8 Tips For Making Successful Caramels

Man do I love me some caramels. They are an awesome holiday food gift and easy to make, and they are also easy to not do well.

People often say to me that they can cook but not bake. Their reasoning is that baking is specific and scientific, whereas cooking is more forgiving. To certain degrees this statement is true, but when it comes to candy making it is hard fact.

Variations in degrees, humidity, ratios or handling can make or break a candy. Some you can get away with, but honestly, not really.

Here are a few best practices and tips for making candies in general and specifically caramels.

1. Thermometer– Pre-test your thermometer for accuracy. A degree or two off can make the difference to how your sugar hardens. To test take a pot of boiling water and completely submerge the thermometer into the water without touching the bottom of the pot. Boiling water is 212˚- no higher or lower. Make a note of where your thermometer lands. If it’s a degree or two off, make a note and adjust your recipe accordingly.

2. Cleanliness– Some recipes call for an absolute grease free environment. Before making candy I rewash all utensils- bowl, pot, spatula, thermometer, measuring instruments, etc.- in hot soapy water and dry with paper towels or air dry. I do NOT use a used kitchen rag.

3. Pure Ingredients– make sure that the sugars you are using are contaminant free. If you used a wet spoon and dipped into the sugar bin, or used a measuring cup that was previously used for flour, this can contaminate the sugar. You can get away with this with baking, but not with candy making.

4. Prepare– Making candy is about timing and readiness. Have all ingredients and utensils prepared and laid out before you begin. Sugar temperatures can change quickly sometimes and you don’t want to be caught unawares.

5. Patience– Don’t rush the sugar boiling stage. A better caramelization happens with a slow development over time. It will also serve you by inadvertently overshooting the temperature when your head was turned for just a moment.

6. Eyes on the Prize– Boiling sugar is it’s own animal. It can turn quickly, and it can also hurt you. Boiling sugar is about the most dangerous thing in the kitchen- boiling oil being second.  If you get splashed with molten sugar it sticks to the skin and can cause nasty burns. So especially with inexperienced kitchen helpers, you MUST stay vigilant.

7. Don’t Stir– This is a very common mistake for first time candy making. Stirring boiling sugar causes the crystals to become unstable and start to bind. The result is grainy, cloudy or lumpy candy. When it comes to making pralines this happens to be the effect you want, but with caramels, absolutely not.  You can stir in the very beginning to incorporate the ingredients, but once it gets boiling, hands off! It will be tempting, even if sugar crawls up the sides, just let it go. Promise me-  you’ll be glad you did.

8. Don’t Touch– It’s also very common to want to poke your fingers into the just finished candy. After all it looks SO beautiful- but it will hurt you. Admire your work- from afar, and give it twice as much time as you think to cool. Sugar is dense and holds its temperature very well, so please err on the side of caution.

I’ve used several different recipes over the years. Martha Stewart printed a recipe in the latest Living issue {December 2012, pg 99} that was a bit different. Typically the heavy cream is added into the hot syrup once it has reached temperature. This recipe added the cream at the start. I was skeptical but I tried it and it was great. Pouring cream into hot sugar is a bubbling, steaming, terrifying and dangerous thing, not to mention often messy with cream boiling over onto the stove (the WORST to clean up). Adding the cream at the start avoided all that. This will now be my method of choice.

Martha Stewart’s Salted Caramels
modified from the December 2012 Martha Stewart Living Magazine
makes approx 120 pieces
vegetable oil, for greasing baking sheet
2c heavy cream
2.25c sugar
6T unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1.25c light corn syrup
.5t coarse salt- I used Maldon flaked salt
.5t pure vanilla extract
wax paper or cellophane wrappers
Lightly brush bottom ans sides of a 9×13″ rimmed baking sheet with oil. Line with parchment, leaving an overhang, and oil that as well.
In a heavy 5qt saucepan, combine the cream, sugar, butter and corn syrup. Bring to a boil over medium heat, and continue to boil without stirring, until the thermometer reads 248˚. It took me about 25 mins.
The cream will be bubbly and high at first. It will calm down as it reaches temperature and turn a beautiful caramel color.
Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the salt and vanilla. Immediately pour into the prepared pan and do not scrape the bottom. Just let whatever pours out fall into the pan.
After 3 minutes, sprinkle the top with more salt to your taste.
Allow the caramel to rest, uncovered, overnight or at least 8 hrs.
Remove the caramel from the pan and peel away the paper. With a sharp knife cut the caramels to the shape you want. .75″x 1.25″ is the size she made.
Immediately wrap in cellophane or wax paper. 

Enjoy, be safe and have fun. Your friends will love you for making these.

