I like chocolate as much as the next person, but when it comes to my sweet tooth, I’m a sucker for caramel. Cake, ice cream, cookies—if it has a streak of caramel in it, I’m a goner. As a child, I could be enticed to do just about anything for the hydrogenated goodness of a Bull’s Eye caramel cream. So what if you could poke the cream center out in a solid chunk? I was no critic; I was in love. With the passage of time, my tastes matured and I slowly outgrew my obsession with caramel creams and other early loves (yes, I’m talking about you, Emilio Estevez) and replaced them with gourmet caramels studded with sea salt or laced with espresso powder (although I still suffer moments of caramel cream weakness when I stumble across The Breakfast Club on cable). It wasn’t until I began making my own caramels from scratch, however, that I felt like a true caramel sophisticate.
I’ll admit, part of the allure of making caramels was the challenge they presented. Sugar is a fickle friend, taking forever to caramelize and then going from golden amber to dark mahogany to burnt-beyond-recognition before you can say, “St. Elmo’s Fire.” It took a little trial and error to reach the right color and chew, but I was happier than my pre-teen self with a new copy of Tiger Beat when I figured out a go-to recipe that meant I could have chewy, delightfully sticky caramels whenever I had a craving.
The thing to remember about working with caramel is that you can never turn your back on it. You can stand and watch sugar syrup bubble for what seems like hours without even the slightest color change, but walk away to answer the phone and your caramel will burn before you have the receiver to your ear. It knows. Trust me on this.
First, before you mess around with the caramel, you’ll need to infuse a mixture of heavy cream and unsalted butter with the seeds from a vanilla bean and a teaspoon of salt. This butter-cream mixture adds richness to the caramel, of course, but it also helps keeps the caramels soft and chewy.
Bring this mixture to a boil, and then lower the heat and let the flavors meld for at least 10 minutes. If you feel like washing your hair before starting the caramel, no problem—just turn off the burner and let the cream mixture steep a while longer. The longer it sits, the more vanilla flavor it will develop. Meanwhile, prepare the pan (because you sure won’t have time to when you’re holding a pan of foaming hot caramel). Since the caramel is sticky by nature, it’s a good idea to make a parchment paper sling to line an 8-inch square pan (for easy removal) and spray it with vegetable oil spray for added insurance.
It’s finally time for the caramel showdown! Use a large saucepan to make the caramel. Judging by the volume, you might think you could use a smaller vessel, but be warned: the caramel will foam up when you add the cream mixture, and you don’t want a sweet version of Mt. Vesuvius erupting all over your too-small saucepan. Combine the sugar, corn syrup, and water in the saucepan over high heat. Try to resist the urge to stir.
One of the dangers in making caramel is recrystallization, where the dissolved sugar recrystallizes and seizes up due to the presence of fat or other foreign particles in the solution. To safeguard against this, you can periodically wash down the sides of the saucepan with water (using a very clean pastry brush).
Gently swirl the pan periodically to make sure the sugar is heating evenly, and wait for the color to change to amber. You can also watch the bubbles as the caramel cooks: early in the cooking process the bubbles are separate and boil vigorously; as the caramel cooks, the bubbles become smaller and more delicate—almost foamy. If neither the amber color nor the foamy bubbles is a helpful clue, use a candy thermometer; when the mixture reaches 350 degrees, it’s at the right temperature and color.
Carefully remove your saucepan full of very hot caramel from the heat (just wanted to hammer that point home). Carefully stir in the cream mixture, watch it foam, and breathe a sigh of relief that you listened to me and went with the high-sided saucepan.
Return the pan to the heat and cook the caramel until it reaches 248 degrees. Now that the cream mixture has been added, it’s not only safe but also imperative to stir the caramel so it doesn’t burn. This step should only take 3 to 5 minutes, so you won’t be stirring long.
Remember the temperature of that caramel when you’re tempted to stick your finger into the pan and taste the buttery mixture you’ve just made. Also keep it in mind as you’re pouring the caramel into the prepared pan. Caramel burns are no fun.
Smooth the surface of the caramel and let it cool for 10 minutes. Then add the best part: fleur de sel. These large, flaky grains of sea salt add great flavor and crunch to the caramels. If you’re slightly more daring (and of course you are), try substituting smoked sea salt. Yes, please. Then, try to find something to take your mind off the caramels as they sit and cool to room temperature for about 1 hour, and then in the fridge to chill for another hour. Walk the dog. Do some laundry. Whatever you do, stay out of the kitchen.
Once the caramels have cooled, lift the sling to remove them from the pan and peel the parchment paper away from the caramel. Using a sharp knife, carefully cut the caramel into ¾-inch squares. Since they tend to stick together, it’s best to individually wrap them in pieces of wax paper.
Find this and other great DIY recipes in The America’s Test Kitchen DIY Cookbook.