[caption id="attachment_549" align="aligncenter" width="545" caption="The caramel stuck to the pan in only one place, which produced this lovely work of art."][/caption]
One of the things I'm beginning to love about the holidays is the freedom to unapologetically retreat for hours at a time to the kitchen. Today I'm preparing a rich vegetable stock with roasted vegetables and dry red wine. Tomorrow I'll use that stock for a hearty vegetarian shepherd's pie to take to a friend's house for dinner. Yesterday, though… Yesterday was a great day for caramels. Cold, rainy, and cloudy — really, what else is there do on a day like that? Cue favorite Good Will Hunting quote:
Maybe we could go somewhere and just eat a bunch of caramels.
I've made caramel before, but never with any success. It has always been a miserable fruitless endeavor that ended in a sticky mess of liquid brown stuff. Sure, it tasted alright, but it didn't look like the pictures! (And that matters, okay?)
Yesterday I gave it another go. Vance's family has a long history of making Christmas cookies and candies together. In an attempt to find some sweets we'd both enjoy to continue that tradition, I landed on a recipe for caramels. I pulled out all the stops — got out the biggest pot, the best quality local and organic ingredients, and (the key tool I was always missing in the past) a candy thermometer. I also set aside the whole afternoon, as everything I'd read told me it would take two hours of continuous stirring to get it right.
Miraculously, I ended up spending "only" one hour stirring, 15 minutes of which was taken care of by the wonderful husband. Caramels truly are a labor of love. The more love you put into them, the better they'll taste.
I'll give you one piece of advice about making caramels: Do it in the largest, heaviest pot you can find. You want a pot that heats evenly and holds more than three times the volume of liquid called for in the recipe. At its highest boil, your pot will most assuredly overflow if you pick a pot that holds any less (speaking from experience). Okay, here's another piece of advice (free of charge!): don't ever walk away from the pot. Grab a stool, turn on some Cooking Channel, and keep on stirring.
Homemade Caramels with French Grey Sea Salt
This recipe is adapted from one originally found in The Atlantic magazine.
- 1/2 cup organic unsalted butter
- 4 cups organic unbleached sugar
- 2 cups corn syrup
- 4 cups organic whole milk
- 1 cup organic cream
- ½ cup water
- 4 teaspoons vanilla extract
- French Grey Sea Salt (or visit the Spice and Tea Exchange for another salt of your choosing)
You'll also need a candy thermometer, a huge pot, and waxed paper. Also recommended: a stool to sit on while you stir.
Begin melting the butter in your largest pot over medium high heat. While the butter is melting, add the sugar, corn syrup, milk, cream, and water and begin stirring. As the mixture comes to a full rolling boil it increases in volume by at least three times. Keep stirring, lifting a corner of the pan off the stove for a few moments if it looks like it's going to boil over.
Scrape down the sides of the pot frequently. Insert your candy thermometer when the mixture starts to turn a light golden brown. Keep stirring until the mixture reaches 238-240° (soft ball stage on my candy thermometer). Quickly remove the mixture from the heat, stir in the vanilla, and pour into a small, well-buttered brownie pan. The original recipe called for an 8½x11" pan, but we used an 8x8" pan with excellent results. You'll cut the candy down to size in the end anyway, so the most important thing is that it's well-buttered can hold all of the hot caramel.
Allow the caramels to cool until the bottom of the pan is only slightly warm to the touch. You can use this time to cut up some wax paper into 4-6-inch squares.
When the caramel is ready to remove from the pan, run a spatula down the edges of the pan and pry the block out all at once. set the block on a large piece of wax paper on a cutting board. Using a large, oiled knife, cut the block into ½-1 inch pieces, using a light sawing motion to get the knife through the caramel without it sticking.
Dip one side of each caramel in the grey sea salt, brushing off any excess grains of salt. (You may need to test one or two to determine the amount of salt you like on top of each piece). Place in the middle of a square of wax paper. Fold up one side, roll to the opposite side, and twist the ends gently to secure.
Ideally you'll do this as a family with a bit of an assembly line. Vance and I shared all the caramel making duties, since Chester couldn't roll up caramels in the absence of opposable thumbs.
[caption id="attachment_553" align="aligncenter" width="545" caption="Some of the finished caramels. I can't wait to give these to our friends and family!"][/caption]