Like most of us in my generation, we were raised on the good old standby, the Kraft caramel. Nothing wrong with them, really. In fact, we loved them. They came in tiny individually wrapped morsels and were only found during the holidays, starting with Halloween.
Now, those were fine when we were kids. Basically, because we didn’t know any better.
However, for me anyway, once I had my first soft, small-batch caramel, Kraft just didn’t do it for me anymore. I decided to learn how to make my own.
And, here is the result.
A short history of the caramel by Samira Kawash from www.gastrnomica.org:
“Caramels first appeared on the American candy scene in the 1880s and its lineage is obscure. In flavor and character, what we know today as caramel candy is closely related to British toffee and butterscotch, which appeared in the early 1800s. British candy historian Laura Mason suggests that caramels might have evolved in the spirit of dental charity—a softer counterpart to the hard-on-the-teeth British toffee. Stephen Schmidt, author of Dessert in America and an expert in the history of American desserts, looks to the other side of the Channel for caramel origins: “The inspiration behind American caramels were French caramels, which came to this country during the vogue for French cooking of the Gilded Age.”
Whatever its British or French origins, the caramel candy that appeared at the end of the nineteenth century was uniquely American. Home recipes most closely resembled the French version, employing basic combinations of butter, sugar, cream and flavorings. But more unique confections were spilling out of professional candy kitchens: In their quest for market share and profit, commercial producers would experiment with such ingredients as paraffin, glucose, coconut butter, flour, and molasses to alter the texture, firmness and quality of the candies.
As Catherine Owen attempted to explain to her 1887 candy-making aspirants: “Caramel is really sugar boiled until it changes color, but the candy understood as ‘caramels’ is something different.” Sara Rorer’s 1889 Home Candy Making, for example, gives a recipe for “caramel” that includes only sugar and water, boiled to “the consistency of molasses.” This would be sugar cooked to a very high temperature, over 330 degrees. Caramel candy recipes, in contrast, cook sugar with milk or butter at lower temperatures. This is the flavor prized today as “caramel,” but for Americans in the 1880s and 1890s, that distinctive taste was not so closely attached to the caramel candy sensation. Even in caramel candy’s heyday, chocolate’s appeal and marketability were undeniable. Hence the famed Philadelphia Caramel, which was, as everybody on the eastern seaboard knew, a chewy morsel of chocolate.
Milton Hershey, who would go on to found the Hershey’s chocolate empire, began as a caramel man; his Lancaster Caramels were advertised to include a mix of 30 varieties. Prior to Hershey’s chocolate innovations of the 1890s, milk chocolate was a closely guarded European secret. Chocolate bars for eating were imported, expensive delicacies. Caramel, in contrast, could be made for every taste and budget. Caramel candy in that era was not a specific variety, but a generic form: so Hershey sold chocolate, strawberry, coffee, maple, and coconut caramels. Our familiar plain caramel would have been known in that day as another flavor, vanilla. Soon, the caramels got fancier. Nuts, cream centers, or even chocolate dipped. One day, Hershey looked at those chocolate dipped caramels and saw a new direction for his company. Exit caramels, enter the Hershey Bar.”
Candy making, for the most part, is pure common sense.
1. Don’t touch or spill the hot sugar. Especially on yourself or anyone else. There’s a reason pastry chefs and candy makers call this stuff napalm. Have no distractions (i.e. kids, pets, alcohol, etc.) in the kitchen when you are working with molten sugar.
2. Don’t make candy on a humid day. Believe it or not, the difference between 25% and 50% humidity can affect the way the candy sets up. The wetter the day, the quicker the sugars will break down before setting up completely. In other words, the sugar in the candy will absorb the extra moisture in the air, causing it to become a sticky mess.
Conventional wisdom holds that candy is best made on a cold, dry day. Like, say, in Texas, February.
3. Use a candy thermometer. A reliable candy thermometer. Mine is a Taylor brand that I’ve used for so long, I’ve managed to scrub off the numbers:
My thermometer is the older-style mercury type. If the bulb on this breaks, because mercury is, well, poisonous, I’ll not only have to throw away the thermometer and what I am making, but the saucepan as well.
The newer thermometers are made with alcohol that’s been dyed red. These aren’t as dangerous if the bulb breaks. You can at least clean out the saucepan and use it again.
These should go from tempering chocolate (90F) up to roughly 400F. A good candy thermometer will also be labeled with the stages of cooking sugar (thread, soft ball, firm ball, hard ball, soft crack, hard crack). Also, most good candy thermometers can also be used for deep-frying as well.
4. Don’t let the bulb on your thermometer touch the bottom of the saucepan. (The better thermometers have the bulb about 1/4″ to 1/2″ from the bottom). Otherwise, you could get a false reading.
5. Use the right sized saucepan for what you’re making. Too large and the sugar will cook too quickly and burn. Too small and the sugar will boil over and burn not only the stove, but you.
Also, invest in some heavy-bottomed saucepans. Flimsy, thin saucepans (or any cookware) are no good for anything, but especially bad for candy making.
