Along with baking, I love making confections, especially chocolates. It’s the right combination of fussiness and artistry, and people *always* love the results, even when it comes out poorly.
I’ve had a love-hate relationship with caramels for years. I started trying to make them after I moved to North Carolina, and they would just never come out. Hard as a brick, every time. I even had Tammy of Tammy’s Tastings sit down with me and show me how she made caramels, and walk through it every step, and when I went back home and did it myself – brick. Tasty brick, but still, brick, and with using local cream at $3/pint, not cheap to make at that. So, every few months’ I’d try it again, changing something else.
The first thing I changed that seemed to help was in getting to a darker color during the first heat (when caramelizing the sugar/corn syrup, before adding the butter and cream). Contrary to common sense, the darker you make your initial caramelization, the softer the resulting caramel. I’d been going in the other direction, working with lower and lower temperatures to try and get something that wasn’t the world’s stickiest brittle. So that helped, but it still didn’t get me all the way there.
I then figured that maybe I was losing too much moisture somewhere in the adding cream step. The local cream is really rich, and when pre-heating it to the boil it gives off a lot of moisture – so I started making sure I had the right amount left after heating. I also figured that I might be taking too much time to come to temperature after adding the cream (and therefore heating away moisture), so I started re-heating the cream just before adding it to the caramel.
Closer, but still not entirely there. The final tweak that I made that seems to have done it for good was that, after pouring the caramel into the pan I use to cool it, I cover the top with press ‘n seal (not touching the caramel, just sealing it off from the air). Either it was taking on too much moisture from the air (it is sort of humid here in NC), or losing too much – I still don’t know, but that combination of steps has finally led to me consistently achieving perfect caramels – soft and chewy yet holding their shape (mostly).
Now that I have achieved caramel nirvana, I can start playing around with it! For a while, I’d been sticking with my old favorite (lavender-infused fleur-de-sel caramels), but I was inspired by autumn to try and come up with something more.. autumnal. So, back to Tammy for the recipe for apple cider caramels, and a few tweaks later, and YUM!
2 c apple cider
Reduce to 1/3 cup, set aside. [I used apple cider from Hickory Nut Gap Farm, which we found last weekend when we were in Asheville. It's a cider made from a variety of apples, but the primary flavor seems to be winesap, which gives it a nice bite.]
2/3 c cream [I used local cream here, from Maple View Farms. The best!]
6 tbsp butter
Heat to boil, then set aside. [Again, I re-heated this just before adding it later. Also, when I make this next time, I'm going to infuse the cream with a cinnamon stick, as these caramels really love having cinnamon with them]
1 1/2 c sugar
1/4 c corn syrup
Cook to light brown
[I have found that my idea of "light brown" and what works with caramel aren't at all the same - I generally heat it to something more like medium-dark amber]
Add cream, butter and reduced apple cider all at once, stirring constantly (it will foam up – use a good size pot). ]Oh boy, they’re not kidding! I always, always scald myself when doing this step. ]
Cook to 250 degrees, using fairly low heat – you want to take about 10-15 minutes to get it up to temperature. [Now this, I just find to be incorrect. The sooner you can get it up to the mid-range of soft-ball, the better. I do use medium heat, but it has never taken longer than 5 minutes to get to temperature.]
Pour it into a 8 inch square baking pan that’s been lined with two pieces of oiled parchment paper, one in each direction – this creates a “sling” to pull the caramel out of the pan. [This has always resulted in a layer of caramel approximately 1/2 inch thick. If you want thicker caramels (and I usually do), you can use a smaller pan, or I've made a spacer from cardboard that turns my pan into approx an 8x6 pan.]
[I also sprinkled a little fleur de sel over the caramels at this point, as I find them far too sweet if they don't have a hint of saltiness about them]
[My final step: Cover the pan with plastic wrap, not touching the caramel (it'll melt)]. Wait until entirely cooled. Then cut with a sharp, oiled knife into pieces.
These caramels, made by the recipe above, basically tasted like a caramel-dipped apple. But why leave it there? Jeff suggested brushing on cinnamon, and that was really tasty. So we did that. :) I wrapped about half of them in wax paper, and dipped the rest in tempered dark chocolate (70% Callebaut), sprinkling half of those with toasted ground pecans. Because Caramel dipped apples are even better with chocolate and nuts, in my opinion! Reviews have been great so far! Hopefully, some will survive to go to work tomorrow.