The holidays in my family always heralded a candy dish full of my Grandma Neufang’s homemade, delicious soft candy caramels, individually offered in a simple, homey waxed paper wrapper, twisted whimsically at both ends. I remember spending Christmas day with my family at my grandmother’s, then reluctantly going home at the end of the day, bidding the holiday adieu for another year – but not without my grandma pressing bagfuls of her caramels into our hands at the door. Baked’s recipe for Soft Candy Caramels from Baked Explorations may not be the same as my grandmother’s, but I have to think the ingredients and technique are indeed, rather similar.
Surprisingly, I’ve never attempted candy caramels at Christmas before, but then again, boiling sugar makes me slightly nervous and I wouldn’t classify myself as a candy maker. Though I’m probably the biggest baker in my family, I’ve gladly surrendered this tradition to my sister Jill, who – I’ve gotta say – has aced them. I was interested to see how I would fare this week when Baked Sunday Mornings gave me the opportunity to finally break out that pot and set to work with some boiling sugar and cream once again.
The unfortunate obstacle I immediately faced was that all of my pots, bought several years ago, are nonstick, and therefore have a dark interior which makes it difficult to make a burnt sugar mixture – where you really need to pay attention to color change. With the exception of a skillet or two, I’m not a huge proponent of nonstick cookware. I did purchase a small, cheap, metal saucepan at a grocery store (believe it or not) which I typically use for caramel making and melting chocolate, but I knew immediately that I would need to use a much deeper pan for these candy caramels, as it makes a large batch. Additionally, nonstick/Teflon-coated interior pans really should not be heated at the excessive temperatures required for candy making. Still, with no other choice, I soldiered on. (In other words, if you already have a stainless steel, NICE set of pots and pans, you’re already ahead of me on doing this the right way! That set of cookware is fast going on my wish list for next year!)
The recipe begins with combining an entire 16-ounce bottle of light corn syrup (gulp; not a favorite ingredient of mine) with a cup each of sugar and brown sugar and a 1/4 cup of water. This mixture is stirred gently over low heat to dissolve the sugars, then brought to a bubbly temperature of about 240 degrees using a candy thermometer clipped to the side of the pan. I would advise: a) investing in a good, accurate candy thermometer (see Baked’s tip for testing your thermometer in the book), and b) sticking around 240 degrees and no higher whenever you heat up this caramel mixture. Though the recipe states that you can go up to 250 (and while I do trust the Baked guys’ advice implicitly), I found that 240 degrees was sufficient. Keep an eye on the mixture until it turns a golden amber hue; this may be difficult, as the mixture contains brown sugar, which already colors it a bit. As a ‘back-up’ plan for gauging if I am at the right point, I use my nose and smell it! If it smells slightly browned and burnt, you’ve reached the right point, as caramel is essentially a burnt sugar (don’t be alarmed). If it’s smoking slightly, you’re definitely there – get that off the heat right away!
Warmed sweetened condensed milk and heavy cream is added to the boiling sugar, along with the essential ingredient to successful caramels, in my book – butter. Immediately, you achieve that ‘fun’ moment when the mixture bubbles up somewhat furiously and you need to stir, just as furiously, to keep it all smooth and homogenous. Place this entire mixture, candy thermometer still attached to the pan, over the heat to again cook and heat up, without stirring – to no higher than 240 degrees F. With the addition of the cream, bear in mind that this will take a little bit longer than your initial heating of the sugars. The mixture produces large, bursting bubbles (keep at a safe distance) and will start to thicken. At this point, you will remove the pan from the heat, stir in vanilla and salt (I used fleur de sel), and pour the mixture into a foil-lined and buttered 9-inch pan. I initially thought this would not yield a lot of caramels, but trust me, it does!
All that remained for the caramels was an overnight rest on the kitchen counter. The next day, the caramels are cut with a buttered chef’s knife into small squares or rectangles, then wrapped up in squares of waxed paper (or fancy, colored wrappers, if you so desire). My blog photos to the contrary, you will definitely need to wrap these. If you store your caramels ‘naked’, they will dry and stick together (I found this out after a few minutes’ of shooting photos!). Your caramels should be soft and chewy; if they are not, you’ve boiled the sugar too far and they may be jawbreakers, and actually, impossible to cut. I would hate for this to happen to you – but this is largely due to a faulty candy thermometer, so make sure your thermometer is accurate. Have patience and realize that caramel-making, in general, is a process that is trial and error. You may have to endure a few burnt batches to finally hit gold.
Fortunately, my first foray into making these caramels was a success… but then again, I’ve made a lot of caramel, thanks to Baked and their love of all things caramel! The caramels are the perfect texture – chewy, soft, and smooth, with the exception of a few pieces of slightly browned, crystallized sugar in a few spots. Though I was initially a bit upset to find that these bits had worked their way into my otherwise perfect caramel, upon first taste I discovered they weren’t really a detriment; more of a nice, occasional contrast to the bite of the caramel. I’m hoping and praying those aren’t bits of Teflon from the pan – yuck!
I also personally prefer a nice buttery taste in caramels such as these, and this recipe hits the target. Caramels without a buttery taste quotient are boring caramels, in my book, and this recipe produces caramels with just the right buttery finish.
While I will continue to bow to my sister’s prowess at making the superior Neufang family caramels, I was proud of my first venture with this recipe – and I’d like to think my grandma is smiling up there in heaven at my attempts as well. I’ve discovered that these caramels also spread wonderful holiday cheer! In the past week since making these, I’ve conveniently stowed handfuls of them in my coat pockets to share with my co-workers and fellow actors at rehearsal. I like to think that spreading a little more sugar around at the holidays cannot help but do anything but bring smiles to everyone’s faces! They also make make perfect homemade gifts, stored in a decorative tin or treat bag tied with ribbon.
Baked’s recipe can be found by following this link: http://bakedsundaymornings.com/2012/12/09/in-the-oven-soft-candy-caramels. As always, be sure to check out the Sunday morning posts of my fellow bloggers as well. You may find some other very helpful tips, pointers, and thoughts before you attempt your own candy caramels!