On the sauce: sweet sauces

Categories: Expert guidance

In a new series, Angela Clutton—Cookbook Club host, food writer and author of The Vinegar Cupboard—will be navigating her way through the myriad iterations and uses of sauces. This time: sweet sauces

The last instalment of this series on sauces has finally—and not before time—got to custard. Ok, not just custard. There’s more to sweet sauces than just custard. Of course there is…

Fruit sauces (aka coulis)
The fruit sauce I grew up with was lurid pink, ‘strawberry’ sauce over ice cream. I doubt any strawberries were harmed in its making. That has its place, but even better is to be inspired by seasonal soft fruits and make your own sweet fruit sauce that—shocker—does actually taste of fruit and therefore can work as a useful flavour partner to whatever you are serving it with.

Think raspberries, blackberries, plums, apricots, strawberries, gooseberries. Cook them down with a little sugar, blend to a puree, strain, taste for sweetness, and make a decision on how thin or thick you want the sauce to be. You’ll want it fairly thick for ice cream type desserts and remember the sauce will thicken a bit as it cools. A thinner sauce is better for pouring over sponge puddings. Reduce the sauce over heat, or add a little water to thin it. As you prefer.

Think about adding complementary flavours. Go steady, but a few thyme leaves, a sprig of rosemary, or a bay leaf in the pan can add a welcome musky note (remove before blending), while a dash of fruit vinegar brings a burst of acidity to cut through the sweetness.

Caramel and butterscotch sauces
Let’s not tie ourselves in knots worrying too much about the rights and wrongs of what is caramel and what is butterscotch. The terms are used so interchangeably, does it make a difference to know that caramel is a base of white sugar heated to dissolve and caramelise, whereas butterscotch uses dark sugar and a good bit of salted butter?

Maybe best to let us just accept they are both fabulous, just rich enough but not too rich, and heaven over all manner of hot puddings, cold cakes and, well, pretty much anything.

Your choice of sugar will make a difference to the depth of flavour of the sauce. Whatever sugar you use, start by heating it with a little water in a pan to dissolve the sugar, then bring to the boil until the sugar caramelises. It is easier to judge with white sugar, as you will see it turn a light amber. Whisk in butter (more or less of it, depending on how butterscotch-y you want it to be) and then double cream to achieve the consistency you want. Added salt optional, but often welcome these (salted-caramel loving) days.

Chocolate sauce
This sauce is simplicity itself: melt chocolate in cream—and tah-dah. Little good comes of over-complication here.

Sure, you have a choice of what kind of chocolate to use as the base. Darkness of around the 70 per cent mark is going to give pleasing depth but not be too bitter. You could add a little—a little—extra sugar. Whisking in a knob of butter at the end will give your chocolate sauce pleasing high shine.

But otherwise, the method is basically: chop chocolate. Melt chocolate. Whisk in cream. Joy.

We made it to custard! Thank goodness. A sauce so synonymous with England you could call it creme anglaise if you wanted. But ‘custard’ will do for me.

My confession to rival that earlier of the ‘strawberry’ sauce is that the custard of my childhood was of the ready-made variety. Actually, not just childhood—that would be no kind of confession. We all grew up with tinned custard. No, I am partial to it in adulthood too. But at the same time, I recognise that knowing how to make your own good, ‘proper’ custard is an important life skill. Sometimes custard needs to come with a little more elegance.

The basic idea is to whisk egg yolks with sugar, pour over warm milk (optionally vanilla-infused) and then continuously stir the while lot over heat, until it thickens. There are two important things to remember:

—Go very slowly when first adding the warm milk to the eggs. You do not want sweet scrambled egg.

—Patience is needed. Your custard will be thickened and ready when it wants to be. You can’t hurry it. Yes, there’s the oft-touted gauge of it being ready when thick enough to coat the back of a spoon and keep a clean line when you run a finger through it. It is also ready when it looks as thick as you would want it to be served.

I like to whisk in a tablespoon or two of sweet pedro ximenez sherry at the end. Just like that, it becomes the perfect sauce for a Christmas pudding and so much more.

There we have it. The basics of sweet sauces which, whether served hot or cold, on the side of your pud or poured over its top, take barely a few minutes to make, taste amazing and can transform even the plainest pud into something magnificent.