By Emily Paster
I cooked and baked a lot with blood oranges back during the fleeting few weeks when they were available. Remember that? Some of the recipes I used called for blood orange juice, but I always zested the fruit before squeezing the juice, so as not to waste all the flavor and oils that are found in the outer layer of peel. I originally came up with a recipe for Blood Orange Sea Salt Caramels as a way to use up some of that extra zest. The caramels came out great and I enjoyed giving out bags of them as small gifts and thank-yous.
The blood oranges are long gone, but I am still tinkering with my caramel recipe. Recently, I learned to infuse the cream with the orange zest — as opposed to just sprinkling zest on top of the candies — in order to perfume the whole batch of caramels. Infusing cream is 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. I have consulted multiple recipes for caramels, including one by ex-pat pastry chef David Lebovitz, which is good except for the too-high temperatures he gives, and the one set forth below has all the elements I like and none that I do not.
You can vary this recipe in countless ways by infusing your cream with herbs, such as thyme or lavender, or spices like cardamom. 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. The Chicago Tribune recently had an informative article about the differences between raw milk, pasteurized milk and ultra-pasteurized milk. For one thing, ultra-pasteurized milk or 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.
I have had bad luck, however, with candy thermometers in the past. Most notably, there was the time I had to toss a batch of apricot-red currant jam after my candy thermometer broke in the pot. As I poured $25 worth of fruit and several hours of effort down the drain, I swore I would never use a candy thermometer again. But then I became interested in candy-making, and you simply cannot make candy without a good thermometer. 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!
Orange Sea Salt Caramels
Makes approximately 5 dozen caramels
Zest of two oranges
1 cup cream
4 TB unsalted butter
½ tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. sea salt
½ cup light corn syrup
1 ¼ cup sugar
¼ cup water
Place half the orange zest in a small saucepan. Pour the cream over it and stir to combine. Heat until almost but not quite boiling, when the cream reaches 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 and the sugar. (Stir to dissolve the sugar, but once the sugar is dissolved, do not continue to stir the mixture. Doing so will cause the sugar to crystallize. Swirl the pan instead.) Bring to a boil over high heat. Boil until the mixture takes on a golden brown color and you smell caramel. Remove from heat. Watch carefully for it only takes a minute for the mixture to go from caramelized to burnt!
Add the cream mixture to the caramelized sugar and stir to combine. Over medium-high 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. Then sprinkle the remaining orange zest and 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.
You can buy pre-cut candy wrappers at craft stores or online which will save you a lot of time over cutting your own. I just use regular wax paper, which has an old-fashioned look, and enlist a lot of helpers. My husband cuts the squares while the kids and I wrap.
Caramels are a great first project for the novice candy-maker. I hope you are tempted to give this a try.