My kids and I have a deal, if they see a treat that they would like to try, I get first dibs on making it for them at home. I always show them the list of ingredients with the inevitable inventory of unpronounceable preservatives, chemicals, coloring and fake flavorings and explain that these are not real food. Even at a young age, they came to understand that anything made from natural ingredients, rather than chemically altered substances is not only better for them, but tastes phenomenal compared to its engineered counterparts. This is exactly how these caramels came to be. It was Halloween three years ago when they saw the square, shrink wrapped caramels that deliver a tasteless jolt of artificial sugar and asked if we could make our own version at home. This was also the last Halloween where I could dress my babies in costumes of my own choosing, hence my adorable Mickey and Minnie! Sadly, the following year they actually had an opinion and I was summarily dismissed from costume duty.Caramels are a confection made by a process of heating sugar. Caramels involve two types of chemical reactions, one is caramelization and the other is the Maillard reaction. Caramelization is a method by which water is removed from the sugar by heating, thereby causing the disaccharide sucrose, granulated sugar, to break down into the monosaccharides fructose and glucose. This process is what allows the melted sugar to change color and develop the depth of flavors and aromas associated with caramelizing.
The second process is called the Maillard reaction, named after the French scientist that published a paper in 1912 which explained that this nonenzymatics browning is a result of the chemical reaction that occurs when amino acids react with sugar molecules during the heating process. In these caramel candies specifically, the cream which is high in protein, an amino acid, reacts to the sugar resulting in the dreamy, creamy caramels we have here. A little touch of the Himalayan pink salt adds a bit of savory earthiness and balances the sweetness perfectly. Ingredients:
1 cup (8 ounces/237 ml) heavy cream
5 tablespoons (71 grams) unsalted butter
1/4 teaspoon Himalayan sea salt, may substitute table salt
1 ¼ cups (258 grams) granulated sugar
1/4 cup (3 ounces/89 ml) organic light corn syrup
1/3 cup (2.7 ounces/80 ml) mineral water
1 teaspoon vanilla paste, preferably Nielsen-Massey (may substitute 1 teaspoon vanilla extract)
How to Use Them:
Spray an 8 inch square glass pan with cooking spray and line with parchment paper, unbleached is preferred if available. Make certain that there is at least a one inch overlap so that it will be easier to lift the caramels out of the pan once they are cooled.In a small pot, heat the cream, butter and salt on medium-low heat until the butter is melted and the mixture begins to bubble up a bit. Remove the cream mixture from the heat, stir in the vanilla paste and set aside.
In a medium pot, heat the sugar, corn syrup and mineral water on medium-low heat, stirring just until the sugar is dissolved. A technique that you can use to ensure that the sugar will not seize and crystallize is to use a pastry brush dipped in water to clean the sides of the pan throughout the caramelizing process.Once the sugar has dissolved, allow the sugar to boil without stirring until the syrup reaches a golden caramel color, usually 10-15 minutes. This caramelizing of the sugar is what happens to pure sugar when it melts and reaches 338° F. At this temperature, the sugar compounds begin to break down and new compounds form. Add the cream mixture to the syrup and stir. Be careful at this stage as the mixture will initially boil up violently, releasing steam.Place a candy thermometer in the pot and stir often until the mixture reaches 242° F, approximately 10-15 minutes.In terms of the stages of sugar cooking, you will be cooking this mixture to a temperature of 242° F, which is right in between the soft ball and hard ball stages. Thereby rendering a soft caramel that holds its shape without being too liquid or too hard. You can see from the picture of the thermometer below how the caramels drips hold their shape when removed from the pan.Right as the temperature reaches 240° F stir in the vanilla extract and keep heating to 242° F. Once you reach this temperature, remove from heat and immediately pour the caramel into the prepared pan. Allow to cool for at least 2 hours.I always scrape the bottom of the pan onto some parchment paper. You know, for quality control testing! Yum.Once cooled, lift the parchment paper out of the pan and lay on a cutting board. Use a sharp, heavy knife, or a serrated knife if you have one, that has been sprayed or wiped with a bit of cooking oil. Gently cut the caramel into 1 inch strips horizontally and then 1 inch strips vertically using a gentle sawing motion.Wrap the caramels into squares of wax paper that have been cut to approximately 3 inch x 4 inch rectangles. This is a perfect task for the little ones.The only thing left to do is to try not to eat them all in one sitting!