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Old 02-20-2009, 01:09 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Salted Caramels

View: How Caramel Developed a Taste for Salt
Source: Nytimes
posted with the TFP thread generator

How Caramel Developed a Taste for Salt
December 31, 2008
How Caramel Developed a Taste for Salt

IT has been a challenging year for investors, homeowners and Republican candidates, but 2008 was very lucky for sweet caramel seasoned with fancy salt.

The combination has long enchanted French and American chefs, but this year it became one of those rare flavors that works its way from an elite culinary obsession to the American mass market.

Häagen-Dazs introduced a reserve brand of salted caramel ice cream in April. Six months later, Starbucks began selling salted caramel hot chocolate. Earlier this month, the flavor showed up in Wal-Mart as one of the selections in a box of store-brand chocolate truffles.

And if those markers of mainstream appeal weren’t enough, President-elect Barack Obama has taken to salted caramels, too. He likes to treat himself to a Seattle candy maker’s version, robed in dark chocolate and sprinkled with smoked sea salt.

Even the best minds in marketing couldn’t have engineered a smoother run, said Lynn Dornblaser, new-product analyst for Mintel, a consumer research group. “Everything is coming together at just the right time,” she said.

Salt caramel’s rise as the flavor of the year illuminates the fast flow of food trends in a country that can grab hold of a relatively unknown ingredient like chipotle and move it through a cultural sluice box that ends at McDonald’s.

Something of an overachiever compared with other upstart flavors like asiago cheese and wasabi, the flavor combination made its successful run from rarefied Parisian pastry shops to American big-box stores in about a decade — a relatively short period, according to people who study food trends.

Like grief, American food trends go through five stages, said Kara Nielsen, a trend analyst at the Center for Culinary Development in San Francisco, where companies like Wendy’s and Kraft go to develop new products. The center uses a five-part trend map to trace an ingredient’s trajectory from chef’s indulgence to supermarket staple. Ms. Nielsen says many dishes or ingredients that eventually make it big first appear in either small ethnic restaurants or fine dining establishments, a view held by others in her field.

In the case of salted caramels, the influence came directly from France. Heavily salted butter caramels are a traditional treat in Brittany. More recently, Pierre Hermé, the Parisian pastry chef known for his experimentation, invented a salted caramel macaron that inspired a small cult among American food professionals in the late 1990s.

Rising along a parallel path, meanwhile, was a related trend, salted chocolate. Mr. Hermé sprinkled chocolate with fleur de sel, a flaky salt hand-harvested from the marshes of Brittany. In 1998, the San Francisco chocolate maker Michael Recchiuti was selling his own fleur de sel caramels covered in chocolate.

By 2000, pastry chefs at top New York restaurants like Gramercy Tavern, Le Cirque and Petrossian had fallen completely in love with the way an extra hit of salt can enhance something sweet. They topped chocolate caramel tarts and molten chocolate cakes with crunchy bits of expensive salt, and folded it into ice cream.

Stage 1 was complete.

In Stage 2, salted caramel made its way into high-end food magazines and specialty food shows. Fran’s Chocolates, a Seattle company that makes the caramels favored by Mr. Obama, won the top award from the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade in 2003. The next year, Gourmet magazine published a fleur de sel caramel recipe.

A flavor moves into Stage 3 when it shows up on menus at more-inventive chain restaurants, like the Cheesecake Factory, or at large cookware chains like Williams-Sonoma, which began selling fleur de sel caramels in 2007.

Stage 4 is marked by an appearance in a mainstream women’s magazine, a larger chain restaurant or even in supermarkets, as a premium item. Getting picked up by Starbucks is what Ms. Nielsen calls “high Stage 4.”

When the people who develop drinks for Starbucks told managers and baristas about their new idea, company bloggers balked, said Rachel Antalek, director of espresso. Salt on caramel?

The skeptics were quickly proved wrong. The chain’s salt-caramel hot chocolate became a popular seasonal winter drink, she said, embraced even in parts of the country where new combinations of flavors don’t always test well.

