Saturday, July 10, 2010

Caramel Heaven

I love homemade caramel. Then again, who doesn't? I learned to love homemade caramel candy after feasting on a batch made by my friend Cheryl. The delightful little candies were creamy and smooth. I could have eaten a hundred of them. (I probably have since first trying them.) Cheryl also showed me the joy of licorice caramels when she added anise extract to a batch of her fabulous creations. Since I love black licorice, there was no question about whether or not I'd love the caramels. When Mr. C and I were dating, I took licorice caramels to some of his family members as I met them. (The C family is a black licorice loving bunch!)

Imagine my joy back in May when some homemade caramels were given to me as a favor at a Mother's Day tea party I went to. It had been a while since I had nibbled on some homemade goodness, so I dove in and had a piece. HELP ME RHONDA, my caramel world stopped. These caramels were, far and away, THE BEST homemade caramels I'd ever had. They were so soft, chewy, and bursting with that unmistakable caramel flavor. PLUS, they had a layer of nuts on the bottom. In all my years of caramel munching, I'd never had homemade caramels with nuts. Having tried this new version of my old classic, I knew I'd never go back to where I'd been. There was one good/bad thing about my gifted treasures. They had been made with walnuts. This was bad for Mr. C who is deathly allergic to walnuts. But, this was good for me because it meant I got to eat them all myself! (I did tell Mr. C I was sorry he couldn't have any as I repeatedly stuffed them in my mouth!)

After arriving home from the tea party, I immediately emailed the hostess BEGGING for the recipe. She kindly obliged. (Thanks Kristi!) When I needed a treats to put with a church message this week, these caramels seemed the perfect option. Plus, the recipe gave me a chance to finally use the new digital thermometer my dad's wife had given me for Christmas. (I've been on a year long hunt for a reliable digital candy thermometer and Donna surprised me with one from Williams-Sonoma!)

Homemade Caramels with Nuts
1 c butter
1 16-oz pkg. brown sugar (2 1/4 c)
1 14-oz can sweetened condensed milk
1 c light corn syrup
1 t vanilla
1 c chopped nuts (I use pecans)
Line an 8x8 or 9x9 pan with foil extending edges over the pan. Spray foil with non-stick cooking spray. Sprinkle prepared pan with nuts. In a heavy 3 qt. saucepan, melt butter over low heat. Add brown sugar, condensed milk, and corn syrup. Mix well. Cook and stir over med-high heat to boiling. Cook and stir over med heat to 238 degrees. Remove saucepan from heat; stir in vanilla. Immediately pour caramel mixture in to the prepared pan. Let cool. When caramel is firm, use foil to lift it out of the pan and lift the caramel piece off the foil. (I cut mine directly on my countertop.)  Use a buttered knife to cut in to 1" squares. Wrap squares in wax paper squares. Makes 2 lbs.

This recipe was very similar to the version I had been using with a couple of exceptions (besides the nuts). My old recipe calls for 1 1/2 c of light corn syrup. This one only uses 1 c. And, my old recipe called for 2 c of white sugar while this one uses 2 1/4 c of brown. (I'm convinced the brown sugar is one of they keys to this version being as fabulous as it is.) If you don't like nuts, you can easily not use them. If you like nuts, USE THEM. It takes your candy to a whole new level!

Oh yeah, and the digital thermometer worked like a dream. I'll never go back to the dial kind.

Two quick side notes. First, make sure you have your caramel off the heat when you pour in your vanilla (or other extract you are using to flavor your candy). Even off the heat, the extract will react a bit with your hot caramel. On the heat, it's just plain dangerous. I always stand back just a bit when pouring my extract in so I'm free of splatters and the inevitable vapors that result. Second, the recipe says you can use 2 c of light cream in place of the condensed milk if you want, but it will double the time it takes to get to 238 degrees. You'll be stirring for 45+ minutes rather than 15-20.

Mr. C was so kind to wrap all my little beauties as I tried to cut them. (The recipe isn't kidding when it suggests a buttered knife. I had to spray my knife with Pam after cutting each row.) He ran in to a bit of trouble when some of the wax paper squares I'd cut were too small for square caramels so he started rolling and wrapping them in an oblong shape. I will confess a couple got gobbled up before being wrapped. I still had quite a few left after what I needed for my church stuff and also filling a container for Mr. C to hand out at work. After having 2 of them for breakfast the next morning, I started farming them out to friends. They're a great way to add a little to happiness to some one's day. Plus, I knew I was doomed to eat them all if they continued to live in my kitchen. Double bonus!

Go make a batch of these...right now...go make them. And just so you won't get too sick from eating them all, share them with your friends and neighbors. I will confess to still having a couple here in the house. Just thinking about them is making my mouth water. OK, that's it. I'm going to find one.

P.S. If you want licorice flavored caramels, or any other flavor for that matter, add a dram or two (depending on how strong you want your flavor) to the caramel mixture when you add the vanilla. But, stand back. The oil will react like the vanilla and cause some vapors for a few seconds. It's nothing major, but I thought you should know. Consider yourself warned!

P.P.S. on 10/6/11...So, I've done a little revamping of this post.  After making my caramels again, I'm back to my original 238 degree stopping point.  I have updated that in this post.  Also, the bigger your pan, the thinner your caramels will be, so choose your pan size accordingly.  (I typically use a 7 X 11 pan because I like my pieces about the size of a caramel square you'd get at a candy shop.)  I've also found an easier way to cut my pieces, rather than getting my knife all gummed up, is to roll a pizza cutter back and forth really quickly.  The thicker the caramels the gummier your cutter will get, but it can be better than a knife at times.

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