I had a lot of firsts and did a lot of experimenting in 2012. I saw all 50 shades of messed-up-ness. Through lots of persistence, understanding and accepting of one’s idiosyncrasies, everything actually turned out wonderfully and last year was a great year for learning and achieving. Everyone needs and secretly likes a little punishment once in a while.
One of the projects I tried to tackle was making soft chewy caramels as Christmas gifts. Candy making is extremely fickle and seems like an art form. One of my first experiences was during a spontaneous desire to make hard candy with my friend Claire using indentations in corn starch as molds (since we didn’t have any candy molds handy at that moment, and I saw it on the Food Network once). I don’t think I’ll go down that dark path again. It’s not my lifestyle. You can read about it here. I’ve had mild success making caramel sauce to flavor butter creams and chocolates so I thought, “how hard can it be to just make caramel a little harder and stable?” 4 batches and 4 different forms later, I got my answer, HARD.
There was a bunch of recipes floating around on Pinterest in Dec. for soft chewy caramels, including a seasonal apple cider flavor, so I thought, “if I’m going to make caramels, I’m going to make it a challenge and make an interesting flavor!” Boiling away with hot sugar everywhere, Claire and I happily followed the instructions and dreamed of soft caramels melting in our mouths for breakfast the next morning of our getaway weekend. Instead we woke up to a viscous blob oozing out of the pan that was way too sweet and tasted like apple cider juice concentrate. FAIL.
I dug around some more for recipes, not willing to give up so early on something that could be so wonderful. I thought I was too good to use sweetened condensed milk (milk in a can scares me) so I stayed away from those recipes and went to trusted sources, like David Lebovitz. Don’t be a dummy like I am and not read recipes all the way through. My caramels turned out pretty close to what the recipe said. The only issue was that I could not cut them to little rectangles and instead just cracked them into shards after the mixture set (it made eating them kind of dangerous in your mouth). This recipe was not what I was looking for. The caramels were more like a salted Werther’s (the hard kind) instead of a soft chewy butter melty treat I was craving. Maybe I shouldn’t have ignored the sentence “These caramels are slightly firm.” I tried the recipe again heating the hot sugar to a lower temp, thinking that I just cooked it too hot. The result was softer and did melt in your mouth, but still a hard candy and not for chewing. 3 batches and lots of candy latter, I decided to give it a rest.
Candy textures differ by each degree you heat the sugar mixture too. If you’re 1 degree too hot, you’ve gone from liquid to solid, so you need to watch it carefully and experiment to find the texture you would like. Basically you’re evaporating the water content of your mixture away, so the more you heat it the less water there is, and thus harder. I have no idea how people made candy before thermometers. I tried to do the water test (putting a little bit of the cooking mixture in cold water to see how it forms up) but I was afraid to step away from the thermometer in case it boils too hot all of a sudden, so I never really took the 10 seconds to see the results of the water test. This link to Exploratorium has great explanation and pictures (using the water test) of the different stages of sugar.
My quest continued for soft caramels and I decided to use another reliable source, good ol’ Martha Stewart. I get emails from Martha every day, including crafts, cooking, organizing, etc. One day, her Golden Caramel recipe showed up in my inbox and I thought it was faith, so I took to try it out. It did include sweetened condensed milk and since I’ve failed 3 times already and the majority of soft caramel recipes I found called for sweetened condensed milk, I decided to give it a whirl. I followed it exactly including heating the mixture to 244 degrees and just like Martha, I made soft caramels!
I’ve come to the conclusion that the more fat/dairy in the mixture the softer and chewier it will be, so the adding of sweetened condensed milk helped with that. I haven’t tried it, but I think if you were to add more dairy/cream to a caramel mixture instead of sweetened condensed milk it would also do the trick. Check out this revised recipe from theKitchn. Also, make sure you immediately take the pot off of the heat right when your thermometer reaches the desired temperature because the mixture will continue to cook after it’s off the heat (continuing to evaporate water). The mixture may look light in color in the beginning, but don’t worry it’ll caramelize more when it’s cooking and get more golden. If you’d like a darker caramel, you could always cook the sugar above 250 degrees in the first step of the recipe. Lastly, don’t be greedy and impatient, leave the caramel alone to set overnight, it’ll be worth it to have perfectly cut rectangles/squares the next day.
I am in love with my 50 shades of caramels and I think we’re going to have a happy and adventurous future together. I can’t wait to add new ingredients and flavors, keeping my caramel making alive and spicy! Have you experienced 50 shades of caramels? Are you addicted? What did you find that satisfied you? What temperature was the perfect texture for you? What makes you “mmm…” and “ooo…” and wanting more?
Golden Caramel Recipe (from Martha Stewart)
4 cups heavy cream
1 cup sweetened condensed milk
4 cups light corn syrup
4 cups sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 16 pieces
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Vegetable-oil cooking spray
Spray an 11 3/4-by-16 1/2-inch baking pan (this is a half-sheet pan) with vegetable-oil spray. Set aside in a spot where it will not be moved. In a 2-quart saucepan, combine cream and sweetened condensed milk; set aside.
In a heavy 6- to 8-quart saucepan, combine corn syrup, 1 cup water, sugar, and salt. Clip on candy thermometer. Over high heat, cook until sugar is dissolved, stirring with a wooden spoon, 8 to 12 minutes. Brush down sides of pan with a pastry brush dipped in water to remove any sugar crystals.
Stop stirring, reduce heat to medium, and bring to a boil. Cook, without stirring, until temperature reaches 250 degrees (hard-ball stage), 45 to 60 minutes. Meanwhile, cook cream mixture over low heat until it is just warm. Do not boil. When sugar reaches 250 degrees. slowly stir in butter and warmed cream mixture, keeping mixture boiling at all times. Stirring constantly, cook over medium heat until thermometer reaches 244 degrees (firm-ball stage), 55 to 75 minutes. Stir in vanilla. Immediately pour into prepared pan without scraping pot. Let stand uncovered at room temperature for 24 hours without moving.
To cut, spray a large cutting board generously with vegetable-oil spray. Unmold caramel from pan onto sprayed surface. Cut into 1-by-1 1/4-inch pieces, or other shapes. Wrap each in cellophane or waxed paper.