Then Wal-Mart rolled out the flavor in a box of truffles. Welcome, salted caramel, to Stage 5: complete integration in the American mass market.

But the Obama boost can’t be discounted. Someone high in Mr. Obama’s Washington State campaign operation turned him and his wife, Michelle, on to the pleasures of Fran’s salted caramels. Before long, regular orders were being placed on behalf of the candidate. Reggie Love, his body man, made sure they were kept in plentiful supply, along with other Obama favorites like Nicorette gum and Planters Trail Mix.

Although Fran’s salted caramels were quite popular before word got out about the president-elect’s preference, they are now the company’s best sellers.

“This put it over the top,” said a very surprised Fran Bigelow, who founded the company.

Salted caramel did not make it to the top without help, not the least of which was Americans’ longstanding taste for salty mixed with sweet. Tin roof sundaes, turtles, pralines and other combinations of salty nuts and caramelized sugar have long been staples in the nation’s confectionary canon. Cracker Jack, with its roasted peanuts and molasses-flavored popcorn, was born in 1893. Snickers bars and Reese’s peanut butter cups came along in the 1920s.

The salty-sweet combination is so natural for Americans that Dorie Greenspan, a baking expert who wrote a cookbook with Mr. Hermé, is surprised that salted caramel had to be imported from France.

“We should be annoyed at ourselves that we didn’t invent it,” she said. “We were close, but we just weren’t ready.”

But first, the American palate needed a little more priming. That came from two other trends. One was the rise of specialty salt itself, with French fleur de sel, sea salt from the Maldon marshes in England and Hawaiian red salt turning up at supermarkets.

Salted caramels also owe a great deal of gratitude to dulce de leche, the caramel made from cooked milk that is popular in South America and Mexico. Introduced in Häagen-Dazs ice cream in 1997 and in a cheesecake at Applebee’s in 2003, the all-star flavor has now been adopted by Hershey’s, Taco Bell and Jell-O.

“Dulce de leche is what brought caramel back,” Ms. Nielsen said. “Without it, you wouldn’t have salted caramel’s popularity right now.”

One thing salted caramels conspicuously lack is a health and wellness angle. That surprised Ms. Dornblaser, who said the nation’s obsession with healthier eating drives many current food trends.

That’s why she has her eye on quinoa, which has been showing up in fine dining restaurants for a few years. “Then all of the sudden, 18 months ago, kaboom!” she said. “Whole grain hits.”

Quinoa has all the signs of going all the way, she said. The popularity of whole grains has manufacturers scrambling to find new products. Quinoa, now carried by stores like Trader Joe’s, is easy to prepare and is a complete protein. That appeals to vegetarians and people who, for economic reasons, might be cutting back on meat. It’s even gluten free.

“Now if Barack Obama says he eats it, too,” she said, “it will be perfect.”
For whatever reason they didn't include Béquet Gourmet Celtic Sea Salt Caramel because it is the absolute BEST salted caramel on the market today in their article. But if you have not had the chance, by all means find a way to get some of these salted caramels while the "salt police" are not looking.

It is an interesting sweet yet savory candy.

I remember the first time I had one, and the first time I've given them out to people. It's an amazing discovery.
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Old 02-20-2009, 01:35 PM   #2 (permalink)
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Location: The Windy City
Salt caramels are AWESOME! I love them. Nice call with this thread!

For any TFP'ers in the L.A. area, there's a guy at the Santa Monica Farmer's Market who sells handmade Peruvian chocolates, and he makes a salted caramel that is almost beyond belief.
Dull sublunary lovers love,
Whose soul is sense, cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
That thing which elemented it.

(From "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" by John Donne)
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Old 02-22-2009, 04:25 AM   #3 (permalink)
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I love salted caramel. One of my clients sent me a box at Christmas... awesome.
"My hands are on fire. Hands are on fire. Ain't got no more time for all you charlatans and liars."
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Old 02-23-2009, 07:51 AM   #4 (permalink)
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Salt & caramel, a classic combo. I was skeptical the first time I tried it, but it's thumbs up all the way.
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caramels, salted

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