Monday, April 5, 2010

An Experiment in Decadence: Chocolate Caramel Tart

For my husband's birthday dinner last week - remember that? the one where we ate nachos? again? with homemade refried beans? yes, that one. - I wanted to make a fancy dessert. The dude doesn't need much to be impressed, and he would have appreciated some brownies if that's all I could throw together that day. But I really like him. And I wanted him to know that. So I tried something fancy. And I'm so glad I did.

That there is chocolate caramel tart. An experiment in decadence. An exercise in ambition and patience. A labor of love. Heaven with a side of wholelottasugar and sprinklingoffleurdesel.

Or, more aptly: YUM.

It was great. You should all make it if you like rich, super sugary desserts with a little salt to temper the sweetness, in fashion of 112 eatery's infamous, spectacular, and controversial Butterscotch Budino. It takes a long time because there are several steps and my caramel didn't really turn the amber color it was supposed to, but the recipe is unexpectedly forgiving in several respects, and the end result, even with a light-colored, somewhat crystallized caramel filling, was delicious.

But before we get to the recipe, let's talk a little more about "fancy" baking. I'm not a baker. I am afraid of yeast and springform pans and cold butter cut into small pieces and frosting that does not involve cream cheese and powdered sugar and recipes that require you to gauge doneness by a change in color or approximate temperature. You can never trust the example colors in a jpeg and my wrist can handle hotter substances than most people's wrists can. (And anyway what is the appropriate means of testing warm milk from a measuring cup with your wrist? It's not like you can dip.) The precision and carefulness that baking requires is sort of at odds with my kitchen style (and personality, for that matter). So I generally stick to easy, reliable cakes, brownies, cookies, muffins, et cetera. Furthermore, my experimentation with caramel - the most important aspect of this tart! - has had mixed results. See Sticky Toffee Pudding post. So this recipe was a big risk for me, what with its multiple steps, including rolling, chilling and caramelizing. Hence my referral to it as an experiment in ambition and patience. It took me half a day. It is not like baking a cake or cookies. Having said that, there is more room for error and modification within this little recipe than I anticipated, and who knew that chocolate ganache was like the easiest thing ever, and, even though I don't have a tart pan (I do, however, have an Amazon wishlist!), the tart was still attractive, albeit slightly more rustic than what I was going for. (Note in the third picture below the creases in the crust from my makeshift tart pan: a springform pan lined with foil on the inside. Why I didn't I line it on the outside instead? No idea. Hindsight is 20/20, eh? Thank heavens we have charming euphemisms like "rustic" in our vocabulary when things end up a bit sloppy!)

I got the recipe from one of my favorite food blogs, Lottie + Doof. I am going to reprint his recipe pretty much verbatim, as that's what I used, but I've included a few additional comments based on my experience with this thing of rustic beauty.

Chocolate Caramel Tart
Adapted (barely! unintentionally!) from Lottie + Doof > Claudia Fleming > Marlow & Sons > Saveur
Yield: a big tart which you will want to slice v. thinly (I'd say about 12-14 slices)

For chocolate crust
1 stick (1/2 cup / 8 tablespoons / 4 ounces) unsalted butter at room temperature
1/2 cup + 1 tablespoon powdered sugar
1 large egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1-1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

For caramel
1/2 cup water
2 cups sugar
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 stick (1/2 cup / 8 tablespoons / 4 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into a few chunks
2 tablespoons crème fraîche

For ganache - the easy part!
1/2 cup heavy cream
4 ounces extra bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped (I used the whole 4-oz Ghirardelli's 70% cacao bar, while the original recipe called for only 3.5 oz chocolate - seemed to work fine)

Also: extra flour for rolling and fleur de sel for sprinkling

In the bowl of an electric mixer, using paddle attachment, cream butter and powdered sugar until combined, about 1 minute. Add egg yolk and vanilla, and beat until smooth. Sift in flour and cocoa powder and beat on low speed until just combined. Scrape the dough onto a sheet of plastic wrap and form it into a disk. Wrap disk and chill for about an hour.

