringing of something into existence
2. the world and everything on it
3. a product of human imagination or invention
a state of uninhibited self-indulgence

The creation of decadence is, while superficially simple, not for the faint of heart or those of timid temperament.
Take Banana Pancakes with Salted Caramel Sauce as an example. The pancakes alone are a straightforward endeavor; to add chopped bananas to the batter is, as Julia Child would trill, “simplicity itself.” No, the complexity and nuance that I’m talking about derives from the formation of a caramel sauce, neither syrup nor candy, but some other entity wholly within its own caloric jurisdiction and operating under its own, not entirely vanilla (if you’ll pardon the pun) set of ethics. People hear the word caramel and envision those safely-cellophaned cubes of polite, corn-starched sweetness, the kind of sweetness you’d get taking a good girl to a nice movie and necking a bit before squeezing her hand goodnight.

Salted caramel sauce is the candy world’s Marla Singer.

If you really want to create gastronomic opulence of this magnitude – and you know you do – you must first realize that in undertaking this endeavor, you’re committing yourself to a path of sin, realize this and embrace it. Why? Because salted caramel sauce is nothing short of an exercise in culinary sensuality of the highest degree. Do it right, and your life will never be plain again. Eat it with breakfast, and your coworkers will think you’re having an affair.
Are you ready?

Good. Now you need butter, and lots of it (in this, Julie & Julia and I are in utter complicity). Melt your butter over a medium flame until, overwhelmed by the futility of struggle, it submits to its true calling and enters into a state of blissfully melted, bubbling, late-afternoon sunlight. Appreciate this alchemy for what it is. Gaze upon its newly rendered beauty with anticipatory satisfaction, delight in the transformation of butter to Butter, and then:
Pour in as much cane sugar as you know it can take. Do it. Are you having second thoughts? Quash them. You’re committed now, you and the butter, and if you want this sauce as badly as you should, soon you – alchemist, creator, stovetop maestro – will force it to hold even more. This is as it should be.
Stirring quickly and continuously, so as not to let it burn, add a drizzle of molasses, and, as a sop of mercy to the tractable but by now almost-overwhelmed butter, a scant splash of milk. A benevolent gesture, its subsequent tranquility will be short-lived. As your whisk whips the half-submerged mound of sugar crystals through the swirling liquids, molasses spiraling into thinner and thinner trails until all appear as one, breathe deeply, for the next stage is one of utter defiance.
In order to make caramel, two things must happen: first, the sugar crystals need to oxidize (creating the characteristic golden-brown color and rich, almost nutty flavor), and second, the liquid needs to become super-saturated, holding more sugar crystals than it can sustain under colder temperatures, yet not so many that it becomes granular upon cooling. The only way that this can happen is through heat. The only way it can sustain enough heat without boiling over is by your steady hand, guiding the flame and whisking the sauce as it boils and steams in protest. Carl Jung eat your heart out (or at least your pancakes); this, my friends, is transformation via the flames.
After several minutes of this swirling, contained chaos, your sauce might look like its done. It might even – were one so brave as to risk the heat – taste like it’s done. Appearances are deceiving.
The only way to claim success with utter certainty is to let a small drop fall into a glass of ice water and watch as it sinks to the bottom, becoming a slightly firm ball with enough strength to hold its shape even between your fingers: in cooking vernacular, the hard-ball stage. If it wavers, or jiggles at the bottom, it’s not done. Be resolute at this stage. Be firm. Be…

…ready to add two pinches of sea salt and a splash of pure vanilla. Once your caramel has reached the hard-ball stage, you’re free to season it and thin it with milk, water, or even bourbon, as you see fit. Don’t thin it, and it will soak into the tops of your pancakes, entrapping them in a candy embrace as it cools (excellent for dipping fruits). Thin it, and it will soak through baked goods and pool on your plate, waiting for the last forkfuls to swirl through its amber swells and swirls. The choice, as it should be, is yours.

Whatever you serve this on, I recommend an accompaniment of black coffee and ice water. Experience cautions that you may find yourself forswearing all foods besides undressed salad for the rest of your day’s meals, but that’s between you and your conscience, and who am I to intrude on a personal matter such as that?

A Note on Thickening Ratios:
When thickening syrups and sauces, it’s easy to overestimate the amount of liquid you need, with the end result that the cup of raspberry-tarragon syrup you’d wanted turns into three cups, or the eight minutes you planned on spending to reduce your balsamic marinara turns into eighteen. If this happens, try starting with solids and slowly adding liquids – it’ll save you time and reduce your leftovers. Why isn’t this recipe written that way? Because I’m not one to follow all my own suggestions and I like a good challenge, that’s why.

A Note About Seasonings:
A general rule that I do follow (with choice exceptions) is this: when working with herbs (leaves and roots), add them early, and give them time to work. Let them simmer in your sauces, sit in your dips, and marinade in, well, your marinades, for as long as possible. Rosemary, thyme, dill… This is why so many classic foods taste better the next day.
When working with spices (barks, seeds, extracts, salt) add them last. Like many herbs, spices get their flavors from their aromatic and volatile oils, but instead of mellowing, they can lose their potency if they cook too long. Pure alcohol-based extracts will evaporate out of anything, leaving barely a hint to tell you they were even there. I once worked in a bakery, and the protocol we followed was simple: artificial extracts flavored cooked foods; frostings and anything uncooked got pure ones, added last.
In short: use herbs as base notes, spices as top notes, and texture and presentation to weave them all together. Different cooks and books and websites will give you all sorts of good advice and suggestions that are completely different from mine, but this, in my experience, is the difference between a mellow, melding curry and an upbeat, ginger-pumpkin soup.

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