Skip to main content

Holiday desserts with crisp, caramel culinary bling

Written By | Nov 24, 2015

WASHINGTON, November 24, 2015 – The holiday season is a time for family, reflection, and food. Not necessarily in that order. I love my family dearly, but Heaven help anyone who gets between me and the dessert buffet.

Ah, dessert. Holiday desserts should be a feast not just for the palate, but for the eye. A chocolate cake plainly frosted with fudge is enormously satisfying on a rainy, family movie night or for a simple family dinner, but the holidays beg for some culinary bling.

Unfortunately, that usually means a lot of work and kitchen cleanup, leaving less time for family and reflection. I’d rather be sitting in a comfortable chair with a mug of eggnog and a book than cleaning the kitchen.

So in my household, the holidays are a time for some cheap and tawdry kitchen tricks that let me turn a pretty basic cake into a showstopper with minimum fuss and mess. And my favorite cheap trick is caramel.

This caramel recipe is simplicity itself, but it lends itself to some stunning effects.

1 cup sugar

1/3 cup water

1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar

Put all the ingredients in a small, heavy, shiny saucepan. Why shiny? So you can see the color of your caramel. You can use anodized aluminum or a non-stick saucepan, but when your caramel changes color, you’ll have a hard time seeing it.

Stir over medium-low heat until the sugar is dissolved, then increase the heat to medium-high. Let the mixture boil without stirring until it turns amber, 350-360 degrees on a candy thermometer. Immediately pour it into a Pyrex measuring cup to cool for a few minutes, to about 230 degrees.

What can you do with this caramel? The cake in the lead picture is one thing.

(Hint: The cake pictured is a genoise frosted with buttercream, a birthday cake for my wife. For Thanksgiving, why not decorate a pumpkin cheesecake instead? Caramel also goes very well with pecan pie or anything chocolate.)

To make that cake, I drew a circle the diameter of the cake on parchment paper, then turned the paper over so I could see the circle. I also drew on parchment two bands, each the height of the cake and half the circumference. Then I poured the cooled caramel to create free-form patterns within my circle and within my bands or exceeding them on one side.

(Hint: If you make the strands and swirls in your design too thick, it might be hard to cut your cake. No problem; whack the caramel with a heavy spoon or knife and it will shatter. But you’re best off making your designs a little less heavy than I did. Not that anyone complained.)

Let your caramel designs cool until hot, but not too hot to touch. Peel the paper from the caramel round and put it directly on your cake. Peel the paper from the bands, which should be pliable but not soft, and shape them around the sides of your cake. Work quickly; once they cool completely, your round and bands will be as hard as glass.

(Hint: If the caramel in your measuring cup gets too thick to work with, put it in the microwave for a few seconds to re-liquify.)

This caramel can be used to make all sorts of cake decorations on parchment paper. You can make small fans to place on top of cupcakes. Rather than create free-form designs, as I did, you can create a caramel lattice.

(Note: My daughter is making a gingerbread house, my wife is organizing the pantry, and I have to take my son to a soccer game. When I get some free space in the kitchen and some free time, I’ll update this article with photos showing the process of making caramel decorations.)

Dip a large spoon in your hot caramel and wave it back and forth between two wood dowels, and you’ll create fine strands that can be draped over all sorts of desserts.

Pour the caramel out on parchment and let it cool completely, then smash it in a bag with a hammer, and you’ll have gold dust to sprinkle onto your desserts or mix into whipped cream or frostings to add a caramel flavor, or even a bit of crunch if you use slightly larger pieces.

Experiment. You can add melted chocolate to your liquid caramel, or chopped nuts. Sugar and water are cheap, and it doesn’t take very long to make the caramel. If you mess up, you can start over. Just don’t wait until the day of a party to test it out.

Notes for safety and success:

  1. Don’t make caramel on a humid day. It is hygroscopic (it absorbs moisture from the air) and will turn out sticky.
  2. Have ample work space for your parchment, and draw out your designs before you start making the caramel.
  3. Make sure your Pyrex measuring cup is right there, ready to go when the caramel is. If the caramel gets too hot while you’re getting the cup out of your cupboard, it will start to get bitter.
  4. If you’re decorating a cake with caramel, do it the same day you’re serving it. The caramel will start to dissolve into your cake or frosting if it sits too long.
  5. Wear close-toed shoes and long sleeves! Caramel is safe to work with, as safe as power tools, but if you’re careless or have an accident, it’s like kitchen napalm. It can splatter, and if it lands on your skin, it will stick and burn. Don’t be afraid of it, but treat it with the respect you’d treat a power drill or a hammer.
  6. Keep pets and kids out of the kitchen when you’re making caramel. My cat likes to jump on the kitchen counter. The last thing I want to deal with while I’m pouring hot caramel is a curious cat or a curious child. That’s asking for a mess at best, and a trip to the emergency room or the vet at worst.

With an extra half-hour of work and only a couple of dirty dishes, you can turn a regular, pleasant cake into a holiday centerpiece or an office sensation.


Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics. He teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years doing economic development work in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He has also worked in Latin America, the former USSR and the Balkans as an educator, teaching courses in economics and law at universities in Ukraine and at finance ministries throughout the region. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.