Simple Pleasures.

Simple Pleasures.
Irish soda bread on its way up North with Noah.

Friday, February 17, 2012

This Caramel May Ruin You

If you make this caramel, you may hate me for life. Not because you have scalded yourself with boiling sugar (which you won't do because I'm telling you now DO NOT TRY TO TASTE THIS STUFF WHILE IT'S COOKING). But because you will not be able to stop eating or making this sweet, slightly salty, buttery, creamy, chewy, ridiculously yummy candy-version-of-crack-cocaine and may very well gain 20 pounds over a single month.

Now, if you can deal with that very real risk, don't let this next slight hurdle hobble you: You're going to need a candy or high-temp instant read thermometer. I know. I know. That's one of those deal breakers that can knock any recipe off the "to cook" list for those of us who don't happen to be wearing a ruffled apron and working in a Fudge Shoppe. But for two years, I was stalked by this recipe for salted caramel that finally broke me and I now feel compelled to break you, too. Said recipe was given to me by a real estate agent down in Nashville by the name of Ms. Tori Stamps, who swore, in her buttery Tennessee-by-way-of-California accent, that this was the most "deeeeelicious, yuuuumy caaahhhhrmel evah and sooo aesy, tooooo." Miss Stamps never did get a sale out of us (that's a whole 'notha story) and finally stopped sending us log cabin listings. But that darned salted caramel kept pestering me every time I flipped open my "to try" recipe file. I'd look at it. I'd remember that monstrous slice of caramel cake I shared with Ms. Tori at a Leiper's Fork gas station My mouth would begin to water. And then I'd flip right past it because.... because....of that stupid thermometer.

Finally, while splurging on a shower liner at Bed Bath and Beyond, I bit the bullet and headed for the gadget aisle. And there it was. A big ol' candy thermometer emblazoned with all that "soft ball," "hard ball" gibberish. For $15, it--and the mysterious world of candy--was mine all mine. I rushed home, pulled out that dang recipe and got to work. Truth: Things were dicey at first. That thermometer thingy told me exactly what temp to cook the caramel to. But I still had to figure out the best time to cut the caramel. The easiest way to unmold it. And of course, there was that time I grabbed the loaf pan, which had become sizzling hot, and dropped the entire batch of caramel all over my kitchen floor and rug. (Miraculously it peeled off in one giant sheet. I came "this close" to wrapping myself in it.) But now, having made this stuff more times than I care to admit, I've got it down to, yes, a science. And I've developed a bonafide substance abuse problem. I never thought I'd reach the point in my life where I always had heavy cream in my fridge. But I'm there now. And with that one surprisingly long-lasting refrigerator item ever present, I am always at the ready to whip up a batch of Ms. Stamps' Tennessee Salted Caramel. Wrapped up in little foil or parchment squares, it's a fab hostess or thank you gift. Chucked it into a bowl, it's an awesome after dinner sweet. Hidden in the back corner of the freezer, it's the best pick-me up-possible without paying a visit to the pharmacist. Here are the deets. See ya at Weight Watchers!

1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1 cup heavy cream
5 Tbsps. unsalted butter
1 tsp. fleur de sel (or sea or gray or kosher salt), plus a little extra for sprinkling
1/2 tsp. vanilla

Line bottom of a loaf pan with a strip of parchment paper. You'll need to make the piece of parchment long enough so that it goes well up the short sides of the loaf pan. This will give you something to pull on in order to release the caramel from the pan. Parchment being parchment, it will not settle easily into the pan and will kind of pop up when you try to put it in. To combat this little challenge, lay the parchment so that its natural curve from being rolled is working in your favor. I also spray the loaf pan first with Pam and this gives it something to adhere to. It will still pop up a little but should stay somewhat in place. Finally, don't fret too much because the weight of the caramel will push the parchment down when you pour it in. If anyone has a better trick for getting parchment to behave, give me a shout.

In a deep saucepan, stir together water, sugar and corn syrup. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat (you will continue boiling this mixture until it is a warm, golden, very slightly brownish color. Envision good, darkish honey.)

In the meantime, in a smaller pan, bring cream, butter and salt to a simmer over medium heat. Turn off heat. Don't let this boil over!!! Keep a careful eye on it or you will have a mess on your hands.

Once the sugar is golden, slightly brownish, add cream mixture to it. Be careful, it will bubble violently! (Doesn't this all sound so scary? Aren't you on the edge of your seat?) Add vanilla and cook on medium-low heat until your handy candy thermometer reads exactly 250 degrees F. Remove from heat immediately. (The higher the temp, the more solid the caramel will be.) Remember what I said from the get go--don't try to taste this unless you want to remove the lining of your tongue. Burning hot sugar is evil and dangerous.

Pour caramel into pan, let cool on the counter for a few minutes if you want, then carefully place it in the refrigerator. (Remember, too, that the pan may get hot, so you might want to use pot holders.) When cooled but still somewhat soft (like the consistency of those cubes of KRAFT caramel in the clear plastic wrap), turn caramel out of the pan. If you've cooled it too long, don't fret. Just leave it out for a while so it can soften up a little. Peel parchment off of the caramel. Then use a big, sharp, heavy knife to cut into squares. I like to make lots of little squares. Size is up to you, though. Throw these onto a rimmed baking sheet in a single layer, shake a tiny bit of salt over them if you desire (remember there is already salt in the caramel itself), then return to the refrigerator to cool completely. Meanwhile, round up any lazy teen or adult sitting around the house and have them help you cut up squares of parchment paper or aluminum foil. Then sit everyone down and spend about ten minutes wrapping each little caramel. If you use parchment, you can secure each with a rubber band. With foil, you can just pinch the ends so it looks like a fancy bonbon or wrap however you want and be done with it. I like to keep a little stash of these in the freezer for myself--each takes a lot longer to eat when it is rock hard. Fridge is good, too, when the weather is warm, so they don't get oozy and runny. I'm off to make another batch. Laytah.