Sticking With Butterscotch

By Candy Sagon
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Everything old is new again -- except, it seems, for butterscotch. That buttery sweet confection, the color of sunshine mixed with honey, used to rule America's dessert world. There was butterscotch pudding, sauce, syrup and cream pie, to say nothing of that little cut-crystal dish filled with candies at Grandma's house.

These days, just try to find a slice of butterscotch chiffon pie on a dessert menu or even much beyond butterscotch candies in the supermarket. Not gonna happen. Which is puzzling, considering that butterscotch's close relatives have made recent comebacks: Caramel is the new darling of pastry chefs and artisan candymakers. Even toffee has been allowed to shine again. But butterscotch? No one has asked her to the dance yet.

That's really a shame, says Berkeley pastry chef Shuna Fish Lydon, who last June wrote an impassioned, nostalgic plea for butterscotch's resurrection on his food blog Eggbeater. Waxing romantic, Lydon wrote that the flavor of real, homemade butterscotch is elusive, "like the perfume your first love wore."

Lydon says butterscotch has fallen out of favor because most people today associate it with "those awful chips" or the artificial flavor of instant pudding. "Even really famous San Francisco pastry chefs aren't making homemade butterscotch" when they do serve butterscotch-flavored desserts, he wrote in an e-mail. "They're using the chips and/or adding Scotch, both of which are very, very wrong."

Cookbook author Diana Dalsass thinks it has to do with the fact that the name includes the word "butter." "It's still such a taboo because of our obsession with dieting," says Dalsass, who bucked the trend in 2001 with "The Butterscotch Lover's Cookbook" (Buttercup Press), a slim volume of dessert recipes plus a list of places where you can order butterscotch treats.

So exactly what is butterscotch? And how does it differ from caramel?

Caramel is simply white sugar that's heated until it begins to caramelize, or turn brown, explains pastry chef James Sinopoli, a culinary instructor at Stratford University in Falls Church. Butterscotch is created when caramelized sugar (most recipes today use brown sugar) is paired with butter. The two are cooked together until the sugar and fat react under heat (what chemists call the Maillard reaction) to create the browned flavor that is so rich and irresistible.

Sinopoli tells his students to think of it this way: "Caramel is the parent of confections like butterscotch, toffee and nut brittles. The differences between them come in how hot the sugar gets, when the fat is added, what other ingredients are involved, and how much stirring you have to do." For brittle, for example, the sugar is caramelized and butter is added at the end with a little baking soda to give it a lighter, crunchier texture.

As to how butterscotch got its name, there are many theories, half-baked guesses and downright myths, usually involving Scotch, Scotland and whether the "scotch" part really meant "scorch," as in scorched butter and sugar.

Most food historians agree that butterscotch does not contain Scotch and didn't originate in Scotland. British food historian and author Laura Mason, who wrote "Sugar-Plums and Sherbet: The Prehistory of Sweets" (Prospect Books, 1998), notes that butterscotch-like candy was made in England in the early 1700s but the name "butterscotch" first appeared in Yorkshire in the early 1800s.

It's more likely, say Dalsass and others, that the name came from the term "to scotch," which means to cut or score. Nineteenth-century candymakers would scotch the cooling candy so that it would be easier to break into pieces later.

Butterscotch desserts are hard to find in our area, although pastry chefs speak of them wistfully. "I loved it growing up," says Kate Jansen at Willow in Arlington. "My mother used to make a devil's food cake with a whipped butterscotch frosting that was so good." The closest she comes to a butterscotch dessert at Willow is her sticky toffee pudding cake, which is accompanied by a butterscotch sauce.

Pastry chef Valerie Hill, who is known for her old-fashioned American desserts at Johnny's Half Shell on Capitol Hill, says she hasn't made a butterscotch recipe in nearly 10 years. The last time was when she was at the Morrison-Clark Historic Inn downtown, where she made butterscotch pie with a pecan crust. "I love butterscotch when it's done well," she says. "That's the thing: It's so simple, it has to be done perfectly."

There is some indication that butterscotch might be regaining a bit of its popularity. A 1950s-era butterscotch chiffon pie was pictured on Gourmet magazine's January 2006 cover in celebration of its 65th anniversary. The newly revised edition of "Joy of Cooking" (Scribner, 2006) includes 10 butterscotch recipes, compared with just six in its 1997 edition.

And in Los Angeles, where one of the toughest reservations to swing is at Pizzeria Mozza, the wildly popular new creation of superstar chefs Mario Batali and Nancy Silverton, guess what's on the dessert menu? A dense, creamy butterscotch pudding.

Former Food section staff writer Candy Sagon is a frequent contributor.

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