After chilling, preheat oven to 325 degrees. On a lightly floured surface, roll the tart dough into a large circle that will line your entire tart pan. Transfer the dough to a 10" fluted tart pan with a removable bottom (or whatever else you have to work with) and press into pan. (E-N commentary: Tim from Lottie + Doof says that you can just push the dough back together in the pan if it falls apart. I just want to clarify that, since he went ahead and mentioned this, I feel like the fact that my dough fell apart completely is not an indication of a misstep on my part. It is just not a v. tacky or sticky dough, and it's chilled, so it's hard, and thus hard to work with. Mine was totally patchworked together. I was nervous that it wouldn't work or that it would fall back apart once baked, but it didn't. It was a wonderful, cookie-like crust and I am going to make it again and try it with all kinds of other fillings.) Chill the crust in the tart pan for 30 minutes. (This makes me wonder if the first hour of chilling was necessary at all. Any insight would be much appreciated.)

Remove crust from refrigerator and prick all over with a fork. Line with parchment paper filled with dried beans (or pie weights if you're fancy) and bake for 15 minutes. Remove the parchment and beans and bake until the pastry looks dry and set, about 5-8 minutes. Transfer pan to wire rack to cool.

Now on to the caramel... Place 1/2 cup water in a large saucepan. Add sugar and corn syrup, and cook mixture over medium-high heat, swirling the pan occasionally until it becomes a dark-amber color, about 10 minutes. Remove pan from heat and carefully add the heavy cream, followed by the butter and crème fraîche. Stir until smooth. Pour the caramel into the cooled tart crust and allow to set, first at room temperature and then in the refrigerator. (E-N: This whole process looked a lot different in my kitchen. There was no darkening within ten minutes, or even fifteen minutes. I suspect, in retrospect, that I did not have the heat high enough. Because the recipe did not expressly mention that it was okay for the mixture to boil, I deliberately kept the heat low so that it did not boil. Amidst what I thought was going to be a terrible failed attempt at making caramel, I did a bunch of e-research and learned that boiling is (at least in some recipes) integral to the caramelization process. (So is a candy thermometer, evidently.) I stopped cooking my water-sugar-syrup mixture as soon as it was beige, basically, and added the other ingredients. The mixture was pale and slightly lumpy, completely unlike the pictures, and I was certain it would never solidify enough to be topped with ganache. So I put the whole thing back on the stove and cooked and boiled and vigorously stirred the mixture for about thirty or forty minutes, until it was what I'll call "light amber" in color and my arm was v. sore. At that point, I was tired and frustrated, and the caramel had thickened to a nice-enough consistency, so I decided I was fine with my work product and went ahead and dumped it into the crust. It set quickly and I moved it into the refrigerator within about fifteen minutes.)

Place the chopped chocolate in a heatproof bowl. In a small saucepan, bring the heavy cream to a boil. Pour the hot cream over the chocolate and let stand for a minute or two. Stir with a rubber spatula until smooth. (E-N: The ganache, following the caramel debacle, was refreshingly simple. Why don't we eat ganache more often?) Pour the ganache over the cooled caramel filling and refrigerate until set.

Remove the tart from the refrigerator 5-10 minutes before serving. Cut the tart into slices and sprinkle each with fleur de sel (or whatever inexpensive substitute you are comfortable using).

I hope recounting my caramel experience did not in any way undermine how excellent this recipe is. I loved it and will make it again. Next time, however, I will have a candy thermometer nearby and will be unafraid of high heat.


  1. That looks so posh! And delicious! Lucky Michael. I recently had my first go at making homemade caramel and I used our digital meat thermometer. Looks like I will be registering for a candy thermometer...but it wasn't too scary and I boiled the heck out of it.

    Ganache is a wonderful topping for cupcakes.

  2. I made this today! The caramel took forever but so worth it!

  3. Alicia: what a good idea re: cupcake topping. Yum.

    Charlotte: I know - true labor of love. Was everyone super impressed? I'm sure they were. You're a superstar.