The Best Butterscotch

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First, let’s clear up one thing. Butterscotch is not caramel. Caramel is cooked sugar. It starts clear and bubbly, and if you keep cooking it, it turns color, becoming amber and ending about the color of iced tea. (And it can quickly burn!) If you add cream to that nicely browned liquid sugar, you get caramel sauce, which looks like butterscotch.

For butterscotch fundamentals, Teresa Urkofsky, pastry instructor at American River College in Sacramento, Calif., tells it straight.

“The essential ingredients are brown sugar and butter,” she says. “It can be light brown sugar or dark brown sugar.”

Urkofsky makes butterscotch pudding on top of the stove. She browns the sugar and butter, letting it lightly caramelize, then adds milk and cornstarch. “I like the low reaction temperature with cornstarch. You don’t have to cook out a flour taste,” she says.

She tempers in eggs, pours it into serving bowls and stashes them in the refrigerator.

There is no question that she loves it. “It’s such a round, beautiful flavor that might remind you of home.”

Where did butterscotch come from?

Memories of butterscotch may be a from-scratch effort, or the quick method from the boxed butterscotch pudding mix introduced by JELL-O in 1936. The origin of butterscotch is rather murky. Food historian Ken Albala, who teaches history at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., found an obscure, older origin of butterscotch.

“There’s a company called Parkinson’s of Doncaster, which is in southern Yorkshire, which started marketing their own brand of butterscotch in 1848,” he says. “I couldn’t find reference to the word in print until about 1852 or 1853.”

The very mention of Yorkshire in England scotches any belief that the “scotch” in butterscotch has anything to do with Scotland. Albala says the Scottish connection is an etymological myth. And Albala has one more butterscotch bummer.

“Of course, it doesn’t contain Scotch.”

There’s Scotch in this butterscotch

That’s right, there’s no Scotch in butterscotch, unless you’re talking about the butterscotch pudding at Sacramento’s Grange restaurant.

It’s made by pastry chef Jackie Phongsavath. She works in a basement dessert corner, and yes, she puts Scotch in butterscotch. She has to go upstairs to the restaurant’s bar to ask for it. The bartender usually gives her well Scotch, something like Dewar’s.

Don’t mess with a destination dessert

Grange’s butterscotch pudding has become something of a destination dessert. Typical of most staff at high-end restaurants, menus get tweaked too often. Once, the butterscotch pudding came off the menu — a marketing fiasco.

“I thought there was going to be a riot at the corner of 10th and J” in downtown Sacramento, recalls Chef Jackie.

So the staff brought it back. But this time it was retooled for a guaranteed consistency. A new, daring recipe it is, because it defies the essence of butterscotch. There’s no butter, brown sugar or thickener.

Without these traditional elements, how does Chef Jackie get to butterscotch?

With technical twists you can probably accomplish at home.

First, she separates 30 eggs for the yolks. “I’m probably not world champion, but I usually get that task done in about three minutes,” she says.

Recipe’s secrets revealed

She was allowed to reveal the new recipe’s two prevailing secrets. One is a shortcut: Guittard-brand butterscotch chips. Taste test after blind taste test proclaimed the chips gave the best taste and best consistency compared with the previous traditional stovetop version. With eyes open, the pudding had sheen.

But the second secret is more challenging. It’s exacting sugar work that brings sugar and water to about 230 F – still clear but beginning to caramelize.

Sugar work

Butterscotch pudding is poured into ramekins“This is the fun part,” Chef Jackie says. “We just wait. You just basically want to bring your sugar to a stage of caramelization before it hits any brown color.”

With sizzling fanfare, cream hits the bubbling sugar, along with salt, vanilla and the Scotch. She adds the chips to the pot last, so they lay on the surface instead of sinking to the bottom, where they could possibly scorch. She whisks without end to prevent hot spots and keep it all smooth.

