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?
Meticulously photographed and documented reviews of candy from around the world. And the occasional other sweet adventures. Open your mouth, expand your mind.