Intro to Candy Making: Caramel

 

You have no doubt passed by a confection shop and been tempted by the sweet aroma of caramel wofting through the air.  Before you know it, you are walking out 20 or 30 dollars lighter and the candy is gone before you get to the car.  Well, maybe that’s just me…I have a candy deficiency  ok, don’t judge me.  Regardless, making candy at home will not only save you big bucks, but will also be a lot of fun.

Candy making takes many forms, but the most familiar is working with sugar.  Though there are really only a few ingredients involved, you can make a surprising amount of different candies with sugar and water and a few other things.  The basic idea is to moisten the sugar with water and bring the mixture to a boil in order to boil the water away and turn the sugar molten.  Why add the water at all?  Well, sugar burns really really easily, and the water acts as protection against burning your sugar.  Once you see the bubbles start stacking up on themselves, you know most of the water is gone and you have molten sugar.

Now, I need to mention this before you make another move…Molten sugar is very hot and vey sticky!  If it spills, it will stick to anything it touches and burn it very badly.  And now that it is molten with no water to protect it from the heat, it will begin caramelizing and then turning black and burnt pretty quickly.   With that said,  as long as you are careful and respect the awesome power slowly bubbling on your cooktop, you will be fine.  Just take some precautions to ensure total safety.  Make sure there are no children poking around.  Also if you are doing other things…stop! Just watch your sugar!  Remember, only you can prevent sugar burns.  OK, safety primer out of the way.  Let’s continue…

Now that we have molten sugar, there this is where the fun begins and the options really open up.  You see, depending on the temperature the sugar reaches, we can make everything from syrup, to taffy, to rock candy, to brittle, to caramel…and the list goes on.  As is always the case with simple ingredients, the way we deal with them makes for infinite possibilities.  Now that I think about it, It kind of seems like a metaphor for life and the infinite possibility of the human spirit…or maybe it just means it’s time for more candy…

Despite all the options open to us now, that’s another post.  Right now we are going to be going to the darker end of the sugar spectrum and learning how to make caramel!

This isn’t going to be a recipe, so much as it is going to be an understanding of how caramel works.  Once you understand this, you can make a  lot of different sweets with the same ingredients and the same techniques by tweaking minor things.  

With caramel, the two parts to really understand are the temperature of the sugar and amount of cream you intend to add.  Carmel is molten sugar that has been cooked between 320 degrees F to 350 degrees F .  It may not seem like that is very complicated, but there are a lot of things you can do with this.  At 320, the sugar will have a light brown color and at 350 will have a darker mahogany hue.  The flavor at lighter temperatures has a sweet and buttery flavor, and at higher temperatures has a bitter, rich, and complex flavor.  The second part of the equation is the cream.  Depending on how much cream you add, you will have very different results:  less than 1/4 cup of cream will give you more brittler caramel candies.  Between 1/4 of a cup and 1 cup will yield chewy candy.  And any thing more will give you softer and softer results which can be used as frosting, filling, or even a dipping sauce.  What you with to do with your caramel is up to you.  The following recipe is for a firm yet chewy caramel.  Your ingredients list is as follows:

Firm Chewy Caramel:

2 cups sugar

1/4 cup corn syrup

1 tsp salt

1/4 tsp cream of tartar

1 cup heavy cream*

*Note:  keep in mind that the ratio of cream to sugar is based on using 2 cups of sugar to start with.  If you want to make more or less caramel, just keep that ratio in mind.

Hardware you will need:  saucepan, whisk, parchment paper, non-stick spray, baking dish, sheet cookie sheet, or mold of some kind.  I’m using this awesome silicone mold that will give me mini-golden bars of caramel, but you can use virtually anything.

SO, First mix your cream and salt and let it sit out at room temperature.  This will reduce the amount of shock the sugar will have when adding the cream later.  Cook the sugar water like described earlier, but this time add cream of tartar and corn syrup to the mix.  This will help your caramel stay smooth because sugar is always wanting to pop back into a crystal shape, which gives caramel a gritty texture . That’s just what sugar does.  These two additions will block the sugar from forming crystals.

Now cook your sugar like before (remember, be careful and don’t walk away!!!)  Once your sugar starts to stack bubbles, give the saucepan a very gentle swirl.  This helps distribute heat.  Most stovetops (especially electric) have dramatic hot and cold spots.  By swirling your sugar…(very gently)…you will ensure that it will all be even. Now is the time that you can attach a candy thermometer.  A thermometer is a sure fire way to make sure you will have the same results every single time.  The thing is, if you practice this enough, you will know what each stage looks like.  At home I don’t use a thermometer for caramelizing sugar because I find it cumbersome.  If you don’t have a thermometer, don’t worry, the sugar will tell you when it’s ready.

  

 

Above, you can see how the sugar starts to change color.  On the left, the color is clear, but on the right you can see the sugar has achieved a deep golden color.   Swirl the sugar gently to evenly distribute the heat and color.  The color of the sugar will ultimately determine the flavor.  lighter color is sweeter, and a deeper color becomes more complex and bitter.  There’s no right way, its just up to preference.  Now, turn off the heat.   Here comes another decision.  You don’t actually have to add cream at all!  You can make…say, peanut brittle if you stir in some chopped peanuts and pour carefully onto a sheet pan lined with parchment paper.  If you do want to make caramel, add your cream.  The cream will stop the cooking process which will set the color and flavor.

There will be a little drama as you add it to the sugar, so be careful, but don’t worry it will calm down.  Once the hissing has passed, gently whisk the contents together, and cook for another few minutes to tighten up the caramel.  Pour into a baking dish, mold, or some other container lined with parchment paper.  Let cool for an hour or so and cut into pieces and enjoy.  The beautiful thing about caramel is that if it comes out different than you intend, don’t worry, you can always melt it and adjust it to your liking with more cream, if it is too firm, or cook it longer and it will firm up a bit .

As you can see, this is a basic technique that, if practiced, can be tweaked in a few minor ways to give you a lot of different results.  If it doesn’t come out perfect the first time, no worries!  Caramel is relatively cheap to make and very forgiving.  Keep trying and within a couple attempts, you will be making candy that will put those other confectionaries to shame.  Once you get comfortable with the process, experiment with different ideas like adding spices, flavoring your cream, or even using different types of sugar.  There is a whole world of untapped possibility, just waiting to be discovered. Now if you will excuse me, I have to go do something about this candy habit…Uhh, I mean…deficiency.  Peace!!

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