It seems everyone of a certain age has a story to tell about butterscotch Angel Delight, and I am afraid I am no different.
I have a vivid memory of coming home after a long spell in hospital at the age of 10, and having to spend the whole of December 1971 convalescing at home. Being one of five children, the chance to spend all day with my mum and having her all to myself was no hardship. I passed the time by pretending to DJ a radio show, even though I only had two Beatles albums, Take Five by Dave Brubeck, Sinatra’s Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! and the soundtrack to Oliver! A fairly niche playlist.
One day we went shopping and bought some of this new-fangled butterscotch Angel Delight. We had previously tried the strawberries and cream flavour, just adding milk to the powder, and it had become a family favourite, but butterscotch was new. When we whisked the milk into the powder it turned the colour of our Ford Cortina’s vinyl roof, a sort of mid-brown. We then left it to set and cool in the fridge.
One packet of Angel Delight would normally feed all of us children for pudding but I am slightly ashamed to say that it was so delicious that I polished off the lot. I felt a bit queasy for the rest of the day. If it was an early attempt at aversion therapy then it worked, as I didn’t let it pass my lips again until earlier this year when we made some from a packet for a bit of fun during lockdown. Expecting a super-sweet horror show, I was surprised at how tame it tasted; my seven-year-old son Stanley, however, found it very rich and laughed to hear my tales of eating it as a child.
Butterscotch sweets are thought to have been invented in Doncaster in the mid-19th century, made from butter, brown sugar and/or treacle; some recipes say the brown sugar sets butterscotch apart from other caramel-type sweets made with white sugar.
Caramel-type sweets can be confusing as they don’t seem to be very well defined. In fact, they are determined by a temperature scale which you can see marked on a sugar thermometer (a vital piece of kit if you are making any type of caramelised sugar sweets, and which has a scale that goes up to 200C). Starting with sugar and water, this mixture is heated to more than 100C; as the water evaporates, the sugar concentrates and starts to go brown.
The caramelisation is the series of reactions that heat causes, and ever more complex flavours are created as the sugar gets hotter. To make fudge, the temperature has to reach 115C (described as the soft ball stage), meaning the sugar-water ratio is 85:15. A soft caramel sweet, meanwhile, in order to give it that chewy texture, needs to reach 120C or the firm ball stage – so-called because if you drop some of the caramel into cold water it will cool in seconds and can be squidged into a firm ball. As the sugar and water mixture is heated, the caramel becomes darker and more interesting in terms of taste, developing a bitterness to balance the sweetness. The top of the scale is 150C, when the sugar is 99 per cent of the mixture and the caramel is at the hard crack stage – when cooled, this makes toffee.
For my recipe below, we’re not making sweets but instead adding the flavour of caramelised sugar to a dish. This means you can take the sugar temperature even higher (up to 170C) to create a more complex taste. When I first came to make it, I didn’t have any brown sugar to hand so used white instead; you can taste the difference between them, and it’s worth trying the dish both ways to test it yourself. It can be challenging to heat the sugar so intensely as it starts to smoke, but the careful addition of the cream at this temperature stops the sugar cooking.
It then dissolves into the cream, trapping the complex caramel in all of its bittersweet glory. It is this complex caramel taste which makes butterscotch Angel Delight so memorable.