painting shows miniature horse looking through window at caramels.

Scamp and the Christmas Caramels 12″ x 12″ watercolor pencil. Sharyn Dimmick.

Today The Kale Chronicles presents a holiday confection from Susan Darm: at our house candy and certain cookies are seasonal foods, made only in December.  In November 2011, Susan brought some of her caramels to a writing retreat in New Mexico and we all swooned. Susan lives in Brentwood in eastern Contra Costa County, an area formerly known as the Horn of Plenty. My favorite peach farm, Frog Hollow Farm, is still out there, although much of the fertile land has been paved over for housing. When Susan is not making candy she is an equine enthusiast, physical therapist and aspiring writer. Here’s Susan:.

I have always loved candy. As a child in grade school, I figured out that if I was going to eat as many sweets as I liked, I would have to learn to make them. I started out simply with a snack of bread, butter and white sugar. This was a respectable after school snack in my mother’s eyes, something she herself ate as a child. When I got bored with this snack I began experimenting with sugar, butter and/or syrup boiled in a sauce pan, cooled then either eaten plain or poured over nuts. I got the idea of cooking sugar from my father. He made pecan rolls at Christmas and I loved the gooey topping made of brown sugar, butter and pecans.

By the time I reached high school I had graduated to more complex concoctions. The first real winner, a candy that was good enough to share with others, was English Toffee. After 10 or 15 years of English Toffee, I got burned out on making the same candy over and over. I started searching for new recipes. I experimented heavily with both caramel and fudge. I was better suited to making caramel; it has similar properties to toffee. The recipe I ended up using as a base for my caramels is common and can be found with minor variations anywhere on the internet. Once you get the knack of making basic caramels, there are endless variations as far as using nuts, chocolate, salt for salted caramels, constructing layered candies (like Turtles) or shortening the cooking time and making caramel sauce instead of candy. I have even incorporated marshmallows, walnuts and chocolate in to the caramel with sweet results kind of like a caramel rocky road. It was good for me to make these candies. Over the years I began to eat less myself and enjoyed giving it away more than eating it.

The key to caramel making is attention to these details:

  1. Once you get to the actual cooking stage (after the ingredients have melted together), the spoon must not be removed from the pot and you must stir continuously without scraping the sides of the pot. I use a bamboo paddle and envision the paddle moving the candy in a pattern around the pot so no area is left unstirred.
  2. Manage the temperature of the stove to keep the pot at a slow boil.
  3. When you pour the candy out, do not scrape the pan. You may scrape the pan later and eat the scrapings.
  4. I no longer use a candy thermometer because I am able to eyeball the proper cooking stage. I suggest you start with a candy thermometer then estimate the time it takes to achieve the desired ball stage on your stove and quit the thermometer. I find the thermometer cumbersome and by the time I read the proper temperature my candy is overcooked.
  5. Every stove is different. On my old stove, the caramel took about 18 minutes to cook. On my new stove it is always ready in 12 to 15 minutes. This is why I use my eyes.

Easy Basic Caramels

Prepare a buttered 9 by 9 inch pan. Silicon works the best. You may fill the bottom of the pan with nuts. I use raw walnuts or toasted salted almonds or pecans. I have also used macadamias and Brazil nuts. Any nut tastes great with caramel! The caramels also taste good plain.

1 cup granulated sugar

1 cup dark corn syrup

1 cup butter

Put these ingredients in to a 10 inch heavy bottomed sauce pan, melt together and while stirring constantly bring to a slow boil. Turn the heat down and maintain a slow boil uncovered for 4 minutes without stirring. Keep the bamboo spatula in a cup of warm water while the concoction is boiling. After 4 minutes of slow boil, remove the pan from the heat and add:

One can of sweetened condensed milk

Put the pan back on the stove and over low/medium heat boil the concoction while stirring constantly without removing the spoon. If you use a thermometer you will cook it to 238 degrees f. If you use your eyes, the caramel will turn a warm brown caramel color and start to pull away from the sides of the pan. Once they have reached the desired temperature or color, remove the pan from the heat. At this point you may stir in any flavoring you would like. Most people like to add vanilla. I do not. Then pour the caramel in to the 9 by 9 buttered pan. Let the pan cool completely. I refrigerate them overnight. Once you have the basic caramel you can dress it any way you like. I remove the slab of caramel from the pan and cut it into small rectangles. I dip the bottoms of the rectangles in chocolate then wrap them individually in waxed paper (like my grandma used to do). You can also press salt in a decorative pattern on to the top of each piece or mold them in to balls, push nuts around the ball and dip it in chocolate. These caramels are very forgiving. Slightly undercooked they make a soft melt in your mouth caramel. Slightly overcooked they are firmer and must be served at room temperature.

These caramels keep well for several weeks in the refrigerator.

I try to put love in to everything I make. I believe we can taste when food is cooked with love. I also try to use local ingredients as much as possible. I am trying to find healthier candy to make and share. For next year I will work on making nougat with local honey, almonds from our orchard and egg whites from my mother in law’s chickens. This will be a lower fat candy made with ingredients from close to home. Wish me luck and I hope to share my results.

Food Notes: Sharyn here.I grew up making caramels at Christmas with cream, but have never made them with condensed milk (it won’t be long now!). My mother remembers boiling cans of condensed milk as a child to make caramel, so it is a tried and true method.  I also agree with Susan about candy thermometers: I learned to make candy the old-fashioned way by dropping samples into cool water or across plates and looking for textures: soft ball, hard ball, hard crack, etc. Next week, I’ll post Susan’s English toffee recipe for you.