People have been making a version of caramel pretty much since the advent of refined sugar, I would think - so, you'd expect the process would by now be well and truly sorted out. But, it seems not. No two versions that I've ever come across agree with each other - and the rather vague language the writers generally use makes me suspect that they've all had a nasty experience with the stuff at some point in the past (and which experienced cook hasn't? I know I have - it's almost impossible not to!)
Over the years, I've tried all sorts of different methods - the one where you laboriously brush the sides of the pan with cold water as the sugar bubbles...or the version where you dunk the bottom of the pan into iced water as soon as the caramel starts to colour - and the method given below is the only one I've tried that I really like and have found completely reliable. It's also the only one which uses lemon juice within the mixture, and although I have no idea structurally what difference it should make, it certainly seems to make the process much more straightforward. It comes from Anna del'Conte's 'Entertaining all'Italiana'...a book which briefly saw the light of day towards the end of the eighties and then seems to have sunk without trace.
The quantity is sufficient to use in six ramekins for either panna cotta or crème caramel.
Ingredients: 75g sugar; 3 tbs water; 1 tsp lemon juice.
Place all ingredients in a pan, and bring slowly to the boil, stirring gently with a wooden spoon. It will take some time to start to colour, but will then turn first a pale gold and then dark brown. At that point, remove it immediately from the heat and pour it into the containers. (NB: if using the caramel to line ramekins, it is best to heat them first in a 170 degree C oven for five minutes - this will prevent the caramel from 'seizing' when coming into contact with cold porcelain.)