By Emily Paster
I was running around Oak Park yesterday taking care of some last-minute holiday errands when I ran into one of my canning students. She pulled me aside to ask if I had any last-minute edible gift ideas. Apparently her son thought the gift that she had picked out for his teacher was not going to cut it. I could have acted all superior and claimed not to know anything about last-minute gifts because, of course, I plan my gifts months in advance. Not only would that have been obnoxious, but it would also have been a lie. Despite putting up jars upon jars of jams and pickles all summer long, I still find myself scrambling at this time of year to make gifts for the friends, neighbors, teachers and coaches who have touched our lives in the past year.
Luckily, I have just the project for any last-minute edible gifts that you may still need to give: caramels. Who wouldn't like to receive a pretty tin or bag of festively wrapped caramels? Everyone loves caramels and they never fail to impress. But the truth is, they are relatively easy to make and don't require any obscure ingredients. All you need is sugar, butter, cream, corn syrup and sea salt. I do recommend one special piece of equipment, a candy thermometer, but you can find one of those at many big-box stores, including Target or Bed Bath & Beyond. It's a small investment in both money and space but it will save you many a ruined batch of candy. Just never let the thermometer touch the bottom of your pot!
The only other equipment that you might need is candy wrappers. Pre-cut candy wrappers, which you can find at craft stores like Micheal's, will make this project easier, but you can still make the caramels without them. You will just have to cut your own candy wrappers from wax or parchment paper. So you can decide which is easier: making a trip to a craft store or cutting sixty squares of paper.
The list of instructions may seem intimidating, but making caramels is not hard or complicated. It just takes some care and attention. This is not the time to multi-task. Don't try to make dinner while the sugar is boiling. Just give the caramels your undivided attention and it will be fine. The whole thing takes less than an hour.
You can add interest to your basic sea salt caramels by infusing the cream with different flavors — a trick I learned from Katherine Duncan, owner of Katherine Anne Confections, the local artisan candy company that has been a great supporter of the Chicago Food Swap. Here, I infuse the cream with thyme, but you could use a different herb — like rosemary — spices, or even citrus zest. I do recommend that you take the time to search out the freshest cream possible — one that is not ultra-pasteurized and that does not contain stabilizers. For one thing, ultra-pasteurized cream is likely to be less fresh because the very purpose of ultra-pasteurization is to increase shelf-life. I've had luck using cream by Kilgus Farmstead or Kalona Supernatural brands, both of which are readily available at Whole Foods and on Artizone.com.
Thyme-Infused Sea Salt Caramels
- 4 springs fresh thyme
- 1 cup cream
- 4 TB unsalted butter, divided in half
- ½ tsp. vanilla extract
- 1 tsp. sea salt
- ½ cup light corn syrup
- 1 ¼ cup sugar
- ¼ cup water
- Combine the thyme and cream in a small pot.
- Heat until almost but not quite boiling, about 200 degrees.
- Turn off heat and set aside for 30 minutes.
- Once cream is infused, add 2 TB of the butter, the vanilla and ½ tsp of the sea salt to the cream mixture and reheat to a simmer.
- Line an 8×8 baking pan with heavy-duty aluminum foil so that the bottom and the sides are covered.
- Brush the foil with oil or spray with a nonstick cooking spray.
- Meanwhile, in a large, heavy-bottomed pot, combine the corn syrup, water and sugar and bring to a boil over high heat.
- Stir to dissolve the sugar, but once the sugar is dissolved, do not continue to stir the mixture because doing so will cause the sugar to crystallize. Swirl the pan instead.
- Boil just until the mixture takes on a golden brown color and you smell caramel. Watch carefully for it only takes a minute for the mixture to go from caramelized to burnt!
- Remove pot from heat, add the cream mixture to the caramelized sugar and stir to combine.
- Over medium heat, bring the caramel to 238 degrees, or the "soft ball" stage, stirring frequently to prevent scorching.
- Remove from heat.
- Stir in the remaining two TB of butter and carefully pour the mixture into the prepared pan.
- Allow to set for a few minutes.
- Sprinkle sea salt on top of the caramels.
- Allow to harden for several hours.
- Once the caramels are hardened, cut them into bite-sized squares or rectangles.
- If you are having trouble cutting the caramel, heat your knife over the stove for a few seconds. Wrap the caramels in 4X5 rectangles of wax paper or cellophane, twisting the ends to close, for storage and giving.