Sunday, April 19, 2009

Success or Failure

I love it when something starts out appearing to be a colossal failure, and then ends up a shining, glowing, magnificent success. It redeems my faith in the chemical reactions that are cooking. The most recent example I have of this is Caramel Slice.

I’ve been reading about slices for over ten years now, ever since the beginning of my (possibly unhealthy, certainly expensive) obsession with Australian cookbooks and cooking magazines began. Donna Hay, Bill Grainger, and Delicious. magazine all have recipes for various “slices.” In America we’d just call these a bar cookie and leave it at that. But slices seem usually to be more than just a simple bar; they’re layered affairs with crisp crusts and gooey toppings, that seem to conjure memories of school days, packed lunches, and school festivals. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a school festival—we might have had something similar when I was in school, but nothing like what I picture a proper Australian school festival to be. I imagine something along the lines of what we might call a “fun fair” in this country. Little booths with simple games like “pick up the floating duck with a star on its underside and win a small trinket” or the “throw darts to pop the balloons stuck to the board” or perhaps a bean bag toss. And of course, along side these are the bake sale-type booths, at which one would purchase a slice.

The series of events that culminated in my finally attempting a slice began with my utter despair over What to Cook. As you can tell by my posting dates, I’ve either been quite busy, largely uninspired, or at the bottom of a well. Possibly all three. The truth is actually more of numbers one and two, with only the slightest suggestion of number three.

In an effort to combat this culinary ennui, I started going through cookbooks I’ve had for years, meant to cook from, and just never gotten around to. I wrote down lists of recipe titles so that I could one day flip through the condensed version, happen on a book + a recipe that looked appealing, and voila! Instant inspiration.

Then for some reason, on Easter Sunday (perhaps there’s some symbolism here—resurrection and all that), I was struck. Slice! I should make a slice! Initially my intention was to take it along to the Easter dinner we were attending at my aunt’s house—we’d been told we didn’t need to contribute anything, and showing up at someone’s house with empty hands makes me nervous—but somehow they weren’t quite ready in time.

Now we come to the failure cum success part of this rather lengthy Tale of Slice. Every step of the way I was convinced that these things were going to be a Dud of the Highest Order. The kind of event that one dates from, like a car accident or the loss of a loved one (“Well, let’s see, that would have been a week or so after I made that Caramel Slice that was such an abysmal failure…” that sort of thing).

It started with the crust. The crust is flour, butter and sugar. That’s it. I made mine in a food processor, and it came out as rather greasy sand. As I stood there peering into the work bowl, my first reaction was that this needed some liquid of some sort. But as with any situation in which one is thinking of adding something the recipe doesn’t call for (or adding more of something than the recipe calls for), I gave pause. If I put water in there, I wasn’t getting it back out, and more flour would likely ruin the whole thing. I thought about the butter melting into all that flour in the oven, and figured I’d stick with the recipe this time out.

The recipe then directed me to pat this into a pan and prick it all over with a fork. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to prick greasy sand with a fork (probably not, come to think of it) but it simply doesn’t work. If you’ve ever done any gardening, say, and idly poked into a fairly damp sandy loam with a gardening fork or trowel, and had it pull a bit of the earth back up on the implement, leaving a sort of divot or pock, then you know what happened to that crust I was trying to prick all over with a fork. Not auspicious.

And the crust never really browned. I was assured it would turn a charming goldeny color associated with the crust of pies made by patient and loving grandmas, Christmas sugar cookies turned out with the utmost holiday cheer, and other items of a similar and somewhat unrealistically nostalgic nature (granted, not quite in those words). No dice, baby. The stuff was as pale as it had been when I put it in the oven, 15 or so minutes earlier. Only now it was sort of solid.

The filling looked to be even more of a disaster. The caramel consists of sweetened condensed milk, Lyle’s golden syrup, and some butter. (I should point out that this recipe has only seven ingredients.) These three things are heated over moderate heat until…well, I wasn’t really sure what was supposed to happen. In point of fact, nothing really did, other than the obvious and expected butter melting. And the instructions warn, don’t let it boil. Somehow I got distracted and it did a bit. Would the Caramel Police soon be on my doorstep? It looked pretty much the same as it had when I started heating it up. Was this good? Bad? The butter had thinned down the milk and syrup mixture until it was really more the consistency of well shaken buttermilk. Was this right?

Figuring I had little to lose (beyond some flour, a stick of butter, and a can of sweetened condensed milk), I dumped this mixture over the crust and popped the whole thing back in the oven.

