Cook On: Custom-made Caramel

Salted Caramel Brownie

By Mary Ann Ebner

Finally springtime. It rouses us to step out and explore, renewing spirits along with appetites.

I spent some time with spring planting in my own tiny garden last weekend, and enjoyed a visit to one of Orange County’s organic farms — Blooming Hill Farm, about 25 miles from Cold Spring in Blooming Grove. If you’ve been there, you know it’s tempting to stay all day.

If you’re among the curious, treat yourself to a day trip of sorts at this 100-acre farm that supplies an eclectic range of produce to some of the finest restaurants in New York City, New Jersey and the Hudson Valley. Fill a basket with fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs, order up a serving of semolina flapjacks or ramp pizza or relax on a sun-soaked bench. They’re open Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and the farm’s owners — Guy and Nadine Jones — welcome Saturday visitors year round.

I met local vendor Kristin Nelson at Blooming Hill and picked up a jar of her caramel sauce that she sells at the farm. Nelson lives a few miles away on her own sprawling homestead in Arden, and is the creator of Cara-Sel Salted Caramel Sauce. She was offering samples of handmade sauce near the farm’s checkout station and found herself restocking the trickling caramel and dipping pretzels throughout the day.

Kristin Nelson

Kristin Nelson

One dip into the rich creamy caramel showed off its perfect consistency for dunking everything from pretzels to pears. Still in her first year of marketing the product, she credits Guy Jones and Blooming Hill for inspiring her to pursue her business venture with Cara-Sel.

“I’ve had a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture share) at Blooming Hill for years,” Nelson said. “I go crazy at Christmas time giving plates of cookies away. I’d give cookies to Guy and Nadine, and I started playing around with my caramel sauce, making it in small batches. I gave a jar to Guy and he asked if I wanted to sell it at the farm. Guy and Nadine have always been great and it all started here.”

Nelson continued to experiment with her caramel and eventually settled on a recipe including five ingredients: sugar, cream, butter, sea salt and vanilla — with no preservatives. To move the project along commercially, she sought expert advice from Cornell Cooperative Extension to procure approval to sell her packaged food product.

Turn out crunchy, gooey and chewy brownies with a layer of salted caramel sauce.

Turn out crunchy, gooey and chewy brownies with a layer of salted caramel sauce.

“I started talking to Cornell to see if the product could be shelf stable,” Nelson said. “I sent a sample and the recipe and I have a spreadsheet of everything I do. Now I send Cornell an update four times a year.”

In addition to farmers’ markets and specialty food stores in the Hudson Valley, her Cara-Sel Salted Caramel Sauce is a featured product in Grand Central’s Taste NY store, an initiative to showcase locally produced food products ranging from sauces and syrup to craft beers.

With three kids, a husband, two cows, chickens and guinea fowl, Nelson has plenty to do, but she dedicates one day a week to producing small batches of the caramel sauce. To comply with health guidelines, she uses kitchen facilities at North Plank Road Tavern in Newburgh.

“I like being able to say where all my ingredients are from and where the sauce is made,” Nelson said. “I cook at North Plank Road Tavern once a week and I can get there as early as I need to and stay until about 2 p.m. so they (restaurant kitchen crew) can begin starting their dinner prep. The most I can make in five hours is 10 cases. But I’m making more small batches and the shelf life is two years [unopened]. The owners at North Plank Road Tavern have been wonderful. There was a local commercial kitchen that I was going to use but it fell through and they let me keep my inspection appointment at their location. They were so gracious and let me do my thing.”

Guy Jones couldn’t be happier that Nelson is keeping the caramel sauce in production.

“Kristin’s a great cook and loves what she’s doing,” Jones said. “We wanted to encourage her from the beginning because she’s local. And the caramel makes everything better.”

Salted Caramel Brownie

Salted Caramel Brownie

Nelson uses her signature sauce with cheeses, fruit and desserts including brownies. She heats her prepared sauce to a firm-ball stage and then adds small chopped pieces of caramel squares to her brownie batter. Her efforts produce dark chocolate brownies oozing with bites of salty caramel. I experimented with my own variation of brownies laced with the Cara-Sel sauce — and a warning to readers — they shamed all brownies ever turned out in my kitchen. With three layers of temptation, they combine a crunchy base, gooey middle and chewy top layer. If an occasion calls for something special without pretention, make a batch of salted caramel brownies.

Cara-Sel Salted Caramel Sauce is available in 6-ounce and 12-ounce jars. To learn more about Nelson’s salty caramel sauce, visit her website at ardenthomesteader.com. Check out the farm and organic inspiration from Guy and Nadine Jones at bloominghillfarm.com.

Salted Caramel Brownies

Makes 12 squares

1 stick unsalted butter, melted

½ cup sugar

2 medium eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/3 cup cocoa powder

1 cup flour

¼ teaspoon baking powder

pinch of salt

¼ cup water

1/3 cup chocolate baking chips

4 ounces salted caramel sauce

1 teaspoon sea salt flakes

  1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Generously grease bottom and sides of 8-inch baking pan. Mix butter, sugar, eggs and vanilla by hand until blended. Add cocoa. Sift flour, baking powder and salt. Add to butter mixture. Mix in water. Fold in baking chips. Batter should be thick but moist.
  1. Cover bottom of prepared pan with half of the brownie batter. Bake 15 minutes. Remove from oven and spread salted caramel sauce over bottom brownie layer. Add remaining brownie batter evenly over caramel sauce layer. Bake 15 minutes.
  1. Remove pan from oven and sprinkle crushed sea salt flakes over top layer. Bake an additional 5 minutes. Remove from oven and cool completely before cutting into squares.

Photos by M.A. Ebner

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