It can be made at home or made especially for you in small batches, from scratch, with quality ingredients. Caramel represents the fascinating properties of sugar and can be made in endless varieties to suit any taste. Umm...except those who lack a sweet tooth or cannot have sugar. I'm sad for people in either situation, but in very different ways.
All candy making depends on sugar's stages of melting. Unlike the boiling point behavior of a pure substance, water boils off proportionately to rising temperature, as it escapes the sugar's crystalline structure. After most or all of the water is gone, the sugar molecules actually begin to melt and consequently break down, turning brown and "caramelizing." Caramelization is responsible for many kitchen miracles, like grill marks, a good stir fry, anything that is cooked or baked until "golden, brown, and delicious," and good cooking in general.
When I had my candy company, I called it Fahrenheit, because of the importance of temperature in candy making. I've mentioned this before: a candy thermometer is important. Very important! So is knowing the stages of cooking sugar, which have fun names like "soft crack" and "hard ball." Sounds pretty serious, yeah? Well, if you like candy, it is.
This seriousness is actually one of the reasons I like making candy. I get to experiment and dream up flavor combinations, but I also get to be precise and finicky. Attention to detail and accuracy are necessary. Problem solving is involved and I'm willing to make several batches of a candy to see if I figured out the problem.
There are some tricks out there and plenty of modern-day ingredients that make things pretty easy (like corn syrup and sweetened condensed milk). However, I like to know the long way home before testing the shortcut. That way, I know the proper way of doing something and can make an informed decision about whether the cheater's way is worth it (see Cheater's Hollandaise - totally worth it).
Example: I grew up outside of a very small town in the mountains, the lovely Beulah, Colorado. To get to the main part of town, one can take the long way 'round: an extra mile of paved, not-too-windy road; or the cut-off: mostly dirt and sometimes treacherous. It turns out that the long way is generally safer and takes about the same amount of time as the cut-off. I feel this way about most things in life.
So, how about a recipe?
- 1 cup heavy cream, preferably organic (better quality and flavor, and usually contains higher fat content than conventional)
- 5 T. butter
- 1 t. salt
- 1 3/4 c. sugar
- 1/8 t. cream of tartar
- 2 T. brown rice syrup
In a small saucepan, combine cream, butter, and salt. Set over low heat and slowly bring to simmer. To avoid the cream boiling over, turn off the heat and cover once the mixture starts to simmer.
Meanwhile, put sugar and cream of tartar in a medium, heavy saucepan and stir to combine. Add 1/4 cup water and allow the sugar to be moistened completely by the liquid. Add the rice syrup, cover, and set to medium-high heat. Keep an eye on this - once the mixture comes to a boil, remove the lid and clip in a candy thermometer. I like to set a timer for five minutes from the moment I turn on the flame, so I remember to check the sugar before it boils over.
The sugar will take a while to get to temperature; we're aiming for hard crack/just beginning to caramelize/290-310 degrees Fahrenheit. While you are monitoring the sugar, prepare an 8x8 baking dish by spraying it with vegetable oil. I have recently discovered that ungreased silicone ice cube trays are also great for caramels.
Once the sugar gets to temperature (or begins to take on a tawny color), turn off the flame. Remove the thermometer, but keep it handy. Very slowly, poor the cream mixture into the sugar mixture, pausing to allow bubbling-up to subside. Once it has all been added, slowly and carefully stir to combine.
Clip the thermometer back into the pan and set the heat to medium. Prepare a glass of ice water and keep it close, along with several metal spoons. In Colorado, at altitude, you want to begin testing the final texture at about 232 degrees. To do this, turn the heat to very low, take a small spoonful of caramel, and place the spoon into the ice water. After a few seconds, taste the cooled caramel. If it's runny, turn the heat back up to medium and repeat your test every two degrees - until you reach the texture you like.
When the desired texture is achieved, turn off the flame. Let the caramel rest for a few seconds and allow the boiling to subside. Poor the caramel into the prepared baking dish or molds; do NOT scrape the bottom of the pan to get out every last bit. The final layer of caramel on the bottom of the saucepan is likely overcooked and too hard.
Allow the caramel to cool completely on a flat surface. Once cooled, pry out the slab onto a cutting board and cut into desired pieces. Wrap them in waxed paper. They will keep at room temperature for weeks!
*Soak any burned or leftover caramel in regular hot water. It will be easy to clean after a good soak, but won't be easy to scrub off right away.
**There are so many possibilites for customizing your caramels! I plan on making a recipe zine that includes my favorite variations. But as promised, replace three tablespoons of the butter with bacon fat and add a 1/4 teaspoon maple extract to the cream mixture for MAPLE BACON CARAMELS. You will not be disappointed. Unless you are a vegetarian.
***If you are feeling fancy and adventurous, dip the finished caramels in tempered chocolate. Sprinkle the chocolate with a little garnish of your choice before it sets.
****If your caramel got too hard when cooled, reheat your finished caramel (not yet in waxed paper!) in a low oven, until it is pliable. Transfer to a saucepan and heat over a low flame. Add one tablespoon of heavy cream and mix in thoroughly (but not vigorously!). Once the caramel starts to simmer, remove from heat immediately and poor back into your baking dish.