Thursday, October 10, 2013

Caramels: From My Home Kitchen to Yours

I love to bake, but candy-making is something I've seldom attempted--until now. A recent visit to Good Karmal, a thriving caramel business in Bozeman, Montana, inspired me to take up the challenge of making these luscious, chewy confections in my own kitchen. After all, Halloween is just around the corner. What could be more appropriate than caramels to tame the cravings of neighborhood trick or treaters--or your own little live-in monsters?

A Google search turned up a promising recipe for "How to Make Soft, Chewy Caramel Candies," with clear directions and pictures from a website called The Kitchn. My only beef was the use of corn syrup, which I usually avoid--particularly the high-fructose variety. However, the other components--butter, cream, sugar, salt and vanilla--seemed perfect. Using 1/4 cup of organic corn syrup didn't sound like a major ethical lapse, especially as organic foods aren't permitted to contain GMOs--the genetically modified organisms that have become such a focus of controversy lately. If the recipe didn't turn out as expected, I figured  the worst that could happen would be that I'd end up with caramel soup--and then I'd just make a batch of caramel apples!

Caramel ingredients include cream, butter, sugar, salt, corn syrup, water and vanilla.

The ingredients and directions for making the caramel are clearly spelled out at the site, so I won't go into as much detail as you'll find there. Instead, here's the recipe and a few pictures from my first caramel-making experience, with basic steps and captions to tell you what I did and how it turned out. The pictures are not a step-by-step guide, so be sure to check out the original recipe for more specifics and suggestions.

Soft Caramels


1 cup heavy cream
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup corn syrup
1/4 cup water
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Prepare a caramel mold by lining an 8x8 baking dish with parchment sprayed with nonstick spray. Make sure some of the paper is hanging over the edges.

Butter melting, melting... What a world!
Over medium heat, melt the butter in the cream in a 2-quart saucepan and remove from the heat.

Volcanic action in the saucepan!
Combine the sugar, corn syrup and water in a 4-quart saucepan, with an instant-read thermometer attached to the side. Without stirring, cook the syrup over a medium to medium-high heat until the mixture begins to bubble around the edges, then turns into a whitish-brown frothing mass. 

At about 250 F the sugar syrup will begin to boil rapidly.
After the sugar mixture reaches 250 F but before it reaches 325 F, turn off the heat. Gently whisk the butter-cream mixture into the heated sugar syrup. It will bubble up quite a bit.

Magic effect of heat turns the buttery mix to liquid caramel.

Return the pan to medium to medium-high heat. Let the mixture boil without stirring until it reaches 245 F to 250 F. It will turn from a whitish bubbly mixture to a darker caramel color.

Cool caramel in parchment-lined 8x8 pan for at least 2 hours.
Remove the pan from the heat and whisk the vanilla into the caramel. Pour the caramel mixture into the lined 8x8-inch pan. Let it cool for at least 2 hours, preferably more. It should be solid enough to lift from the pan.

Cut caramels with a sharp knife. Spray with oil if it sticks.
When the caramel has set, lift the square of candy from the pan by the parchment flaps and set on a cutting surface. (I left the caramel in the parchment, which the knife ended up shredding, so it may be a better idea to remove the paper before the slicing begins.)

The caramels taste the same, whether you cut straight or not!
Cut the caramels into lines using a sharp knife. I used a 5" Victorinox Fibrox knife that I sharpened a little on my father's old sharpening blade.

Cut crosswise to make rectangles.
I found that my caramels were firm enough so that the knife didn't stick, but if it does, a quick spray of oil will do the trick. Also, try cutting more with the knife point than with the edge.

Wrap in wax paper, cut a bit longer than your candies.
Good Karmal candies (my models!) are wrapped in clear cellophane, which might be pretty for the holidays. I used wax paper, less fancy, but it worked fine as well. Using a more generous amount of paper than you think you need makes for a good firm tie. Remember to twist the ends in opposite directions.

Observations and Notes

Amounts & shelf life: The recipe claims to make 55 caramels, but I managed to get 73 out of my batch, with a few uneven bits ending up in the scrap pile (actually, we taste-tested them!). According to the recipe, the candies have a shelf life of two weeks at room temperature.

Temp reading: An accurate candy thermometer that hooks onto the side of the pan is essential. Mine kept sliding to one side out of the mix, so I had to adjust it and tilt the pan to make sure the tip was immersed in the liquid, allowing a temperature reading.

Potential eruptions: Walking away from the bubbling mass isn't a good idea as it is likely to burn or boil over. Also, make sure the larger pan you use is the appropriate size. The recipe calls for a 4-quart saucepan, but the only one I have is 3 1/2 quarts, which proved adequate.When you whisk the butter-cream mixture into the boiling sugar syrup, it will churn up like a volcanic eruption, so high sides are a plus!

Chocolate-dipped caramels + one lonely pecan
Variations: Check out endnotes for The Kitchn website's recipe on making salted, gingerbread or chocolate caramels. I tried my own experiment, dunking several of my finished caramels in a melted combination of equal parts dark and semisweet chocolate, with a tablespoon or so of added vegetable shortening. The result was delicious--but isn't anything dipped in chocolate?

Taste test: The caramels were chewy and sweet. I might try increasing the vanilla and salt next time to add more character. It would also be fun to experiment with flavors, such as espresso, mocha, ginger, chai or green tea.

P.S.: As my caramel-making experiment went so well, perhaps I'll tackle fudge next! If so, you'll read about it here.

Gift idea: Caramels in a Hersheypark Carousel tin replica

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