Vespa's recipes have appeared in "Midwest Living" and "Taste of Home." She belongs to Cook's Recipe Testers for "Cook's Illustrated."
Salted Caramel Recipes
Caramel is loved in the world all over, in all its many forms. In South America, it is called manjar, cajeta or dulce de leche, which literally means "sweet of milk". Cooked to a spread-like consistency, it is then enjoyed on a spread, spread between layers of cake or marbled through ice cream.
In North America, it is usually cooked to the firm ball stage and sliced into squares or poured over apples. In the past, old-school wisdom dictated the creation of pure, unadulterated caramels with the freshest ingredients and no additional salt. This salted version, though, is so seductive it will do the tango with your tastebuds. And remember, these are not the commercial caramels that pull fillings from teeth. The soft texture means they truly do melt in the mouth.
My love of caramel stretches back to my childhood. One of my fondest memories is of my mother standing patiently at her stove, stirring the contents of a copper pot with her wooden spoon. I wait, feet bare on the linoleum floor as a sweet, buttery fragrance wafts provocatively across the room.
Finally, after my mother shuffles around the kitchen for what seems like hours, she steps back with a sigh of contentment. Standing on my tiptoes, I peek over the counter and admire her latest creation: tiny, golden lumps of caramel lined up like a marching band at Halftime. Unfortunately, I am banished to my bedroom after abruptly stuffing a fistful of candies into my mouth, where they melt on my tongue like ice cream on a summer sidewalk.
I never forgot those butter caramels, and I never stopped begging my mother for more. At a young age, I learned to appreciate the artisanal quality of homemade candy. Since then, I've frequented old-fashioned candy shops with their marble countertops and rows of fudge, English toffees, caramels and chocolates just waiting to be wrapped up in brown paper and twine. Usually, though, I devour my finds long before I reach the comfort of my home.
Although candy-making may seem like the culinary equivalent of climbing Mount Everest, don't despair! With proper preparation and technique, anyone can turn a pot of molten, lava-hot syrup into an impressive dessert or gift. Just set aside an afternoon or evening, pour a glass of wine, and rely on the following step-by-step instructions as your guide. After successfully completing a couple of batches, you, too, will become a candy-making expert and the talk of your family and friends.
Homemade Butter Caramels
|Prep time||Cook time||Ready in||Yields|
2 hours 30 min
- 3 cups white sugar
- 1 cup corn syrup (please see tip #2, above, for substitutions)
- 3 cups heavy cream
- 1 cup unsalted butter
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract or 1 vanilla bean, split and heated in milk
- Himalayan pink salt, fleur de sel, Celtic or Maldon sea salt or other quality finishing salt
- Line a 12x15-inch pan with parchment paper and lightly brush with oil. Do not substitute aluminum foil or wax paper for the parchment or the candy will stick. Alternatively, you could line the pan with a Silpat or silicone baking mat instead of the parchment.
- In a small pot, bring the cream, butter and kosher salt (and vanilla bean, if using) to a simmer over medium heat. Turn off the heat and set aside. Remove the vanilla bean just before proceeding to step 4.
- In a very deep pot, combine sugar and syrup(s) and bring to a boil over medium heat, swirling the pot and boiling until the mixture turns golden brown. Don't stir, except to scrape down the sides of the pot one time. Just swirl.
- When the sugar mixture turns golden brown, turn off the heat and slowly add the warm cream/butter mixture. It will bubble violently for a few seconds. Stir in the vanilla extract (if not using vanilla bean) with a silicone spatula or wooden spoon.
- Continue to boil over medium-low heat for 10-30 minutes, stirring only when necessary to keep the candy from sticking to the sides and bottom of the pot until the mixture reaches 248 degrees Fahrenheit on a candy thermometer or firm ball stage. (See tips #5 & 6, above.)
- Carefully pour caramel into the prepared pan. (See tip #9, below.)
- Refrigerate caramel for 30 minutes to an hour, until firm but still warm. Do not allow it to cool completely, or it will be difficult to slice.
- Turn caramel onto a cutting board and peel off the parchment paper or Silpat.
- Heat the knife over the flame of a gas stove or coat it with oil to make slicing easier.
- Cut in half the long way, then cut in half again so you have four long rectangles of caramel. You can either cut the caramel into squares or, if you prefer, start with the long side, roll the caramel into logs. Slice into chunks, then slice chunks in half again for smaller caramels.
- Sprinkle with salt, being careful not to salt the candies too much.
- Cut parchment or wax paper into 4x5 inch pieces and wrap each caramel individually, rolling them up in the paper and then twisting the ends. Store in the refrigerator in an airtight container and serve caramels chilled with a cup of coffee. Can be stored for up to one month.
Variations: Add chopped nuts to the prepared pan for nut caramels. Dip caramel squares in chocolate. Or create your own caramel concoctions such as cardamom pistachio, espresso, coconut or orange. The sky's the limit! If making caramel apples, allow the caramel to cool a bit and, while still pourable, dip the apples.
Foolproof Tips for Perfect Candy
- Before you begin, assemble the tools of your trade: a heat-proof spatula (we prefer Le Creuset's silicone spatula) or wooden spoon, an accurate candy thermometer, a bowl of ice water and oven mitts to safely handle the hot sugar syrup.
- You can use 1 cup corn syrup, which will yield a firmer caramel or a combination of 1/2 cup corn syrup plus 1/2 cup golden or rice syrup. You could also substitute 3/4 cup mild honey for the corn syrup, although it will result in a softer caramel.
- Try evaporated milk instead of half of the cream, but be aware that fresh ingredients such as real cream yield the most delicious caramels.
- If you decide to use salted butter, decrease kosher salt to 1/4 teaspoon.
- Heat the caramel to 248 degrees Fahrenheit, or firm ball stage. For high altitudes, subtract one degree for each increase of 500 feet above sea level. For example, if you live at 2,000 feet above sea level, heat candy to only 244 degrees Fahrenheit.
- If using a candy thermometer, test it in a cup of boiling water. It should read 212 degrees Fahrenheit. If not, adjust the recipe accordingly. In my experience, thermometers are often inaccurate. Always use thermometers in conjunction with the ice water test described in tip 7.
- Keep a bowl of ice water handy. When you think the candy has reached the firm ball stage, scoop up half a teaspoonful of caramel and plunge it into the ice water. It should firm up enough to hold its shape once removed from the water.
- Be patient, and don't rush the process. It's better to cook at a lower temperature, even though the candy will take longer to reach the firm ball stage. You can't rescue burned candy. If you don't boil the caramel long enough and it doesn't firm up, you can always boil it again until it reaches a firm ball or use it as a sauce for ice cream.
- Don't stir too much, only when necessary. Too much stirring will encourage sugar crystals to bind together.
- Be very careful when handling syrup. It will be very hot! Wear long sleeves and use oven mitts to protect arms and hands while pouring candy into the prepared pan.
- Recruit a candy-making partner or turn on your favorite tunes, relax and enjoy the process!
- Please don't use table salt in caramel making.