Last Friday, locals craving a sugar rush lined up in the parking lot of Smeeks at Central and Camelback roads for Chow Bella's second Caramelpalooza event. The judging is over, and a favorite was selected by both the audience and a judging panel -- Essence Bakery's delicious caramel macaron, served in miniature.
But does a French cookie really count as a caramel? We pitted all 11 caramel entries against each other in a Battle of the Dishes royale to determine which one was not only the tastiest, but the best example of what a caramel really is.
Find out our pick after the jump...
The first contender out of the gate was a blood orange caramel wrapped in parchment from Meghan Olesen of Elemental Sugar. As I peeled open the wrapper, a fine brown powder fell from the pop like caramel dandruff. Not a good start.
Apparently the powder was a smoked salt & chili "Fun Dip" I was supposed to dip the caramel into. Unfortunately, I don't believe in the 5-minute rule when it comes to powdery substances on tables and floors. Too bad, because the caramel itself was perfectly textured -- soft with a slight bite -- and sugary sweet.
Next up was a pretty, elongated teardrop with a crunchy red coating akin to a candy apple. The slick coating and unique "tadpole" design made for a lovely presentation, though the caramel inside was very traditional. The coating was thin enough that it was easy to bite through without removing my dental work, and the soft texture and delicate vanilla flavor of the caramel appealing. A strong contender from Tammie Coe.
Cork's smoked sea salt caramel was so heavy on the "smoke" that it tasted burnt, while Tracy Dempsey's soy sauce variety was too heavy on the saltiness. Slade Grove's ginger caramel was dark and rich. I adore ginger, especially when candied, but the ingredient mix in Grove's caramel brought out the natural bitterness of the root, rather than playing up its sweetness.
Essence Bakery Cafe's macaron was lightly sweet, with a delightfully savory tinge that reminded me of the saffron-infused cream filling I've tasted in some Indian desserts. It was delicious, but I'd argue that something "caramel flavored" doesn't count as an actual caramel, especially when it's not sticky.
Speaking of sticky, while the Honeymoon Sweets entry had a scrumptious natural honey taste, it was so soft I had to use my teeth to scrape it from the wrapper. Brendan McCaskey's peanut butter and jelly caramel suffered from the same problem, though the child in me was squealing with delight at how much the tasty treat reminded me of the lunch box sammies of my youth.
Several other entries whizzed by in a blur of sugary sweetness. Veronica Arroyo of Bourbon
Steak had an interesting idea with the German chocolate cake caramel, though the extra chewy texture and coconut shreds made for a pasty mouthfeel. Virginia Senior's crunchy pecan toffee was delectable, but wasn't traditional enough to be counted as a caramel.
Brianne Day of The Herb Box had one of the most appealing presentations - a lovely paper cone filled with soft, gooey orange caramel topped with a candied tangerine peel that brought a delicate acidic flavor to the entry. The only downside was the softness of her caramel, which again left me licking the entry off of the paper.
The Winner: Last year's Caramelpalooza event saw a wider range of entries -- you either loved or hated each one. This year, the playing field was more level. McCaskey's PB&J was the one I could eat every day, but the too-soft texture and lack of strong caramel flavor prevented it from taking the title. Eugenia Theodosopoulos' macaron had the most complex flavor, but was more of a cookie than a caramel.
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So Tammie Coe steals victory from their clutches with her Caramel-Apple Tadpole.