Burnt Caramel: A bummer, yes, but not the end of the world.

A few days back — at the tag end of December — I was preparing to assemble a birthday cake for a friend. I had a caramel-based frosting in mind, which should have been (you should excuse the expression) a piece of cake, but unfortunately, I burned the caramel. I was trying to do something I am probably not qualified to do: I was trying to make what I think the chefs call a “dry caramel,” which is to say, I was starting with plain, dry sugar in a pot — no water added. I’d’ve pulled it off, too, except I let it go a little too long, because I kept thinking, “surely it’s not time yet? not time yet?” and by the time I thought “oh, shit, it’s time” — it was past time.

Nonetheless, I doggedly proceeded to add my butter and cream and the result was a beautifully colored pot of bitter caramel, which I could not bear to throw out, of course. Sighing, I poured it into a jar and set it into the fridge to ponder what might come of this.

As it turned out, I was able to use it to great effect in the caramel cake frosting — confectioner’s sugar will, of course, cover up a lot of errors — but I still had about 12 oz. of caramel left in the jar. What to do, what to do? I mean, I bake a lot of cakes, but not enough to use up that much caramel in the foreseeable future. A friend of mine who bakes a lot, when I asked her, “what can I do with this stuff?” said she’d once used some burned caramel to make a pot roast, and I instantly thought, “Oh, yeah.”

The two things I use most often to deglaze a pot I’m making a pot roast in are rum and sweet vermouth. Both of these have obvious affinities to caramel. It was, therefore, a no-brainer. Here, friends and strangers, is what I did:

1 large onion, sliced; four fat cloves of garlic, cut into chunks: these were sautéed until golden in olive oil. I then put in a pot roast (weighing about 3.5 lbs., but you could use whatever size you wanted) and seared the roast on all sides. I removed the meat from the pan, set it aside, and deglazed the pot with about 1/4 cup of dark rum. I let that cook away, until the onions and garlic began to form a kind of sludge, and then I splashed in another 1/4 cup of sweet vermouth, and let that cook away as well. Then I put in three hefty tablespoons of the burnt caramel and some water and stirred it to melt the caramel into a sauce. When everything seemed nicely blended, I put the meat back into the pot, added water to about halfway up the roast, and brought it to a boil. Once boiling, I cover the pot and put it into the oven, which I’d preheated to 250°.
The meat stayed in the oven for about four hours. I turn the meat over, once an hour or so, if I remember — definitely twice — and by the time it’s done, I’ve got an hour before dinner is ready.

Last night, when I did this, after removing the cooked roast (which was falling apart and savory and wonderful), I made the effort to cook carrots in the pot as well. I poured out the cooking liquid — which is VERY fatty — and defatted it as best i could with ice cubes (messy, but faster than any other option available to me) and left a little of the oily broth in the pot.  I put about a pound and a half of carrots (peeled, cut into big chunks) into the pot on a fairly high flame to let them fry a little; when they were starting to smell good, I poured the de-fatted beef/vermouth/rum/caramel broth into the pot, and simmered the carrot on the stovetop until they were VERY done. Soft. Not falling apart, but soft. Then I turned off the flame, put the meat back into the pot (so it would have time to gently warm up again), and, in another pot, boiled up some egg noodles. Because in my kitchen, you should serve egg noodles with pot roast. (Some do potatoes. Not me.)

I served this for Shabbat dinner with a cucumber salad (dressed in sour cream blended with roasted garlic, two items I happened to have in the fridge). There were no complaints, and I’ve used up a significant amount of that burnt caramel. I am now thinking about using it instead of brown sugar or molasses in my fake-barbecue chicken, which is something we love and which I could play with pretty endlessly and no one would complain. There are four chicken breasts in the fridge, and a cold Sunday afternoon, waiting for me.


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