Thursday, December 30, 2010

Caramels That Make You Believe You've Died and Gone to Heaven

I make them precisely once a year, but are remembered by friends and family throughout the year: golden caramels. I like to call them my labor of love, as they take the better part of an evening to cook them and then another couple of hours to cut and wrap, but they are so worth it. 
Here is the recipe for these unforgettable treats, found online at They are not difficult, but you must be precise!
  • 4 cups heavy cream
  • 1 cup sweetened condensed milk
  • 4 cups light corn syrup
  • 4 cups sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 sticks unsalted butter, cut into 16 pieces
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • Vegetable-oil cooking spray


  1. Spray an 11 3/4-by-16 1/2-inch baking pan (this is a half-sheet pan) with vegetable-oil spray. Set aside in a spot where it will not be moved. In a 2-quart saucepan, combine cream and sweetened condensed milk; set aside.
  2. In a heavy 6- to 8-quart saucepan, combine corn syrup, 1 cup water, sugar, and salt. Clip on candy thermometer. Over high heat, cook until sugar is dissolved, stirring with a wooden spoon, 8 to 12 minutes. Brush down sides of pan with a pastry brush dipped in water to remove any sugar crystals.
  3. Stop stirring, reduce heat to medium, and bring to a boil. Cook, without stirring, until temperature reaches 250 degrees (hard-ball stage), 45 to 60 minutes. Meanwhile, cook cream mixture over low heat until it is just warm. Do not boil. When sugar reaches 250 degrees. slowly stir in butter and warmed cream mixture, keeping mixture boiling at all times. Stirring constantly, cook over medium heat until thermometer reaches 244 degrees (firm-ball stage), 55 to 75 minutes. Stir in vanilla. Immediately pour into prepared pan without scraping pot. Let stand uncovered at room temperature for 24 hours without moving.
Since dust and pet hair seem to have honing beacons for freshly-poured caramel, I've found that finding a good spot for the standing-at-room-temperature-for-24-hours part can be a bit daunting. I happen to live in a pet-free apartment, which enables me to set the pan on my dining table without threat of kitty attack, but I know many people have pets, kids, and curious hungry onlookers to contend with. If you can close off a room from traffic and pets, e.g. a mud room, that's a great place to cool the caramels. At my Dad's house, I've gone as far as clearing off a shelf in a storage closet and placing the pan in there to prevent the inevitable poking, pawing, and jarring of the candy! 

Once the caramels have "cured" for 24 hours, it's time to release them from the pan and cut 'n wrap. I loosen the 4 corners of the caramel with a butter knife, and with very little prodding the entire caramel will release itself onto your cutting surface. I use my bread board or a large wood cutting board to cut the caramels, spraying the surface first with just a bit of pan spray to prevent sticking. Using my biggest chef knife I halve the caramel to make the cutting more manageable, and then cut that section in half again (for the math whizzes out there I cut the sheet of caramels into quarters). I then cut that quarter into 3/4"-wide strips and then each strip into  1"-long pieces. I'm always amazed at how beautifully the caramels can be cut; the caramels are not too hard but cut cleanly with the knife. Once I've completed a quarter of the caramels I wrap them all at once in wax paper. 

Cutting the caramels. These caramels are receiving a crunchy topper: fleur de sel. 
Over the years of making these caramels, I have tried a few variations to enhance their smooth goodness. My favorite is pressing the tops into fleur de sel. Fleur de sel is a delicious, clean-tasting, large crystal sea salt. It's very expensive (I get mine at a local specialty kitchenware and food shop), but a jar lasts a long time. I sprinkle a couple of teaspoons of the salt onto a saucer and gently press the candy into the salt. The result is a sweet caramel with just a touch of salty crunch. 

Another great variation is dipping in chocolate. I melt a bag of bittersweet/dark chocolate chips with a teaspoon or two of shortening in a double boiler. Once the chocolate is melted and smooth, dip the caramels, using a toothpick or fork. Place on wax paper and allow to set completely before wrapping.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Christmas Tree With a Little Old-World Charm

The Saturday after Thanksgiving, my niece and sister helped me put up my Christmas tree. It's a big tree in a very small space, but I do love how it warms up my living room. 
My niece adding ornaments to the tree

I have a 9-ft slim tree, which fits well in the corner of my living room. To play up my chosen theme, I used about 25 yards of tartan ribbon (with wired edges for shaping!), frosted cranberry garlands, sprays of pheasant feathers, and dozens of white glittered snowflakes. As I mentioned in a previous blog, my Stewart tartan wool blanket became my tree skirt. 

The first time I put up my Christmas tree, I had an extremely limited budget. I had to light and decorate this big tree for less than $100. I found that unbreakable ornaments from Wal Mart (or any from a discounter) can fill a tree fast...and affordably. Floral picks, sprays, and ribbon for garland came from Michael's. And the fun pheasant feathers, along with more unique ornaments, came from after-Christmas sales at Marshall Field's.

Lighting is really important, so I bought two sizes of bulbs (C7 and regular indoor twinkle) for the tree. All said and done, I use about 500 twinkle lights and 100 C7-sized bulbs. One of the twinkle light strands has different lighting configurations, so I set it on a slow fade. It's amazing how much dimension that one change in lighting configuration can add to the tree!

Each year I add a little something new, which allows me to build a collection affordably. Now that I have a great base of non-breakable globe ornaments, I buy special ornaments to add visual interest to the tree. I have found so many beautiful ornaments at Macy's in recent years, and highly recommend finding something special on Holiday Lane. This year I bought Radko ornaments that were reproductions of the 1940s ornaments that hung on my Grandparents' and now Dad's Christmas trees.  I also bought a beautiful globe with the Manger Scene inside, a woodsmen-like Santa Claus, and gigantic glittered pinecones.

There's always such a sense of satisfaction and joy that comes with putting up the tree each year. Since many of the ornaments get rotated, it's always fun to decide which ornaments will fit the theme of the tree, and even more fun to bring back an old set of ornaments that haven't gotten their place of honor in a couple of years. Turning off the lights and sitting in the glow of the tree instantly transports me to Christmases past and reminds me of the magic of the season. 
The finished tree, complete with oversize pinecones, a wool blanket tree skirt, and a crown of feathers.