December 22, 2006
Great-Aunt Marcie's Caramels

caramels.jpgWhen I young, holidays had a comforting predictable side to them. Grandma Kehoe would make cranberry rolls. Grandma Liebezeit would make those wonderful delicate melt-in-your-mouth Austrian cookies. There would be onion jelly and pepper jelly to go with cream cheese on crackers and raw vegetables with dip for hors d'oeuvres, ham or turkey for the main dish. At Grandma Liebezeit's house, the stuffing would be light and savoury and full of butter; at Grandma Kehoe's it would have the density of plutonium and a lot of celery. And the other certainty was that Aunt Marcie would arrive with large Tupperware containers of home-made candy. Aunt Marce had a legendary sweet tooth: one of the stories I heard often about her told how as a child she took a small exploratory bite out of the underside of each candy in a large fancy box one holiday, putting them back looking untouched if they weren't to her taste. So it's not surprising that the area of cooking she claimed as her own was making candies. And while she never made anything you'd find in a fancy Paris shop, she made very good candy. Her caramels were my favourite: buttery and soft and with just a hint of vanilla. She's been gone for a good many years now and no one has stepped in to replace her role in the holiday menu. I guess most of us just don't have the time (or take the time). This year, I decided it was time to change that. I wanted a nice home-made gift for the ladies at the day care center, who are absolutely wonderful. And it would be a nice addition to our Christmas stockings. As it turned out I even had enough for our favourite next-door neighbor, who is an absolute dear.

I started about ten this morning. Excluding the time I spent searching for ingredients (why on earth was the vanilla in the tea cabinet? I will never know...) and the time I spent running errands, it took about 5 hours. Good heavens, I forgot how long it takes to wrap a couple hundred caramels. Where did the day go?

But it was worth it. They are every bit as wonderful as I remember. The ladies at the day care were surprised and delighted. And I know the Critic and his mother will be too on Christmas morning. And if you want to try your hand at them too, read on, because it's a great recipe and I flatter myself I have a few useful tips.

Tip #1: buy a candy thermometer (or two). I know there was a candy thermometer in my kitchen only a month or two ago but when I went to look for it, it was gone, gone, gone. So now I have another. I am sure the first one will surface shortly. You can make caramels without the thermometer, but you need to have an exact temperature reading or an experienced eye - I wouldn't try it without one or the other.

Tip #2: I know that a lot of cookbooks, chefs and food shows advise you to prepare all your ingredients in advance. I also assume that a lot of you, like me, rarely bother. This is one of those times when it pays to take the time: you'll be hot and bothered and trying to stir and dig through a full drawer for that heat-proof spatula without overturning the pot or losing your sanity. Get out all your tools and all your ingredients before you start.

Tip #3: use a pot twice as big as you think you need. It has been some 20 years or more since I made these candies and I didn't remember how the sugar boils up to twice its volume while it's cooking. As a result I have three sticky pans in my sink instead of one, as I upgraded twice.

Tip #4: this sounds obvious, but, hey, I fell for it. When you are pouring the caramels into the buttered pans, DO NOT USE YOUR FINGERS TO SCRAPE OFF THE SPATULA OR TOUCH THE CARAMEL IN ANY WAY. Duh. It's like the almost irresistible urge one has to grab a frying pan by the handle even though one knows it has just come out of the oven. The caramel gets up to a temperature of nearly 250 degrees Fahrenheit and does not cool down quickly. It will burn.

Tip #5: if you have one, use a knife like this to cut the caramels once they cool. I inherited this one from my Grandma Liebezeit's kitchen and I love it. It isn't particularly sharp actually, but it is perfect for this kind of a job, sturdy and easy to press cleanly into thick caramel.

Well, that is enough to start. Here is the heirloom recipe:

Great-Aunt Marcie's Caramels

2 cups/450 g sugar
2 cups/475 ml corn syrup
2 cups/475 ml light cream
1/2 cup/120 ml evaporated milk
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup/ 115 g butter

Stir sugar, syrup and one cup of the cream in a large pot until the sugar has dissolved. Butter a nine inch cake pan. Measure out the rest of the ingredients, cutting the butter into chunks before adding them to a common bowl or large liquid measuring cup. Put the large pot over a medium high heat and bring to a boil, cooking to the soft ball stage (around 234 degrees F/112 degrees C). You may need to raise the heat to high. Gradually add the remaining ingredients, taking care not to let the temperature drop below the soft ball level. Once all the remaining ingredients are incorporated, turn up the heat as high as possible and cook to the firm ball stage (246 F/120 C). This is the part that took a lot longer than I remembered. In fact, I moved the pot to the center of my stove-top, where it could sit on two rings simultaneously. And I stirred it for half an hour or so. And I called my good friend David (who was inconsiderately out) and left a slightly panicked message about "how the h*ll do I get this darn stuff to the right temperature?" And then I noticed that one of the burners was marginally below the full mark and turned it up. Whether it was that tiny increase in heat or just time, I don't know. But the mixture suddenly started to turn a rich brown, the bubbles became more glossy, the mixture somehow thicker and the mercury began to creep up on the thermometer after hovering near 230 for nearly 40 minutes. All I can suggest from all this is: a) don't panic if it takes a while - just keep stirring and be patient and b) do put the pot on your largest, hottest ring.

Pour the caramel into the pan. It should be about an inch thick. This does not look like much, I know. But if you make caramels that are one inch cubes you'll have 81 of them using a 9x9 pan.

Allow the caramels to cool completely before cutting them. I found it easiest to cut a few one inch strips at a time and then transfer the strips to a wooden cutting board to chop into cubes. Wrap each piece in a small square of waxed paper, folding the ends under the candy as if you are wrapping a sandwich. They will keep, in a sealed container, for a few weeks. Providing you hide them well.

A note on the recent lack of productivity on TMC: you may have noticed that things are pretty quiet around here lately. This is partly due to the holidays but also, in my case, because I've made two trips back to the US this month, once to see my father and then, sadly, to attend his funeral. I am sure you will understand. We will be back to work and cheerful soon, I promise. For one thing, I'm on holiday at home for the next two weeks! Merry Christmas, everyone.

Posted by Meg in Sussex at December 22, 2006 2:52 PM Print-friendly version

I'm so sorry to hear about your father's passing; please know I'm thinking about you.
Thank you for posting this wonderful-sounding recipe; I have the kids home for 2 weeks and will be looking for "projects" to keep them busy, and they will have fun helping with the wrapping (and eating!) part.
What did you use to wrap the individual caramels in?
Wishing you, the Critic & Boy peaceful holidays.

Posted by Taina on December 23, 2006 at 9:52 AM

Oops, just saw you mentioned wax paper in the recipe--my bad!

Posted by Taina on December 23, 2006 at 9:53 AM

Taina, thanks for the kind words.

Just a little more information on the exact ingredients, as I know you are an expat too: I used papier cuisson for wax paper and got the evaporated milk at the Real McCoy. I actually bought unsweetened condensed milk at Monoprix, but for some reason the tins ended up in the tea cabinet with the vanilla and so I didn't find them until it was too late!

Merry Christmas to you and your family too!

Posted by Meg in Paris on December 23, 2006 at 4:40 PM

Meg, I'm so sorry to hear about your father. My thoughts are with you and your family.

Posted by Elsa on December 24, 2006 at 8:50 AM

My thoughts are with you. I am sory to hear about passing of your father. Recreating and sharing foods are one of the nicest way to keep the memory of loved ones alive. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Posted by Jill on December 28, 2006 at 5:25 PM
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