Digesting Caramelpalooza: A Judge's View

Last Friday night, Smeeks hosted Chow Bella's 3rd Annual Caramelpalooza, and phew, that was a TON of caramel. As author of the blog's Dessert First series, I was asked to be one of five judges.

Thanks to all of the ice cream/candy/cookie/popcorn/paleta makers for bringing their creativity to the table and for leaving us all with quite the sugar rush. A special nod goes to the winners:

Beatriz "Betty" Alatorre de Hong of Paletas Betty took home the big prize for her Platano Paleta. Several readers expressed concern that a popsicle doesn't fairly represent caramel, but it is in fact a super flavor-packed frozen delight. Showcased in all of its glory, Betty's homemade caramel is the paleta's primary flavor, and añejo rum and chunks of frozen banana are mixed in to make it a bananas foster. This Best in Show is definitely well-deserved.

The People's Choice award went to Monica Castillo of Churn for Caramelpalooza's other frozen dessert, Salted Caramel Swirl Ice Cream. With a great buttery flavor supported by buttered cashews, it's no surprise that this ice cream was a hit with the crowd. I definitely finished my entire portion, which says a lot with 18 sweets to taste. However, the Platano Paleta just beat this one out with its rich, complex flavor.

David Duarte of Hyatt Regency Phoenix took home a prize with his Dulce de Leche Praline Crunch Bars. The only real candy bar entered, it had praline and caramel enrobed in dark chocolate. This was the softest, creamiest caramel of the event, rightfully earning Best Traditional Caramel.

Best Non-Traditional Caramel went to Tammie Coe for Concord Grape Caramel Tadpoles. The presentation of these was clean and modern, and the caramel was of competitive quality. I only wish these had been made with another flavor candy, maybe something one part odd and one part trendy, like pomegranate. The Concord Grape tasted a bit artificial; some ripe red wine grapes would have been stellar and less kiddish.

Slade Grove's Chocolate Ganache Caramel came in a close second for Best in Show. It was incredibly rich and decadent, and I wish I could have finished the whole thing. Although buried under the ganache and a cookie, the silky, well-crafted caramel sauce was the star of show.

There were lots of great candies that didn't make it to the winners' circle. Brendan McCaskey made PB&J Caramels, which tasted good enough to justify the inevitable sticky fingers. McCaskey did make these last year, placing third overall and second for people's choice, and this year only garnered third place for people's choice, but I'm thankful he made them again so that I could get a taste. I could eat a bagful of these original candies.

Another great entry that took childhood memories to the next level was Brown Butter Fleur de Sel Caramel Corn from Super Chunk Sweets & Treats. The caramel on this stuff is thick -- more like having a little popcorn with your caramel than the other way around. The brown butter flavor comes through, and this stuff could only get better if drizzled (or fully dipped) in dark chocolate. By the way, you can still snag some at Bodega and the Scottsdale Farmers Market.

Other candies worth mentioning are the Chocolate Caramels from Pomo Pizzeria, which tasted a lot like a Ferrero Rocher truffle but lacked in caramel flavor; the Sea Salt Espresso Caramels from Urban Beans, a simple twist on a classic; and the Salted Caramel Nut Bar by Urban Cookies, which were a great example of classic candymaking.

Now for the unfortunate part, the least favorite but most daring entries. Hats off to these two participants for pushing the envelope, but when you're dancing on the edge of what taste buds are accustomed to, there's a lot of room for error. At least I can say that I will never forget these flavor combinations: Sage & Cayenne Caramel by Aimee Sosa of Phoenix Public Market and Caramel Apple with Blended Cheesy Snacks, Sea Salt, and White Chocolate by Eliana House of Dipped. The Sage & Cayenne was bitter and kind of funky. As for the Caramel Apple, it had very little caramel, and the cheesy snacks -- though inventive -- were too strange. Little pretzel pieces or even potato chip crumbs would have done the trick instead. Keep playing in the kitchen, ladies, and we'll see what inventive combinations you come up with next year!

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Dominique Chatterjee