“You know it’s ready when everything is melted,” she says, “and you lift the whisk to make sure there’s no sugar, no butterscotch chips stuck to the whisk.”

Finally, the yolks are tempered into the base. A small amount of the hot butterscotch base is whisked into all the yolks, then the now-lukewarm yolk mixture is added back to the hot base and whisked with determination.

It’s important to strain the base. Sure enough, a strainer caught some cooked whites and unsmoothed yolk.

To bake, Chef Jackie fills 30 ramekins per daily batch. For a gentler ride through the heat, they bake in a pan with water added, called a water bath. She covers the pan with foil, making sure to crimp it well around the sides. She pokes a few steam vents into the foil. The pudding, essentially, bakes and steams.

The presentation

When they’re done and cooled, Chef Jackie heads upstairs to the dining room. Here, she presents each serving with a dollop of crème fraîche.

I got to sample the result with the pastry chef, and I thought I’d never tasted butterscotch so sublime. Chef Jackie could barely contain her own swoon.

“Mmmm,” the pastry chef said, feigning weakness. “Give me a minute! It’s a really rich dessert I would only eat once and I’d probably just fall over!”

Is it pudding?

Some might quibble this is not pudding. But it’s not quite pot de crème or crème caramel, either. Chef Jackie defends her glossy, spoon-soft result.

“It’s not a stovetop pudding,” says Chef Jackie. “It’s a pudding baked in a water bath. It’s pudding, but it’s a fancy pudding.”

With its smoky hint of Scotch, sometimes it pays to think outside the pudding box.

Grange Butterscotch Pudding

Serves 6

Equipment

Ramekins, whisk, double-mesh strainer, 9-by-13-inch baking pan, foil

Ingredients

4 egg yolks from large eggs
½ cup Guittard butterscotch chips
2¼ cups cream
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon vanilla
1½ teaspoons Scotch
¼ cup water
½ cup sugar

Directions

  1. Set six sturdy 4-ounce ramekins in a baking pan, such as a metal 9-by-13-inch rectangular cake pan. Preheat the oven to 300 F. Set a medium-sized double-mesh strainer over a medium bowl and have it ready on your countertop.
  2. Separate the egg yolks. Reserve them in a bowl. Measure the butterscotch chips and have them ready in a bowl.
  3. In a large measuring cup or pitcher, stir together cream, salt, vanilla and Scotch. Have it convenient to the stove.
  4. Combine water and sugar in a medium pot. Heat over medium-high heat until the sugar dissolves and boils gently, about 8 to 10 minutes (up to 220 F to 230 F on a candy thermometer), making sure the sugar does not darken.
  5. With a whisk at the ready, pour the cream mixture into the hot sugar. (It will sizzle.) Whisk well to combine, going around the sides and across the bottom of the pot. Add the chips, continuing to whisk to prevent the chips from scorching. Turn off the heat. Continue whisking until no sugar or chips cling to the whisk and the mixture is smooth.
  6. Whisk some of the hot butterscotch mixture into the egg yolks, whisking gently but thoroughly. Then pour the tempered yolks back into the main mixture in the pot, whisking well.
  7. Strain the butterscotch through a double-mesh strainer into a bowl.
  8. Ladle butterscotch evenly into the arranged ramekins.
  9. Fill the baking pan with hot water so it comes halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Cover the pan well with foil and crimp it to seal well around the pan’s rim. Poke several holes in the foil to act as steam vents.
  10. Set in the oven and bake 45 to 50 minutes or until just set in the center.

Zester Daily contributor Elaine Corn is a James Beard Award-winning cookbook author and food editor. A former editor at the Louisville Courier-Journal and the Sacramento Bee, Corn has written six cookbooks and contributed food stories to National Public Radio.

Photos, from top:

The butterscotch pudding from Grange restaurant in Sacramento, Calif.

After it is prepared, the butterscotch pudding is poured into ramekins and cooked in a water bath.

Credits: Elaine Corn

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