Sneaking caramel flavor into grains

Grist Mill WheelI like caramel so much I understand the impulse to use slow heat to bring out the burnished flavor in just about anything: the edges of onion slivers cooked in olive oil, the crispy points on the conch fritters we ate in Key West a few weeks ago, or the Great Caramel Motherlode, homemade sorghum caramel candies. I've been fascinated with a recent bayou-country story about toasted (and well-greased) cornmeal in a preparation called couche-couche. Damp cornmeal is cooked in bacon drippings until it crusts, and then stirred and cooked to make more crust, and on until the whole cast iron skillet is full of toasted corn crumbles. I have not yet met this distinctive version of "caramel corn" in person, but I would like to.

I have kept the couche-couche and cornbread story open in my browser for weeks while I ponder starting a cornbread supper tradition in my neighborhood. I have re-read the story enough that the descriptor "like damp sand" stuck in my head. Uncooked, the couche-couche "mixture will be like damp sand."

Somehow, damp sand does not show up as a positive in many food descriptions,  but I found a new one today. This time I know the food first hand.

Filipinos cherish a distinctive, dry-ish, molded toasted flour sweet called "polvoron." That's molded as in "shaped," not molded as in "green and fuzzy, spoiled." Friends often make a party out of making polvoron together. This fragile confection begins with browning dry flour in a wok or skillet. After adding powdered milk, butter, and sugar to the now caramel-flavored flour, and before molding (shaping, that is), the mixture has "the consistency of damp sand," as noted in this recipe. Philippine cooks -- or groups of friends enjoying a polvoron party -- force the "damp sand" into small oval molds, and wrap each piece individually, as we would do for homemade caramel candies.

I may be mixing up my food science, since what I perceive as caramel ("burnt sugar") flavor may come, in some cases I'm citing, from a different process, the Maillard Reaction. Whatever the chemistry and physics behind it, the results of browning, even on corn and wheat, are pleasing to the palate.

Photo Credit: tommysparks - Thank you!