5 Days of Coffee and Sweets with Irene’s Beans: Crumb Cake Donuts

Coffee was never a drink that was associated with my friends Irene and Andy. Wine yes, beer definitely! But now they are in the coffee bean roasting business, Irene’s Beans– and even though Irene is late to the coffee drinking party- her beans are quite delicious and her passion as intense.
After a full adult life without coffee, a chance cup post dinner in Mexico opened the heavens for Irene, and got her onto this new path. Her beans come from many different places, including Mexico, Papua New Guinea, Barundi and from where I am writing now, Antigua, Guatemala.
Irene sent me 5 different beans, all with very different flavor profiles. They are all so yummy that I felt it best to showcase them all. So for the next 5 posts I will feature a different sweet to go with each of Irene’s Beans.
The first of the five coffees is the Mexican Altura which started the craze. It has a fruity, caramel aroma with a hint of chocolate. I paired it with a baked cake donut, that has a hint of brightness from the buttermilk in the recipe and a simple, crunchy, crumb sugar topping that offsets the bitterness in the coffee.
Though I truly adore donuts- and fresh out of the grease is truly the ONLY way to go- but they can be such calorie bombs, which is only insulting because who can eat only one? This baked version is surprising and light for the heftier cake version, as opposed to a yeasted version. The cake part itself is also not terribly sweet, so the sugar topping adds a nice texture and zap of sugar.
To make these I purchased a donut pan Though I am not a fan of kitchen gadgets with a singular purpose, this pan is so worth it. The donuts turned out perfectly and slipped out of the pan with ease. I’m also going to confess, that the fact that the pan only made 6 donuts was a blessing- small batches are the way to go, and even sticking to eating two is difficult.
Baked Crumb Cake Donuts
(adapted from Wilton Recipe)
makes 6
1c all purpose flour
6T granulated sugar
1t baking powder
.5t salt
6T buttermilk, room temperature
1 large egg, room temperature
1T neutral olive oil
1t vanilla
6T granulated sugar
3T all purpose flour
2 T neutral olive oil
pinch of salt
.5c Confectioner’s sugar for dusting
Preheat oven to 425˚
In large mixing bowl combine flour, sugar, bp, and salt. Stir to combine.
In separate bowl, combine buttermilk, egg, olive oil and vanilla.
Similarly to making pancakes, pour the wet ingredients into the dry and stir swiftly and only until incorporated. The acid in the buttermilk will react with the bp immediately and you don’t want to beat that down.
Carefully spoon the batter into each of the rings and using the back of a spoon, spread evenly.
In a separate bowl combine the flour, sugar, salt and oil for the topping. Mix together with your fingers and pinch into lumps. Feel free to adjust ratio here to get that effect.
Distribute the crumb topping over the donuts evenly. These are not the traditional heavy crumbs, they are more of a crusting and not a heavy layer like in a coffee cake.
Place the pan in the middle of the oven and bake for approximately 12 minutes. The donuts should spring back to the touch when pressed.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 2 minutes. Then remove the donuts onto a cooling rack. Wait another 2 minutes and then dust with powdered sugar.

Afternoon delight: Chocolate Dipped Fennel Biscotti

This past week I took myself down to Bumble and Bumble in the meat packing district to get my hair trimmed. One of the many delights of the salon is complimentary coffee or latte when you are awaiting your chair time. The salon is situated on the 8th floor of a loft building that has impressive views downtown and toward the river. The windows are floor to ceiling and there is nothing like settling back into the squishy leather couches they have, facing out with a warm creamy cup of coffee in my hands taking in the view.
But even better, there was tucked alongside the cup a teeny biscotti that was a delightful, not too sweet treat, that managed to make the sublime only that much better. I enjoyed every nibble.
Of course this set me onto a track that I am not quick to get off of. As I stared out over the rooftops I mused about heading back into the kitchen, of flour and mixing bowls.  I wanted to make some biscotti of my own.
I have made plenty of this crunchy cookies over the years and have a few fantastic recipes in my back pocket. For instance there are the chocolate biscotti that almost melt away in your mouth and have an almost black color. I’ve made these many Xmases and bagged and bowed them as holiday treats. People still ask for them- perhaps I should make a batch this year…
For some reason though I got a hankering for fennel. I imagined a delicate digestif type biscotti and not altogether that decadent. Something basic, something not too too. This recipe is fantastic as biscotti go. Super easy and it yields a cookie that has an even dense crumb that I really like. It can handle dipping into coffee with gusto.
Though perfectly delightful on their own, I added the chocolate as an afterthought. Now, truth be told, one could probably count the days in my life that chocolate has not passed my lips in one form or another, so dunking these in a bit of dark chocolate was not a hard sell. I did not bother to temper the chocolate, but chose a simpler cheat method. No blue ribbons for this, but it does the trick.
Fennel Seed Biscotti Dipped in Chocolate
.5c mild olive oil
.75c sugar
.25c light brown sugar
3 large eggs
1T anise extract
3.25 c AP flour
1T baking powder
1t salt
3T fennel seeds
1c chopped chocolate
.5t oil
    • Oven to 375˚ Grease 2 cookie sheets or line with parchment


In medium bowl combine the first 5 ingredients and stir well to combine
In larger bowl sift together flour, salt and bp. Add the fennel seeds
Pour the wet into the dry and stir to combine. The dough will be stiff.
Divide in half and make logs about 3″ wide and ~1″ high and place one in the middle of each baking sheet.
Bake the logs for approx 25 mins until golden brown and only slightly yield when pressed in the middle. You do want a baked cookie, but not overly so. Remove from oven and set aside.
Leaving the oven on allow the logs to cool until you are able to handle them.
With a sharp serrated knife cut the log into slices and lay flat on the trays.
Return the sheet trays to the oven for ~6mins until toasted, then remove, flip the cookies and bake again until the tops are a golden brown.
For the chocolate
Place chopped dark chocolate into microwavable bowl.
Melt on high for ~1 min then stir. If it needs more give it another 15 sec jolt. Do not over heat the chocolate. Allow the warm chocolate to melt the last of the bits. Be patient.
Add oil and stir into the chocolate.
Dip the cool cookies in the chocolate and set on wax paper or parchment lined cookie sheets.
Pop into fridge until set.
This will not yield a “snappy” chocolate. If when left at room temp the chocolate gets too soft store leftover cookies in a covered container in the fridge. 
Otherwise store uneaten cookies in a covered container- such as a pretty cookie jar until they are all gone and you are compelled to make another batch.