Last night I was struck with a sweet tooth that could only be cured by the delicately smooth soft caramels made at See’s Candies. Sadly it was 9 pm and I had none. What’s a girl to do in such despair? Time to get out the sugar and butter!
A few things one needs to know before the pursuit of caramel perfection:
When understanding the development of rich caramel flavor you must look beyond the caramelization of the sugars. Though it receives its name from caramelization much of caramels color and luscious saccharine comes from the reactions between the sugars used and the proteins (amino acids) found in dairy or nuts. This “Maillard reaction’ is the same browning and flavoring found in the crust of baked breads, roasted coffee or cocoa beans, and crust on seared meats.
Cooking sugar to different stages (thread, soft ball, firm ball, hard ball, soft crack, hard crack, caramel) is definitely a practice makes perfect skill but it can be achieved if you –
- Put in the time to fully understand the technique before attempting.
- Use proper equipment needed ie; candy thermometer, copper or heavy bottomed sauce pot.
- Always, always, always be careful! Boiling sugar on your skin is not something you want to experience.
- If you don’t succeed try, try again. (I have faith you’ll get it the first time around)
There are two methods to cooking sugar, wet and dry.
- Dry method: Melting small amounts of sugar and gradually adding in the remaining sugar without stirring. In this form the sugar is caramelizing as soon as it melts. Adding a touch of acid like lemon juice will prevent crystallization of sugars. This is usually used for caramel sauces like in flan. This will harden upon heat removal.
- Wet method: Combining many ingredients including but not limited to sugar, corn syrup, milk products and butter in a sauce pot. The ingredients are then cooked down to evaporate the liquids. In the wet method corn syrup will prevent the crystallization of sugars as well and provide chewy-ness. Only the wet method allows you to reach the various stages of sugar.
To make free form Soft Caramels we use the wet method.
Fun Fact about Caramel: Before Milton S. Hershey joined the esteemed ranks of Ghirardelli, Cadbury, and Theodore Tobler he owned the wildly successful Lancaster Caramel Company. Milton started the company in 1886 but after seeing a German Chocolate-making Machine at the 1893 Wold’s Columbia Exposition he became fascinated with chocolate. He bought the machine on the spot and had big plans. In 1894 the Hershey Chocolate Company became a subsidiary of LCC. Milton believed that caramel was a fad that would soon fade so in 1900 he sold Lancaster Caramel Company for 1 Million Dollars. I feel it’s necessary to repeat, in 1900 he sold LCC for 1 million, now that’s a business man! In 1906 Milton introduced the Hershey Kiss which made chocolate affordable to the masses and brought it into homes across America as the new delicacy of choice. We learned this at the Hershey Museum on my baby-moon vacation. If you ever get the chance to go to Hershey, Pennsylvania it is a precious gem of a city, lined with Hershey’s kiss street lamps and has an enticing smell of chocolate morsels! There is also a theme park but as I was seven months pregnant we opted out of the roller coasters.
Salted Vanilla Bean Soft Caramels
Recipe Yeild – 3 dozen (2×1 inch) individually wrapped caramels or 1 (9×13 inch) baking pan
1/2 cup (4oz) Water
2 cups or (1lb) Granulated Sugar
1 cup (12oz) Light Corn Syrup
14 oz (1 can) Sweetened Condensed Milk
1-2 Vanilla Beans, sliced down the center to release seeds
1 & 1/2 sticks (6oz) Unsalted Butter, soft
2 tsp Iodized Salt (to mix in)
2 tsp Kosher Salt (to garnish)
Lightly butter 9×13 baking pan, preferably metal as it will cool the caramel faster than glass.
In a 4 quart (no smaller because the sugar will boil rapidly) sauce pot combine all ingredients with the exception of the salts.
Attach candy thermometer to the sauce pot, I used a digital candy and oil thermometer.
Bring to a boil on med-high to high stirring continuously with a heat-resistant spatula to avoid scorching the sugars.
The caramel needs to raise in temperature rapidly to 245 degrees. I would estimate about 15 minutes (my apologies, I forgot to keep an eye on the time). When hot the finished product will be thick but pour-able and light caramel in color. You will be able to see little black specks of vanilla seeds.
Remove the 245 degree caramel from the heat and stir in the iodized salt.
Very carefully, pour the hot Caramel into the buttered 9×13 pan and remove the vanilla bean pod.
Let cool for at least two hours or more, about half way through cooling evenly sprinkle the coarse kosher salt.
Wax paper cut into 3&1/2 inch by 6 inch strips. About 3 dozen.
When caramel is totally cool take a knife and trace the edge to loosen, the caramel will loosely lift out with the help of a flat spatula.
Cut caramels 2 inches by 1 inch with a lightly buttered knife (not serrated).
Place the caramels in the center of the wax paper salt side down and tri-fold paper over with twisted ends. Try to keep out as much air as possible as the humidity will negatively affect the caramels.
These make wonderful inexpensive Homemade Holiday Gifts!