Tuesday, December 25, 2007
When I was a kid my grandmother made caramels every year for Christmas. We’d get a huge tin from her to take home, each piece wrapped in twisted plain wax paper. They were bigger than an adult’s thumb, at least two bites. Soft and chewy, stringy and long-lasting. Buttery, milky and not too sweet, they were usually made with some sort of nut. Sometimes hickory nuts but usually walnuts or pecans.
When I was 16 years old my grandmother gave me the recipe (I’d been begging for it since I was twelve) along with a candy thermometer (which I broke some years later after my third move).
They’re not easy to make. The ingredients and technique is simple, but it’s time consuming. It also helps for it to be a dry day. Humidity is the enemy of caramels.
The sugar and corn syrup are boiled over medium high heat until they become clear. Stir constantly but not vigorously, scraping down the sides to incorporate any sugar crystals.You shouldn’t be able to see any undissolved sugar crystals. Make sure your pot is heavy and sturdy.
Then add, bit by bit, small pieces of the butter and little tips of the milk. If the mixture boils up a lot when you’ve added it, you’ve added it too quickly. Keep stirring and adding. This process can take at least five minutes.
Once they’re added in, add the candy thermometer and stir constantly until the mixture reaches soft ball stage (235 F). Be sure to move the candy thermometer to mix behind it or else you’ll be little burned bits.
Once at soft ball, turn off the heat and add nuts. Pour out into either a greased large pan (9 x 14) or onto a piece of buttered marble. (Parchment works well, too.)
Allow to cool completely (overnight), then cut into small bites and wrap in waxed paper. Cellophane is okay, but tends to stick more (but is obviously prettier). You can put a little sprinkle of artisan salt on them if you like.
Now, this year was the first time I’ve made the caramels in about four years. The vexing part was that I didn’t want to use Karo because it contains high fructose corn sweetener. So I went on the hunt of some sort of real corn syrup. I finally found it at Whole Foods, but instead of coming in a 16 ounce bottle (the amount I needed) it came in an 11.5 ounce bottle. And it was the last one. So I bought the closest thing I could find to a corn syrup, which was a rice syrup. This happened to be brown rice syrup. Now, looking back at this, it may not have been a good idea. Corn syrup is made of glucose, primarily. Rice syrup is maltose and a little glucose. So it has a different flavor profile and likely a different chemical behavior when boiled. Glucose is a monosaccharide and maltose is a disaccharide.
In addition, my mother was helping me out and reflexively picked up skimmed evaporated milk instead of the whole variety. We decided to use it anyway, instead of going back into the store. (Nothin’ more fun than a grocery store on the weekend before Christmas, eh?)
So, here’s the new recipe and outcome:
As with above, I boiled the sugar and syrups. However, it never became clear. It was always a little cloudy, but eventually became transparent. The important thing is to be sure that the sugar crystals have completely dissolved.
The rest goes as above as well, just added the butter and milk. The color, however, was darker and smelled more malty than buttery during the whole process.
I was a little nervous that it wasn’t going to caramelize properly because of the different sugar balance and lack of milk fats from the evaporated milk, so I went slightly over the soft ball stage because the water drop test seemed a little soft. (You take a spoon of caramel and drop it into a glass of cold water and then pull it out and feel the texture.)
The color is much darker, but the flavor is absolutely wonderful. I don’t miss the slightly less fat in it (it probably has less water when it boils so long, so the concentration of fat is probably similar).
I’m not at all scared to use the brown rice syrup again, but I’ll probably still keep it at a half & half balance instead of completely replacing the corn syrup. But I’m leaning towards using the full fat evaporated milk (do not use sweetened condensed milk, that’s way too much sugar). Of course one of the big sticking points to this is that Karo is super-cheap at about $2.75 to $3 a bottle. However, that organic, non-gmo brown rice syrup cost a whopping $5.39 for 16 ounces and the diminutive organic corn syrup was $4.99 for 11.5 ounces.
There’s nothing quite like homemade caramels, and if you’ve never had them or have been paying silly high prices for them at candy shops, it might be time to make your own. You can also vary the recipe by adding flavors at the same time as the nuts. Perhaps some spicy hot? Maybe a little chai spice? How about a touch of matcha?
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
Here’s a quick guide to all things chocolate up for grabs in the Menu for Hope IV fundraiser for the United Nations World Food Programme. You can see a full list of the prizes and the instructions on how to enter the drawing. Tickets are $10, you can buy as many as you like for any prize.