The problem was that now we were almost late for Easter brunch, so I had to hurry off and shower and dress. I forgot to mention that there was anything in the oven, so Alex didn’t think to check it. When I got back the caramel mixture was now quite caramel colored (maybe too much so; I had no way of knowing) and was quite frighteningly bubbly. I pulled the pan out, tossed it on the back of the stove, and hustled everyone in the car to Easter brunch. When Alex asked what it was, I replied, “Oh nothing—supposed to be a cookie thing; I’ll probably wind up tossing it.”

By the time the bottom part had cooled down enough to top with chocolate, it had settled down and looked much less threatening. In fact, it even looked like it might be vaguely promising. I decided to complete the final step. I loosened the crust and caramel layers from the sides of the pan with a thin spatula, melted the chocolate in the microwave, and spread it neatly over the top.

The result, which seemed to be on the point of failure every step of the way, was declared not only a success, but a new favorite cookie. In fact, I believe I got ONE of them, and the rest of the pan was consumed by the person whose new favorite cookie they are (hint: Alex).

But you know, wow. Here was this thing that, really, I almost chucked in the garbage can, but decided to go ahead and finish, and it’s so great. The chocolate should be one that you would eat “out of hand” (as they say) because it plays a big role, and it shouldn’t be one that’s too refined or high society. You don’t want it to overshadow the caramel. I think you could probably get away quite nicely with melted chocolate morsels (although both times I’ve used some from the higher shelves on the baking aisle, but next time I might just not bother and go with the yellow bag).

The caramel is gooey and sticky, and you could substitute something like Karo syrup if you can’t find Lyle’s. Most grocery stores in larger areas carry this now, I think, but if you live in the northern part of Idaho, off the grid, and your nearest Jiffy Mart is two hours away, to say nothing of your nearest genuine grocery store, and then mostly what the grocery stores carry is beef jerky and canned soup, well, go for Karo syrup.

I’ve had a request to serve these at the little birthday gathering we’re having in a couple of weeks, so that’s always an indicator of a success. Birthdays are usually celebrated with Lemon Squares. I think maybe we have a possible contender here. Might have to have a showdown between the two.

Caramel Slice
adapted from Kitchen by Michele Cranston
makes one 8” square pan; how many servings that is depends on you. Could be 1, could be 16, could be something in between.

This is not a particularly thick cookie, but the combination of the buttery crust, gooey caramel and firm chocolate are wonderful together. I haven’t tried doubling this recipe to make more. I’d probably just make two batches if you’re inclined to, you know, share.

1 cup all purpose flour
1 stick butter, divided
¼ cup sugar
1 14oz can sweetened condensed milk
2 tablespoons golden syrup
5 ½ oz semisweet chocolate

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease an 8” square baking pan.

In a food processor, combine flour, 7 ½ tablespoons butter and sugar. Process until the mixture is quite well combined (you can whir the daylights out of it; you’re not going to make it tough). Pat this mixture in into the prepared pan, pressing it well into the corners and making a little lip all around the edge by pressing your fingers right up against the side of the pan. The caramel is still going to be over top of it when you pour it in, but you make a bit of a hollow for it. Bake for 15-18 minutes until Not Golden (see above). It will appear more solid and cookie-like than it did when you dumped it in there.

In a small pan on the stove, combine 1 ½ tablespoons butter, sweetened condensed milk, and golden syrup. Heat over medium heat until butter is melted. The recipe says let it go for ten minutes; it still won’t look that much different (it will not look like your idea of caramel, trust me) You might have a little of the milk caramelize, resulting in bits of caramely something or other sort of floating about in this rather thin mixture. That’s ok. Remove from the heat and let cool for about ten minutes.

Pour the inauspicious looking alleged caramel over the crust. Return to the oven for 10 minutes or until the caramel is really bubbly and quite golden. Now it will look like your idea of caramel. You can let it go really until it’s in danger of burning (that’s what I did the first time; see above). As long as you check it often, you can let it get quite a deep golden, lovely color. The edges will be starting to brown up.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely and set up. When cool, use a thin knife or spatula to loosen the caramel and crust from the sides of the pan. Melt the chocolate over low heat, or in the microwave, and spread over top of the caramel. Allow to cool. Cut in squares and eat (sharing optional).


Anonymous said...

I like how it still turned out, even with all of the concerns :)

Tracy said...

They were quite yummy, and I'd sort of forgotten about them until you commented. I'll have to make them again! :)