Whenever I have the privilege of traveling, I always do some research to learn about special foods and products that are native to the place I'll be visiting. I'm a firm believer in eating the cuisine of the place where you find yourself (no international trips to McDonald's, even if the menu is different abroad), and I try to find souvenirs that are evocative of where they came from, instead of a t-shirt or shot glass. Hence, when I traveled to the northern coast of France in 2007, I knew that butter seasoned with the native sea salt, or fleur de sel was a big deal in Normandy, and that caramel made with that salted butter was a specialty in the region of Brittany.

I dutifully buttered pieces of bread all along the Normandy coast without really having a dairy-induced epiphany, but when we crossed the border into Brittany just to have lunch in the walled city of Saint-Malo, I decided to be indulgent and have a salted caramel crepe as my meal. After all, these kinds of opportunities don't present themselves every day. I wish I could say that eating that crepe was a transcendent experience that fostered in me a burgeoning love of salted caramel, but it was merely okay. It was, however, tasty enough to inspire me to buy a few bags of salted caramel candy and salted caramel sauce to bring home as gifts for friends. 

Looking out over the English Channel from the defensive fortifications surrounding Saint-Malo.
Later in the trip, I was jonesing for a snack, and I decided to open up one of the packages of candy I'd bought. Surely nobody would miss a sole, missing piece, right? It was here that I finally had my culinary revelation. This innocent-looking caramel shocked my taste buds and changed the trajectory of my pursuits in the kitchen. It was better, even, than the beloved pecan-studded caramels that Grandma Betsy lovingly makes every year at Christmas, and dispenses to the family, and I treasure those like few other things in life. (Seriously, if I've ever shared one of my grandma's caramels with you, you are a very special person in my life.)

These were soft and chewy, like any good caramel, but they truly tasted of rich, creamy butter. They were far darker in color than any caramel candy I'd ever seen in the United States, and the resulting almost-burnt flavor of them helped temper the sweetness of the candy. The salt just rounded things out, and brought out the deep, well-developed flavor notes. I quickly decided to keep all the candy for myself, as well as the caramel sauce, and resolved to find other gifts for my family and friends.

That day, an obsession was born. Ever since then, I've been trying to replicate that initial encounter with salted butter caramel, from conquering my fear of caramelizing sugar at home, to finding a way to sneak salted caramel into every conceivable dessert possible. Today, with the help of ice cream genius David Lebovitz, I conquered salted butter caramel ice cream.

Although the ice cream ended up a bit runny, possibly from the high sugar content of the caramel, possibly from the larger-than-usual proportion of salt, the flavor of it was nearly identical to the salted butter caramel I first had in France. It is so intense, in fact, that I could only handle eating a small amount before needing a break, and a tall glass of water. That just means that you'll have it around longer to inject a bit of salted caramel joy into your days.

Going forward, I would omit the caramel praline from Lebovitz's recipe. The idea was that the tiny shards of caramel would absorb moisture from the surrounding ice cream and melt, leaving ribbons of liquid caramel in the finished product, but this process was incomplete in my batch. Instead, I was left with unpleasant bits of glass-like hard caramel that I was afraid would break my teeth. It was the single biggest flaw with this creation.

For the first time in my burgeoning caramel-making career, I managed to give myself a second degree burn on my thumb while I was adding butter to the molten sugar, so take a lesson from me and wear oven mitts if you decide to give this a try!

Salted Butter Caramel Ice Cream
adapted from David Lebovitz

2 c. whole milk
1 1/2 c. sugar
4 tablespoons salted butter
scant 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 c. heavy cream
5 large egg yolks
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Make an ice bath by filling a large bowl about a third full with ice cubes and adding a cup or so of water so they’re floating. Nest a smaller metal bowl (at least 2 quarts) over the ice, pour 1 cup of the milk into the inner bowl, and rest a mesh strainer on top of it.
2. Spread 1½ cups sugar in the saucepan in an even layer. Cook over moderate heat, until deeply.
3. Once caramelized, remove from heat and stir in the butter and salt, until butter is melted, then gradually whisk in the cream, stirring as you go. The caramel may harden and seize, but return it to the heat and continue to stir over low heat until any hard caramel is melted. Stir in 1 cup of the milk.
4. Whisk the yolks in a small bowl and gradually pour some of the warm caramel mixture over the yolks, stirring constantly. Scrape the warmed yolks back into the saucepan and cook the custard using a heatproof utensil, stirring constantly (scraping the bottom as you stir) until the mixture thickens. If using an instant-read thermometer, it should read 160-170 degrees.
5. Pour the custard through the strainer into the milk set over the ice bath, add the vanilla, then stir frequently until the mixture is cooled down. Refrigerate at least 8 hours or until thoroughly chilled.
6. Freeze the mixture in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

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