Thursday, March 6, 2014

Salted Caramel Crispies

Crispie Salted Caramels
Photograph by A. Schloss

If it ain't broke, don't fix it. If only I could! I know, the unadorned original back-of-the-box recipe for Rice Krispies® Treats (hereto after known as RKT) is perfection, and there are too many asinine embellishments already in circulation. Changing out the cereal, adding PNB, or plopping melted caramel and fleur de sel on top are all well and good, but they're superficial changes at best. I was after transformation, a process shift, tinkering with the very DNA of the RKT by re-engineering its structure from the inside out. 

The standard methods of messing with RKT are tried and true:
1) Add something flavorful - chocolate, peanut butter or pumpkin pie spices stirred into the melted marshmallow.
2) Change the crispy - a different cereal, chopped nuts, crumbled cookies, pretzels switched out for all or part of the Rice Krispies®.
3) Opt for creative shapes - cupcakes, balls, hearts, or maki sushi logs molded from the "dough." 
4. Embellish the surface - chocolate icing, sprinkles, crushed candy, rosemary leaves scattered or frosted on top.

I categorically rejected all of the above as merely cosmetic, and insisted on radical surgery. 

Semi-Caramel RKT with Bali Taksu Pyramid Salt
Photograph by A. Schloss

Dissecting Marshmallow

RKT may owe their name to Rice Krispies®, but they owe their anatomy to marshmallows. Marshmallows are gelatin and sugar that's puffed up with air. In the anatomy of an RKT, marshmallow is the guts of the treat, the stuff that fills in the gaps between the cereal crisps, and holds everything together. The first step is melting marshmallows with butter. When marshmallows heat their structure deflates, and the collapsed aerated mixture turns into sticky and stretchy glue that binds the cereal bits together, and changes from sticky to chewy as it cools. 

This process of deflating and melting the marshmallow is so intrinsic to the iconic RKT texture that no one messes with it. Until now. I wanted to make a salted caramel RKT without embellishment. No caramel toppings, creme caramel glaze, or imitation flavored butterscotch chips. Why add another ingredient when all you had to do was cook the marshmallow until it's melted sugar caramelized?

Which is exactly what I did - same process, just extended. Once the marshmallow mixture melted smooth it only took another 4 minutes of simmering to turn it into creamy golden caramel. Then everything else is the same. Well, sort of. I added sherry vinegar to cut the sweetness. Or so I thought. By caramelizing the sugar in the marshmallows, most of their sugary sweetness was erased by the savory quality of caramel. The vinegar just added a pleasant after tang.

The biggest shift was textural. Caramelizing the sugar forced so much moisture out of the marshmallows that the mixture turned crackling crispy as it cooled. Mildly sweet, bursting with roasted, tangy, savory flavors, punctuated by tinny bursts of salt, these treats are a whole other species of confection.  

The Salt - Fleur de sel is luscious on caramel candy, but I knew its delicate crystal would be lost against a ground of crisp cereal. So I changed the salt in the crispie salted caramels to something bold and flaky. At first I tried minaret-shaped crystals of Bali Ketchil, but then opted for the flatter and fatter flaked Halen Mon Gold, a vanilla-scented salt from Wales that is smoked over oak. 

Crackling Crispie Salted Caramels

Caramelized Crispies topped with Halen Mon Gold
Photograph by A. Schloss
Makes 3 dozen

4 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 bag (10 oz) mini-marshmallows
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1 tablespoon flake salt (I like Halen Mon Gold)
6 cups Kellogg's Rice Krispies®

Line the bottom of a 8-inch square brownie pan with parchment; set aside. Put the rice krispies in a large mixing bowl; set aside. 

Melt the butter in a heavy-duty saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the marshmallows and stir until smooth and melted. Stir in the salt and vinegar and continue to stir until the mixture turns golden brown, about 4 minutes. 

Scrape the caramelized marshmallow mixture into the bowl of rice krispies and stir until all of the cereal is moistened. Pack into the lined baking pan. Moisten your hands with cool water and press the top flat. Immediately sprinkle with flake salt and gently pack into the surface. Cool for 5 minutes (no more) and cut into 1 1/2 inch squares. 


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