As I watched the molten sugar bubble away in my heavy sauce pan, I was writing this post in my head. I knew exactly what I wanted to say. After all, the wonders of caramel never cease to amaze me. A few basic ingredients (all you really need is sugar… It will be hard caramel, but it will taste good!) turn into something fabulous. It’s kitchen science at its finest, and one of my favorite things to whip up when I have a few free moments in the kitchen.
Yes, I was going to was philosophic all about the wonders of caramel. Then, as it often does, the caramel got the best of me. As much as I love it, caramel does have a way of sensing an overly confident cook in the kitchen. If you think you’ve got it all together, you’ve made gorgeous caramel dozens of times before, the caramel will put you back in your place.
I had a lovely mixture of sugar and butter bubbling away on the stove. It had just started to caramelize and turn that lovely amber color that is mentioned in almost every recipe for caramel (including this one!). All I had to do was stir in the cream and milk, temper the eggs, and I had a luscuious caramel custard base for my ice cream. Simple!
So, I started adding the cream. But, I added it too fast. The caramel seized up into a giant ball of amber rock in the middle of my sauce pan. Caramel fail. I didn’t have time for failure, though. It was already after 10:00pm (since molten sugar and babies don’t mix, I had to wait until after bedtime).
Fortunately for me, caramel is also forgiving. So, I stood there, already in my PJs, whisking away over low heat. It was at least 30 minutes of whisking that giant rock of caramel until it dissolved back into the cream and I could continue on my way. By about 11:00pm, I finally had my ice cream base in the fridge.
The ice cream turned out to be just as luscious as I had hoped, and we certainly enjoyed it. I served it with some fudgy brownies as a birthday treat for my sister-in-law. No one even knew about the caramel mishap the night before. But, I knew. And, it was a lesson well learned.
Vanilla Bean Caramel Ice Cream
Makes about 1 1/2 quarts
- 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
- 4 tablespoons salted butter, softened
- 3 cups half and half
- 1 cup whole milk
- 4 large egg yolks, lightly beaten
- 1 vanilla bean, cut in half lengthwise
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Before you begin, have all your ingredients ready to go. It’s helpful to have the egg yolks in a small mixing bowl and the vanilla bean sliced ahead of time.
Combine the granulated sugar and butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Continue to stir frequently until the butter and sugar have melted/dissolved. Then, turn the heat up to medium-high and let the mixture bubble away until it turns a light amber color. Remove from the heat.
Gradually (and I cannot stress this enough!), add the half and half to the caramelized sugar, whisking constantly. If it does seize up a bit, don’t stress. Just put the pan back over low heat and continue to whisk until the caramel dissolves. Once you have incorporated all of the half and half into the caramel, stir in the milk.
Ladle about 1 cup of the hot caramel and milk mixture into the beaten egg yolks, whisking constantly. This will help to temper the eggs and bring them up to temperature before adding them into the sauce pan. Add another cup of the milk mixture, continuing to whisk.
Pour the egg and milk mixture back into the saucepan. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean and add them to the saucepan. Return the pan to medium-low heat, and cook, stirring constantly, until the custard thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon. Remove from the heat.
Allow the custard to cool (you can speed this process up with an ice bath). Then, transfer it to a clean mixing bowl, cover with plastic wrap, pressing the plastic wrap against the surface of the custard, and refrigerate overnight.
Freeze the custard in an ice cream maker, according to the manufacturer’s directions. The ice cream will be similar to a soft serve consistency. Transfer it to an airtight container and freeze for an additional 3-4 hours for scoopable hard ice cream.