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Sunday, December 11, 2011

Vanilla Bean Salted Caramels

I've never made caramels before - the candy that is.  I've made a caramel sauce before, but that is not the same thing.

As usual when embarking upon a new culinary endeavour, I'll do a fair bit of reading and research beforehand.  I looked at several recipes and found a few which were similar, including a really simple one in Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa How Easy Is That? which had relatively few ingredients, relatively easy directives, and a really short preparation time.  

After amalgamating info from various recipes, I made a few 'safe' adjustments - nothing which would affect the chemistry of the mixture a whole lot - and ended up with a decently simple, well-rounded recipe which was hopefully very representative of typical caramels.

Click to Enlarge
There was a surprising amount of cream and butter in these candies; at least it surprised me, who'd never looked too closely at caramel candies before...

It's actually a very easy recipe, but the last couple of stages are rather tedious and time-consuming.

It can also be rather dangerous, as sticky caramel at 250 degrees can really do some damage, so best to keep your wits about you.

As the recipe instructs, mix the sugar, corn syrup and a bit of water in a large saucepan, and bring to a boil.  

Watch this, as it can burn quickly, and you basically just want it to get to a boil for a second before adding the (separately boiled) cream and butter mixture.

I would recommend never bringing your heat up past medium for any of these steps; medium-low if you're the kind of person to get distracted in the kitchen.  :)

I stirred in the vanilla, vanilla pods, and salt all at the same time as the cream, and then stuck my candy thermometer in the pot and then just sat back and prepared to be bored.

Looks more like a sauce at this stage.
Now, technically the pod of a vanilla bean doesn't typically get eaten; it's generally too tough to be a pleasing texture.  However, in this case, this mixture was going to be good and thoroughly cooked, and the candies themselves were going to be rather chewy when finished.  

So, I opted to throw the whole bean in (half of one pod), albeit minced very finely.

After that, it was clean up the kitchen, and do the dishes, while stirring the caramel every minute or so with my trusty silicon spatula.  

You can get your square baking pan ready at this point too; lining it with lightly greased parchment paper.

Now, not to pat myself on the back or anything, but it is a very good thing that I referenced multiple recipes, from varying sources, before trying this out.  The biggest reason is that Ina Garten's book was just plain incorrect.  In her recipe, she clearly states:

...cook over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes, until the mixture reaches 248 degrees (firm ball) on a candy thermometer.

This information is so utterly off, that I have to wonder if she ever even tried this recipe before printing it in her book.  After ten minutes on medium-low, my mixture had not changed in the slightest, and my thermometer had barely twitched a couple of degrees!!!

Luckily for me, other recipe-writers all said that this step can be done on medium heat, and should actually take upwards of 45 minutes!  Very different advice indeed!


Sorry "Contessa"... maybe you wanted to avoid this recipe for fear of splashing hot caramel on your "bare feet"??

AH HAHA HAH HAH AHA H HA HA HA HA Heh.  I'm so funny.


Anyway, I'll show you a chronology of my mixture over the course of 45 minutes on medium heat:

Time Index: 1 minute / Consistency: runny
Time Index: 15 minutes / Consistency: bubbly
Time Index: 30 minutes / Consistency: frothy
Time Index: 45 minutes / Consistency: gummy!
So, it really does take a good amount of time to reach the 'firm ball' stage.  But after almost exactly 45 minutes of steady boiling, and frequent stirring, the mixture magically transformed from a runny golden liquid, into a thick and sticky brown goop, and the thermometer read just under 250°.

You can see from the last image here, at the 45 minute mark, the mix was so thick and goopy, that when stirred, you can see the bottom of the pan.  Which is good!  It shows just how thick it has become.

At this point the hard part was over; I turned off the heat, poured it (oh so carefully!!!) into my parchment-lined pan, and stuck it in the fridge to cool for about 30 minutes.

Once cooled, the mix was really hard.  I thought perhaps I had maybe cooked it beyond the firm ball stage temperature for a few minutes... but as it slowly got back up to room temperature, it was actually delightfully malleable and soft!

I cut the whole square in half, and then folded each half up into a roll, but then smoothed it, turning each side until there were four square-ish sides to it.

At this point feel free to sprinkle a fair bit of your salt all over them, and keep rolling it until it is nicely coated.  If you're worried about what kind of salt to get... it doesn't really matter a WHOLE lot... fleur de sel if you've got it, otherwise any decent sea salt will also work.  Myself, I used a sel gris for the cooking portion, and a pink Himalayan for the coating stage.  It worked just fine.  :)

The cutting part was not the easiest.  Many of the recipes I looked at (I think maybe even all of them...) suggested using a 'greased' knife for this stage.  I tried that, and it didn't really help my knife not sticking to it, and it also just coated my already pretty greasy caramels with more grease!  

In the end I just switched to the sharpest knife I own, and used pressure force rather than shearing force to cut them.

Then came the wrapping in parchment squares.  It was good that there were quite a few of these to practice on, because my first half dozen or so were not pretty.  My advice here, and what I learned from doing this, is to just use more parchment paper than you'd think, and make them 'rectangles' rather than 'squares'.  Basically ensure that you've got enough extra paper on the long sides to be able to *twist* the ends up.

They're still quite soft and malleable at this stage, so feel free to wrap them, and then just press firmly down on each side to make them 'square' again.

In the end, my first attempt at caramels was a little shaky, but finished well, and was very well received.  Many people enjoyed them.  So much that I've already been asked to make more.  :(