The first time I had a salted caramel was by sheer chance. On a trip to Nashville two summers ago, I found myself in a bakery with a mouthwatering display case. Not content to try only the fruit tart and almond croissant, I picked at random and landed on sea salted caramel truffles. I have never looked back.
The combination of sweet and salty is truly genius, but the salted caramel craze did not truly pick up steam until recently. While Chex Mix Sweet N’ Salty Caramel Crunch has been on the market for awhile, the snack does not truly embody “salted caramel” — in a bag, there are salty pieces and sweet pieces, not both sweet and salty pieces. It is nearly impossible to tell when the glorious combination came into being, but you can find evidence everywhere that it is a bona fide food trend.
We’ll start at the trend-setting (though soul sucking) Starbucks. This fall, the mega-chain introduced a salted caramel hot chocolate ($3.25 for a small — grande? Whatever.), guaranteeing that all the Starbucks addicts will soon adore the combination. While the hot chocolate strays from a pure salted caramel flavor (it takes mostly like chocolate), it is impossible to deny the guilty pleasure achieved from tasting salt in your sweet drink. However, points must be deducted from the fact that the drink is made by pouring caramel into hot chocolate and simply dumping sea salt on top. But alas, Starbucks never claimed to be believers in purity. If you’re into coffee, their salted caramel mocha may be a better choice.
Another establishment that may be guilty of cutting corners is Madison Sweets (née Sweet Impressions). While rumor has it they don’t bake their cupcakes on site, and a few flavors wind up more like cornbread than cupcakes, their sea salt and caramel cupcake is spot on and only $1.90. The salt is spread throughout the frosting, and while the cupcake batter itself isn’t salted, the slightly dense base works with the delicious frosting. However, the cupcake doesn’t show up every day, and for reasons unknown, Madison Sweets has failed to create a constant schedule for their flavors. Thus, if dying for salted caramel, you may want to check their Twitter feed or call first.
If Sweet Impressions is out, another place to check is Paciugo. I gave them another chance after my ice cream column and discovered they have a Mediterranean Sea Salt gelato reminiscent of Pinkberry’s Salted Caramel frozen yogurt. The flavor is light, but the concept is there. I liked it so much I eschewed adding other flavors and got one big dish of sweet, salty, creamy goodness for $3.50. The bad news here is that not every day is a good day for ice cream, and Paciugo swaps out flavors at random. I’m hoping Starbucks has some sway in making salted caramel a constant amongst the likes of chocolate and vanilla. They should be good for that, at least.
For those willing to travel a bit off campus down University Avenue, endless salted caramel goodness can be found at Whole Foods (unless, of course, they are sold out). For $7.99, you get about two-dozen bite-sized chocolate covered sea salted caramels. Their size is just right for a little snack, but I have witnessed an entire package devoured in 24 hours. If those are unavailable, the trendy chain also makes French Caramels Fleur de Sel, or, in non-snob language, not-chocolate-covered sea salted caramels. I will admit I’m not the biggest fan of chocolate, so I highly recommend the straight caramels as the best way to experience this food trend.
If Whole Foods is unappealing (and for hipsters, it absolutely is), chocolatier and Madison original Gail Ambrosius offers up her own version of a salted caramel. Her shop on Atwood Avenue sells a caramel dipped in chocolate and sprinkled with grey salt (aka, fleur de sel), with a hint of vanilla for kicks. Twenty-four caramels will cost you $44, but a 2-piece box can be had for $4.25. A warning with Gail Ambrosuis chocolates is that each and every one of them is dark chocolate, the high-percentage cocoa kind. For those who would rather eat chalk than bitter chocolate, you may be out of luck on finding a locally made salted caramel.
The salted caramel wave appears to be here to stay, and I’m hoping that more Madison eateries will add their spin on it in the near future. Until then, I’ll be trying my own recipes, like the “Wisconsin Brie with Crispy Apple Fritters, Salted Caramel and Apple Butter” one from eatwisconsincheese.com. If salted caramel and cheese go together, Wisconsin is looking like a good place to be eating my way through the trend.
Allegra Dimperio (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a junior majoring in journalism. Feel free to message her with any salted caramel treats not mentioned here.