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How-To

Delicious Butterscotch Desserts

Caramel with a kick, butterscotch gives a rich, deep, buttery flavor to pudding, pears, ice cream, and tarts

Fine Cooking Issue 26
Photos: Mark Ferri
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As the little sister of two tormenting older brothers, I often took refuge in the kitchen with my mother, who loved to bake. She would always let me help, but the dessert I was most proud of was the one I could make all by myself: butterscotch pudding, right out of the box.  

I now make pudding that’s thickened with egg yolks and cream, not cornstarch and chemicals, and butterscotch is still one of my favorite flavors. As a pastry chef, I find myself returning to it again and again. I love to develop recipes that show off its buttery, toasty caramel flavor: luscious baked pears topped with a butterscotch sauce made right in the baking pan; toasted-nut tartlets bound by a thick butterscotch filling; rich homemade ice creamstudded with pieces of butterscotch crunch; and a thick, deeply flavored butterscotch pudding that’s simply irresistible.

Butter, but no scotch

Butterscotch, as its name implies, is made with butter, but there isn’t necessarily any liquor in it, though I sometimes add a splash. The scotch part may have more to do with where butterscotch is said to have originated, in Scotland in the 1700s. Butterscotch is caramel—and then some. Whereas caramel is made with white sugar, butterscotch uses brown sugar for a deeper flavor. It’s also enriched with butter or cream, and it gets a flavor boost from a generous dose of salt.

Delicious desserts from pantry staples

Aside from its great flavor, I like the fact that butterscotch is simple and versatile, and it’s made with ingredients that are almost always on hand.  

Dark brown sugar offers the most flavor. Brown sugar is white sugar combined with molasses. The darker the brown sugar, the more molasses it contains, and the stronger the flavor. With few exceptions, I like to make my butterscotch desserts using dark brown sugar. Not only does it give the butterscotch a deeper flavor, but it also contributes to the dark golden color we have come to know as butterscotch. When making the crunch for the Butterscotch Crunch Ice Cream, however, I opt for light brown sugar. It has less moisture, and so it makes a candy that will harden when cooled.  

In my butterscotch sauce, I use some corn syrup because it inhibits crystallization during the cooking process, keeping the sauce smooth. Corn syrup is also quite hygroscopic, meaning it prevents moisture loss, so it gives the sauce a longer shelf life.  

Salt and vanilla spark the flavor of butterscotch. Though salt may seem
strange in this sweet concoction, it actually helps intensify the flavor of the butterscotch without making its own flavor evident. Like salt, vanilla has the ability to discreetly bring out the flavors of other ingredients. If you leave out the salt or vanilla, your butterscotch will seem bland and one-dimensional.

Toasted nuts and toasty butterscotch make a perfect match. This tartlet is quite sweet, but you’ll find yourself taking bite after bite until—alas—it’s gone.

Cook butterscotch to the color of an old penny

The trick to making butterscotch is to be bold about cooking it. In my pudding recipe, Istart by cooking sugar and water until it’s good and dark, a deep golden brown like a Sugar Daddy or an old penny. You don’t want to burn it, but if you tread too lightly, you won’t create that wonderful caramelized flavor and the pudding will taste too sweet. In the other recipes, where most of the ingredients are cooked together, it’s hard to see a color change because of the brown sugar, so let the mixture boil away for about five minutes, allowing it to bubble and sputter. If you don’t, the butterscotch will separate.  

Finally, when working with butterscotch, be extra vigilant: because it cooks at such a high temperature, it can easily burn you.  

Many flavors warm up to butterscotch. I’m a sucker for butterscotch candy (pun intended), but I love to pair butterscotch with other flavors. I absolutely adore it with fruits. Simple ways to enjoy butterscotch and fruit include drizzling butterscotch sauce over grilled pineapples or sautéed bananas. Dark chocolate and coffee flavors enhance the toasty taste of butterscotch, while white chocolate, coconut, and all kinds of toasted nuts taste great with butterscotch in cookies, brownies, and tarts.

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