Valentine’s Day Edible Chocolate Box from Charles Chocolates
Woodstock Chocolate Buddha by Oliver Kita
Bershire Bark Chocolate Package
10 Mini Chocolate Bars & a $50 Gift Certificate to Mon Aimee Chocolat
Organic Chocolate Hamper from Natural Collection
A Big Box of Swiss Chocolates
Deluxe Boxed Assortment from Charles Chocolates
Theo Chocolate Extravaganza
Chuao Chocolatier $100 Certificate
Costa Rica Tres Rios Coffee & Vosges Truffle Collection
Roni Sue’s Buttercrunch & Seasonal Truffles
It’s a great selection of chocolate and I envy each and every person who wins and applaud everyone who enters/donates!
Monday, December 10, 2007
Go vote! (Deadline is Friday, December 14th.)
Sunday, November 25, 2007
One of the great new products I picked up in San Francisco last weekend was the new Akoma Extra Semisweet Chocolate Chips from Guittard. They’re Fair Trade certified from beans sourced from West Africa (one of the hotspots of poor working and wage conditions for plantation workers).
Unlike the standard Guittard semisweet chips, these are 55% cacao ... just a smidge darker than the usual chips. They come in a sassy metallic pink package instead of the also-easy-to-spot gold package for regular Guittard Dark Chocolate Chips.
The chips have a nice rounded chocolate flavor. Some strong berry notes, a little light smokiness and a good creamy melt. They maintain their shape when baked, as all good chips do. The ingredients are pretty simple as well: cacao beans (fair trade certified), sugar, soy lecithin and real vanilla.
I haven’t seen them in stores in Southern California yet, but you can definitely buy them at Chocosphere for the same price as their regular chips. So good fuzzy feelings for Fair Trade and still a decent price.
Dice the peel of the orange and place in a microwave safe cup with 1 cup of milk with five crushed cardamom pods. Microwave until warm, stir and let sit for 30 minutes, then stir again and heat again. This can be done a day ahead of time and refrigerated (this will make the orange peel especially soft).
In a sauce pan put the 1 cup of pre-made milk mix (dig out the cardamom pods) along with the other 3 cups of milk, sugar and the loosely beaten eggs. Clean and crush the cardamom in a mortar & pestle. Add to the mix, warm over low heat.
Put half of the bread into the bottom of the baking pan. Add half of the milk/egg mixture to the pan. Stir to combine and get the bread soaked. Take half of the chips and cover the egg/bread mixture. Then put the rest of the bread into the saucepan to get it completely wet. Add that to the top of the baking pan. Sprinkle more chips on top.
Bake at 350 degrees F for 40 minutes. The pudding will pull away from the sides when done and the center won’t move. It’s a pretty dry bread pudding, so try it warm with a little milk or perhaps some ice cream or whipped cream.
Friday, November 23, 2007
Last week I had the opportunity to share lots of my candy with some wonderful and dedicated writers who spent part of National Novel Writing Month raising money on our behalf. Though I missed my fundraising targets, I’m so happy that everyone else was able to hit theirs. I hope I more than made up for it with a super-duper-deluxe Candy Buffet.
I took about 100 pounds of candy with me (though not all of it was on display) and put it in a variety of vases and glass containers I’ve gathered over the years. The individual candies included: Brach’s Orange Slices, Brach’s Butter Toffee, A&W Root Beer Barrels, Butterscotch Disks, Ice Blue Mints, Cinnamon Disks, Filled Strawberries, Milk Maid Caramels & Milk Maid Royals, Brach’s Salt Water Taffy, Koppers Chocolate Covered Almond Jewels, White Chocolate Pearlescent Almonds, Koppers Milkies and Koppers Mint Lentils and finally some mini Gummi Bears (the most popular of all).
It’s an odd relief to get rid of so much candy all at once. Especially to folks who actually want it.
I’ll have more, probably in the New Year, about what I’ve learned about candy buffets, including how to present them, ideas for packaging and design and how to figure out how much candy you’ll need.
While I’d love to go on about the trip or do a review today, it’s late and I’ve been visiting with family and friends from out of town (and still trying to get back in the game on my novel).
