the screams of sorghum ::::
“Shrilly operatic on its own, sorghum softens palpably when cream or butter coax it into hushed civil tones.” (Quoted from the Anson Mills website, via the benne sorghum caramel recipe.)
It’s because of that sentence alone that I made this recipe. How could one not with that introduction? This is a respite from my sugar cookie saga, soon to be continued.
My search for a good recipe with sorghum syrup brought me to Anson Mills, a company that specializes in heirloom grains. Some standouts for me are the blue grits, heirloom rye flour, farro, and benne seeds. Some recipes listed on the website offer fresh masa tortillas, geotta (a German sausage with oats), and various breads, muffins, biscuits, and crackers. And caramel. With benne. And that histrionic sorghum, waiting to fall into that deep rill of butter.
Benne is another name for sesame seed, ‘benne’ being the Bantu word. I use benne everywhere: in savory dishes such as my peanut noodles and Taiwanese stewed ginger chicken, each with a healthy drizzle of sesame oil, in baking my savory sesame monkey bread, it giving a jiggle of flavor in black sesame pudding, it a component in my easy seed crackers, or in garnishing many a dish. The versatility astounds me.
It only follows that if you show me a recipe with benne and caramel together and there is no question I will make it. And add in sorghum, a wonderfully buttery tasting syrup with a faint smoky, strong fruit, and metallic undertone, we’ve got a winner. Sorghum is making a small comeback after a century. It had a strong presence in the late 1800s, being widely produced in the U.S. before refined sugar began to usurp it.
Anson Mills advises use of their products or recommends certain brands for best success with their company’s tested recipes, their benne and Muddy Pond sorghum recommended for this recipe. While I respect this advice, I decided to support the small man, buying from my CSA which outsourced from a guy in Wedowee, Alabama. I imagine this is a true cottage industry. I do not know his processing standards or if the Brix level is the same as the Muddy Pond sorghum syrup, but had success all the same. And sorghum, it’s so underrated. After tasting it, my first thought was Why don’t more people know about sorghum? And eat it standing up at the counter with at least five clean spoons to lick so as to not contaminate the jar? A nerd girl aside: In chemical terms, the Brix measurement is the sugar content in an aqueous solution. This measurement is critical for brewers, vintners, even confectioners. When it comes caramel and other temperature-sensitive candy making, Brix can lead one to success or failure. Most of us home cooks need not worry: there are other fail-safes. Just the knowledge of Brix helps me understand my failures better (there are many, especially with pate de fruit making — that post coming much later once I regroup). I’m not ready to buy a refractometer….yet.
The butter in this recipe certainly softens the sorghum, but I don’t consider sorghum shrill enough solo to keep me from licking it from a spoon like a lollipop, or sluicing it into my hot tea. If anything, it’s the caramels that soften my shrill voice, my mouth quietly busy with concentrated chewing, like a dog and peanut butter. Not exactly a picture of eloquence. But not to be missed.
One year ago: hungarian mushroom goulash
Three years ago: strata story
- 7 ounces (14 tablespoons) unsalted European-style butter, plus more for greasing the pan and parchment paper. I used Kerry Gold.*
- 8 ounces (1 cup plus 2½ tablespoons, packed) light brown sugar
- 10.2 (fluid) ounces (scant ¾ cup) sorghum syrup (Important note: The ¾ cup is the original recipe's measurement. I used closer to 1 cup.)
- 10 ounces (1¼ cups) heavy cream
- 3.3 ounces (1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons) benne seeds (aka, sesame seeds), frozen
- Special equipment: candy thermometer
- Butter and line an 8x8-inch pan with parchment, ensuring that the paper overhangs on both ends. Lightly butter the parchment.
- In a 4- or 5-quart heavy-bottomed enameled cast iron pot, melt the butter over medium-low heat.
- Add the brown sugar, sorghum, and cream and whisk.
- Bring this mixture to a boil and cook over medium-high heat, stirring frequently.
- Continue to stir until the mixture thickens, and reads 235 degrees (soft-ball stage) on an instant-read thermometer, about 15 minutes.
- Turn the heat to low and cook until the mixture reaches 248 to 250 degrees (go with 248 degrees to err on the size of caution to prevent overcooking -- you don't want to break your teeth).
- Immediately remove the pot from the heat, whisk vigorously for 10 seconds to cool the caramel, and then stir in the frozen benne seeds.
- Pour the caramel into the prepared pan, and allow to cool in an undisturbed area for about 3 hours. Once set and cooled to room temperature, cover with foil and allow to sit overnight. The original recipe recommends refrigerating; I do not as a rule.
- Loosen the beautiful caramel from parchment using a butter knife or offset spatula, inserting the blade between the pan and caramel.
- Invert pan onto cutting board to free the caramel, using a warm, damp cloth on the downturned pan if the caramel does come away readily.
- Use a ruler and knife to notch the caramel at ¾-inch intervals along two adjacent sides.
- Cut the caramel into ¾-inch pieces, guided by the notches.
- Wrap each piece in twisting wax paper or parchment.
- The caramels will keep indefinitely if stored in the fridge. I recommend allowing them to come to room temperature in a wrapped container before eating to prevent condensation and to appreciate the full flavor.