Today's delicious post comes about thanks to my brainstorming session earlier in the week regarding possible 'Christmas products' for my business this year. Yes, I agree it is a little early for most of us to be thinking about the festive season, however any additions to my product range need to be thoroughly tested and perfected by about June in order to fit in with production/packaging/distribution timelines for the remainder of the year (it's a long and tedious process the details of which will bore most of you to death, so I shan't go on about the 'un-fun-ness' and lack of spontaneity in developing Christmas products at Easter!).
All of which leads us, in a roundabout way, to caramels.
I suspect that the main reason I have never pursued a career as a chocolatier or master pastry chef may have something to do with the mind-altering effect large quantities of fabulous chocolate, dairy and sugar products have on me. In moderate 'finished product' quantities I have some form of willpower not to eat everything in sight, but put me in a kitchen with a candy thermometer and a few select ingredients and I will taste-test until I make myself sick. Which, though I am slightly ashamed to admit it, is precisely what's been happening with these delicious little salted caramels I tested out a couple of days ago.
After deciding that caramels/toffee could be a great addition to the silly season range, it was straight to my bookshelves for inspiration and recipes. And although I found several ideas which would probably suffice, it occured to me that I am lacking in dedicated candy making books (something which I will shortly be rectifying with the purchase of this book and possibly also this one). So off I went to the great resource of my laptop and its lovely fast broadband speeds - thankyou Chris - and came across the Chocolate Gourmand, aka Brian from San Francisco. Brian's site is a great resource for amateur candymakers, full of delicious sounding recipes and detailed explanations (including step-by-step photos) of how to achieve the right results. The process of candy-making can be quite daunting if you've never attempted anything like it before, so these descriptions and details go a long way to de-mystifying it.
It's Brian's recipe for Classic Cream Caramels I share below, almost word for word, with the small addition of a tiny sprinkling of good sea salt over the top of the finished slab (whoever thought up salted caramels deserves only good things to happen to them). Being a bit of a novice in this area, I was thrilled with my first attempt at his recipe and hope he won't mind me sharing the love. Other things on my list to try soon are his Pecan Maple Caramels and English Toffee.
After making my caramel, I set most of it in a large baking tray lined with silicone paper, but also put a bit into some silicone ice cube trays I bought - they are the perfect shape and size to make individual caramels, however I soon established that my two (36 pieces all up) moulds would be severely inadequate for the quantity of caramel I had made. They are also fiddly to fill and I think on reflection it would be easier (if not so pedantically same-sized) to pour all of it into baking trays and just cut my set slab into individual portions.
I am undecided about precise wrapping and packaging of these delicious treats, but think maybe the best way to go would be to cut bars of whatever size you prefer and wrap them in waxed/silicone paper before wrapping again in cellophane or boxing. Beware the cut but not wrapped caramel, it will become sticky, oozy and quite unattractive (yet still extremely tasty!) if left out, particularly in humid/damp weather.
Classic Cream Caramel
2 cups light corn syrup (for us Australians, liquid glucose is fine - not an exact substitute but pretty close)
Using safflower oil and a paper towel, generously oil a 23x33cm (9x13in) foil-lined baking dish (or do as I did and line your dish with silicone paper, which negates the need for greasing).
Combine the sugar and corn syrup in a large saucepan over medium heat. Stir frequently until it comes to a boil. Wash down the sides of the pan several times with water using a pastry brush. Stop stirring and place a candy thermometer in pan (I bought mine for $4.95 at Kitchen Warehouse) and continue to boil over medium-high heat. You are going to boil the sugar syrup mixture until it reaches 151C (305F), which will take about 10 minutes or so.
While you are waiting for the sugar syrup mixture to heat you can heat the cream in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring frequently until simmering. Remove from heat and set aside.
Once the sugar syrup has reached 151C (305F), reduce heat and slowly add the cubed butter. Slowly add the hot cream to the sugar mixture. I usually do this with a small ladle or measuring cup. Keep the mixture boiling while adding the cream, but beware of boil-over if you add the cream too quickly. The boiling mixture will rise rapidly after adding the cream. Let the mixture settle down before adding more cream. The game is to keep it boiling without letting it overflow.
Once the cream has all been added, continue stirring constantly until the mixture reaches 116C (242-243F) for dipping or 117C (246-248F) for wrapping. If you like your caramel harder, you can keep heating it until you get to around 119C (250F). If you like your caramel soft, be careful not to make it too soft. Extra gooey caramel is hard to package or dip. The caramel will usually continue to heat a degree past when you remove it from heat.
Let sit for 5 minutes before my favourite part: stirring in the salt and vanilla. Once you pour in the vanilla and salt, stir just until blended. As you stir the vanilla into the caramel, the vanilla bourbon will boil off and you can inhale the intense vanilla smell.
Pour mixture into prepared baking pan. Cover well and let cool overnight. Once you are ready to dip or wrap, peel the foil off the caramel. Oil a large plastic cutting board and place the caramel slab there. Slice into pieces and wrap or dip.
I typically prefer to make my dipped caramels more gooey than the wrapped caramels, but note that softer caramels are more difficult to work with and dip. Even firm caramels will succumb to gravity and sag after a few minutes. When dipping, slice off only as much as you need from the main block to maintain rectangular shapes.