So here’s the week in review, short as it was:
Monday: Brach’s Soda Poppers (6 out of 10)
Tuesday: Ice Cubes (5 out of 10)
Wednesday: Hotel Chocolat Crostini Fruit & Nut Slab (7 out of 10)
Thursday: Licorice Assortment (7 out of 10)
Average for the week: 6 with 25% chocolate content.
Sunday, November 18, 2007
I found this fascinating. First of all, I voted for the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. I know it doesn’t seem like a huge portion, but the caloric density of the peanut butter is really satisfying to me.
But I was really surprised at the huge numbers of Jelly Belly fans. I think my second choice would probably be Gummi Bears, just because they take so long to eat.
The big thing, I think, if you’re going to have an indulgence be aware of how many calories it is, if you’re watching them, and then pick something that will satisfy you. Nothing worse than having a “treat” you don’t like.
(I don’t know who these rice cake eaters are!)
Saturday, November 17, 2007
I’m in the Bay Area again. It’s like a second home to me lately. I come here for two reasons, the first is that it’s home to the National Novel Writing Month headquarters. We’re having a big fundraiser tonight called The Night of Writing Dangerously. 200 writers, most from the area but some from as far away as Toronto, will descend upon a ballroom to sit on uncomfortable chairs for six hours to write en masse. My contribution to the evening is a Candy Buffet. I’ve been doing a lot of product photography lately for Candy Warehouse, and one of the side effects of that is leftover candy (I get to keep whatever I shoot). Usually it’s not that much and I can simply hand it off to folks at the office. In this case it was bulk items like Brach’s cinnamon disks, butter toffee, orange slices, mini gummi bears and a huge array of Koppers chocolate goodies ... sooooo much candy.
So I loaded up my car and hit the road with, literally, my weight in candy in the back.
This is a huge load off my mind, of course, because now the candy will go to wonderful writers who really, really want it. (And while I really, really want it too, I can’t possibly eat my weight in candy before it spoils, well, I could but then it’d be half my weight in candy.)
The second reason I like coming to the Bay Area is that it is home to so many candy companies. Some are fine chocolatiers (many of whom I’ve reviewed now: Recchiuti, Charles Chocolates & Joseph Schmidt) as well as factories like Jelly Belly, Scharffen Berger, Sconza, Annabelle’s, Ghirardelli and Guittard.
The cornerstone of my trip was a visit to the Guittard chocolate factory for a personal tour by Gary Guittard. I have been to quite a few factories in my life, but this was the the most immersive I’ve ever had. (No, I don’t mean that I was immersed in chocolate.) Gary was wonderfully open and of course incredibly versed in the intricacies of beans, fermenting, roasting, combining and all the other variables that go into making such painstakingly wonderful chocolate. He was also fantastically patient with me and of course so generous (as are most chocolate people I’ve met). I’ll have more on that as I go through the products that I have for review. It was an incredible experience. If there’s one thing that I came away with was a huge appreciation for the fact that we live in a time with such incredible chocolate. (Something I’ll probably make mention of on Thanksgiving.)
Of course any city that makes so much candy has to have good candy stores. So yesterday, knowing that I’d soon be free of 135 pounds of candy, I went and bought some more.
I’ll have larger write ups about these in the future, but here was my itinerary (fellow writer YumSugar also came along on the last three stops!):
I also popped by Charles Chocolate on Thursday to taste their new winter assortment and catch up with Chuck Siegel since I haven’t talked to him in a year and since that time they’ve opened their new shop & cafe with the factory adjacent. Chuck was gracious and gave me some wonderful items to sample (in addition to the ones eaten on site and on sight) such as their lemon and blood orange marmalade (perhaps something for Thanksgiving will include this?), the new Caramel Almonds Sticks and his new 65% Bittersweet Bar that includes Candied Hazelnut Pieces (which I hope is like this Mallorca bar I had earlier this year)
Monday: Russell Stover Private Reserve Vanilla Bean Brulee (8 out of 10)
Tuesday: Mentos - Pine Fresh (Pineapple) (8 out of 10)
Wednesday: Cadbury Ornament Creme Egg (4 out of 10)
Thursday: Peppermint Peep Stars (6 out of 10)
Friday: Sour Jujyfruits (6 out of 10)
Average for the week 6.4 with a 20% chocolate content.
Sunday, November 11, 2007
(I miss Tom Baker as Dr. Who and his Jelly Babies.)
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.