Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Homemade Caramels

It's back!  It's back!  My desire to bake and blog is back!!  I should modify that slightly.  Technically, I still have no desire to "bake" anything -- no oven, no stand mixer -- and I don't know why (*whimper*).  I do know, however, that I want to learn how to make every single kind of candy that exists.  Not sure where this overwhelming need came from, but I'll take it... and so will you.  :)

It's not like I've ever had any success with candy.  My one previous attempt went terribly wrong when I broke the cardinal (sidenote:  Go Cardinals!) rule of candy making -- never make candy on a rainy or humid day.  Maybe the recent shift to cool, dry weather set off my internal baking barometer.  Also, when's the last time you had homemade hard candy or homemade nouget or homemade gum drops?  I was intrigued.

Also, my inner geek loves the precision and science of candy-making.  A good candy thermometer is a must because a few degrees can make a huge difference. Plus, it has it's own language -- firm ball, soft ball, hard crack, thread, and so on -- to describe the stages of cooking sugar.  These terms aren't used as much now that candy thermometers are reliable and inexpensive, but it's sort of fun to know that you can make taffy at the soft crack stage and toffee at the hard crack stage. 

I thought I'd start with a classic candy:  Caramel.  Not the ooey-gooey liquid kind you drizzle over ice cream, but the chewy, semi-solid pieces of candy that are individually wrapped like little presents.  While I was handing out my caramels to anyone who would try one, it was funny to hear how people thought caramel was made.  One person said that it had gelatin in it to make it chewy and another person thought it was just melted brown sugar.  

Turns out that caramel has five very basic ingredients:  heavy cream, butter, sugar, corn syrup and water. You start things off by boiling the cream and butter in pot #1 and setting it aside to slightly cool.

Then the fun starts in pot #2.  This is where the magic happens.  First, you set up the candy thermometer against the side of the pot, making sure that the tip is submerged, but not touching the bottom.  On medium-high heat, boil the sugar, syrup, and water and stir until the sugar is dissolved..  Once the sugar is dissolved, you stop stirring, but occasionally jiggle the pot to jostle the liquid around.

As the temperature goes up, the color of the sugar darkens.  Later, you will need to carefully watch for the caramel to reach a perfect 248 degrees (firm ball stage), but for now, it's okay if the sugar/syrup/water goes above that -- I let mine get up to 300. 

Once it's a nice golden color (or just stop at 300ish), grab Pot #1 and very carefully pour the cream/butter into Pot #2.  IT. WILL. GO. CRAZY.  And that's fine -- just start stirring and mixing it all together. That's why you need to make sure you're using a big enough pot. It also needs to be a heavy-bottomed pot so that it doesn't heat up too fast. Once the scalding liquid calms down, you'll probably see a flood stage line like this:

Aww, reminds me of the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1993.  Memories.
Now you need to start watching the thermometer like the paparazzi on the Pitt-Jolies. The temperature was hovering around 300 before you added the cream/butter, but that addition will drop it below 240.  You're going sit, watch, and occasionally stir until the candy thermometer reads exactly 248 degrees. Not 247 and not 249... 248 exactly.  I actually took mine off the heat at approximately 247 and 3/4.  I figured it might keep cooking just a smidge during the transfer to the pan. 

This can take anywhere from 10 to 40 minutes depending on the stove, the pan, and the flame. So watch it!

Almost there...
As soon as it was ready, I poured the boiling caramel into the prepared pan.  But of course, my first attempt at caramel wasn't going to go perfectly.  I had prepped an 8x8 baking pan by lining it with parchment paper so it would be ready for the liquid caramel.  However, apparently I did not leave enough of an overhang because the weight of the caramel made the sides flop into the sticky stuff immediately.  I quickly transferred the pan to a cooling rack on the kitchen table, but all of the sides kept flopping over!  Todd was out running errands, so with one arm I held the paper down and with the other arm, I grabbed just about anything on the table that was heavy enough to weigh it down.

Note:  My pan has like a 1/2 inch flat lip around the edge, I'm not just magically balancing crystal on a rim.
And now we wait.  At least 2 hours, but I think I waited closer to 4.  The caramel magically solidifies into a chewy, yet melt-in-your-mouth candy.  Neither Todd nor I had ever eaten homemade caramel before, so we were concerned, even though the flavor was amazing, that the texture was wrong.  It's not quite as stick-in-your-teeth chewy as store-bought caramels.  But then we realized that maybe this is the real texture of caramel. 

Because this stuff is so sticky, cutting it into clean little pieces is challenging.  I removed the parchment paper easily (PS:  Do not grease or spray the parchment paper, otherwise your caramels will be greasy, and there is really no need), and transferred the block of caramel to a cutting board.  I first tried heating my huge knife over an open flame on the stove, and although I felt like a bit of a bad-ass, I wasn't getting clean cuts because the caramel was too soft. 

Then I tried putting the caramel in the freezer for 5 minutes, and that worked perfectly.  It freezes very quickly, so you might have to let it thaw just a tad or it will break when you cut into it.  I had to stick it back in a few times if I didn't cut it quickly enough.  For some reason I liked the look of little rectangles instead of little squares. 

Now onto a surprisingly fun part -- wrapping!  I wrapped all of mine while watching Game 4 of the World Series, and I decided that that was my happy place.  Sitting on the couch in my pajamas, watching the Cardinals play on tv, and wrapping cute little candies. 

I'm not sure if this is the "proper" way to wrap candy because I sort of just made it up, but it seemed to work fine.  First, cut out lots of little pieces of paper -- about this big: 

Roll the paper over the candy.  

Very gently twist one end of the waxed paper.  Seriously, be gentle because it rips super easily.  Now, you need to twist the other end going the same direction, so that you can open it by simply grabbing both ends and pulling. I was only good at twisting with my right hand, so I flipped it over and twisted the opposite direction.  I'm making myself dizzy. 

Note:  I'm pretty sure this was one is actually twisted incorrectly.  Doh.
All in all, I'm officially obsessed.  I made two batches over the weekend and made complete strangers try it.  I'm back to researching kitchen supply stores, reading my favorite food blogs, and drooling over Photograzing on my lunch break.  Hopefully there will be lots of colorful new goodies in the near future!

Homemade Caramels (adapted from Epicurious.com)

1 cup heavy cream
5 tbsps salted butter, cut into pieces
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1/4 cup water

Line an 8x8 inch square baking pan with parchment paper covering all sides.  Do not grease or spray.

In a small pot, bring heavy cream and butter to a boil, then remove from the heat and set aside.

Attach a candy or deep-fat thermometer to the side of a 3-4 quart heavy-bottomed pot.  Boil the sugar, corn syrup and water, and stir until the sugar is dissolved.  Once dissolved, continue to boil without stirring (but gently swirl the pan occasionally), until the mixture is a light golden color.  I let mine get to 300 degrees. 

Carefully, pour in the cream/butter mixture, turn down the heat to medium-low, and continuously stir.  Don't worry about the crazy bubbles, they will go away.  Simmer, stirring frequently, until the caramel registers 248 degrees on the thermometer (or "firm ball" stage).  It took about 20-25 minutes for mine, but it totally depends on the heat and your stove.  Just watch the thermometer very carefully. 

At exactly 248 degrees, pour the mixture into the prepared baking pan and cool for at least 2 hours. Cut into cute little pieces and wrap in waxed paper, as above.

1 comment:

  1. I like the rectangles and the wrapping! Looks good!


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