6. Read the recipe carefully and thoroughly before starting. Have everything ready to go. Your ingredients should be measured, your utensils ready to go, your pans prepared, and a clear path made. There is a lot of “hurry up and wait” in candy making; but when things start to happen, they happen fast. Pre-preparation is essential.
7. Watch for crystallization. This happens when the liquid in the saucepan can no longer absorb the sugar. You end up with just a big cake of sugar in the saucepan. There’s no fixing this. If it happens, you have to start over.
The best way I’ve found to combat this is to simply make sure all of the sugar is moistened before I start to cook it. I just gently push the sugar down and around in the liquid (usually water and corn syrup) until it is completely moistened. Then, I put the saucepan over medium-low heat and let it cook without stirring the mixture. I let the sugars dissolve on their own. The more you agitate the mixture, the more likely you’ll get crystallization. So, fight every instinct you have and DON’T STIR.
If you do happen to get some sugar crystals on the side of the saucepan, take a pastry brush, dip it some water, and brush the sides of the saucepan to dissolve the sugar. If there are any solid, un-moistened crystals, they can also cause crystallization.
Once the sugar comes to a boil and all of the sugar has dissolved, you can, carefully, stir to your heart’s content. The danger for crystallization has passed.
8. Don’t cook the sugar too fast. Medium-low to medium heat is ideal. You want to give the sugar time to dissolve and the moisture to begin to evaporate before the mixture comes to a boil. This also gives you more ability to control the temperature and greatly reduces the risk of the sugar burning.
9. Do not double up a recipe or substitute unless you’re an experienced candy maker. Candy recipes, along with baking recipes, are like scientific formulas. If you throw it out of balance or change an element, the whole experiment could fail.
Or, be a spectacular success.
a) If you want to have unsalted caramels, simply use all unsalted butter and omit the salts.
b) In this example, I use a combination of brown and white sugars. I think the flavor and color are simply better. However, if you prefer to use all white sugar, go ahead.
c) I used almond extract in this example. Again, because I like the flavor. The more traditional flavoring is vanilla, so, if you have that, use it. Just make sure, either way, you’re using pure extract, not artificial flavoring.
d) Use cream and butter. This is non-negotiable.
1 c. sugar
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. light brown sugar
1/4 c. water
1/4 c. light corn syrup
3/4 c. heavy cream
4 tbsp. unsalted butter
4 tbsp. salted butter
1 tsp. vanilla or almond extract
1/2 tsp. fine sea salt
1/2 tsp. Fleur de Sel or flaked (Maldon) sea salt
1. Line 9-inch loaf pan with parchment paper or foil. Make it as smooth as you can. Make sure there are no holes in the foil or paper as you press it down. If you accidentally poke a hole or make a tear, you need a new piece. Spray or butter the paper or foil and set the pan aside.
2. In a small saucepan, place the cream, butter, and 1/2 tsp. sea salt and bring the cream to a boil over medium heat.
Take the pan off the heat, add the extract, cover the saucepan and keep warm.
3. In a medium saucepan fitted with a candy thermometer, combine the sugar, corn syrup, and water.
Over medium heat, bring the mixture to a boil (don’t stir!) and cook until they syrup reaches 302F (Hard Crack).
(Note: This is the progression of the syrup on my stove. Your times and temperatures may vary.)
Once the sugar gets past 285F – 290F, it will begin to caramelize. Be sure to swirl the pan so the sugar doesn’t burn (especially of you’re using only white sugar)
A tip: When you’re using a larger saucepan, the thermometer may not reach down to the syrup. Carefully tilt the saucepan so the syrup covers the bulb of the thermometer so you will get an accurate reading. Also, be patient. It will take some time for the thermometer to read accurately. Wait until the mercury stops moving.
4. Once the sugar has reached 302F, take the saucepan off the heat, and CAREFULLY pour the warm cream mixture into the syrup, stirring constantly to combine.
If the syrup begins to harden, place the saucepan back on the heat and continue to stir.
5. Cook the mixture to 240F (Soft Ball). At this point, it’s OK to stir occasionally.
(Again, these are based on my stove. Again, your times and temperatures may vary.)
This will make a soft caramel. If you want a firmer caramel, cook to 245F (Firm Ball).
6. Take the saucepan off the heat, give the caramel one more good stir, and carefully pour the finished caramel into the prepared pan.
Wait 10 – 15 minutes and the sprinkle on the fleur de sel or flaked sea salt over the top. Let the caramel sit until set, at least 2 hours or up to overnight.
7. Lift the cooled caramel out of the pan with the paper or foil. Cut the caramel into pieces as big or as small as you like.
Keep them in an airtight container either individually wrapped or between layers of wax paper for up to 2 weeks.
If you decide to wrap the pieces, you can do it simply with wax paper you no doubt have already in the drawer. Don’t go out and buy the fancy wrappers – unless you really want to.
Hey. It’s the holidays.
Makes approximately 32 – 48 pieces.