Growing up, we didn’t make plates full of questionable-quality cookies for Christmas. We made candy. Toffee, fudge … you name it, and my mom probably taught me how to make it. She taught me the importance of patience, precision, and consistency – all of which are essential to making quality candy and doing many other things, like surviving law school, succeeding in the workplace, and communicating effectively in a relationship. I could go on for days with this metaphor, but I won’t. Suffice it to say that I once burned a pot of boiling sugar and butter that would have been toffee, and I haven’t turned my back on the stove (while cooking candy, at least) ever since.
Making candy is also one of the financially cheapest gifts you can make as a starving college student law school student post-J.D. Bar/Bri student, but it requires paying some attention to detail (perfect for future attorneys!) and investing a tad more time (love?) than picking up the first gift that speaks to you at Macy’s. Because candy-making is a bit more involved (though, actually, much faster and cheaper – and impressive!) than your average birthday, graduation party, or holiday baked goods, I can guarantee that it’s worth the effort to make and worth the cost of a candy thermometer, which you can pick up at your local grocery store or on Amazon for $10 or at a more fancy-pants store like Sur La Table for $30.
Also, because most people I’ve talked to about homemade candy seem to squirm with anxiety about the thought of making toffee or caramel at home, I’m presenting this recipe in a photo-narrative style that’s quite a bit more specific than a mid-week throw-together fried rice recipe needs to be. Thanks to my mother, I’ve been making candy ever since I was tall enough to stir a pot on the stove, so trust me when I can say that you can do this. Let’s get started …
First, you need some heavy cream.
And a hunk of butter.
Better put those together in a cute little pot, along with some fleur de sel.
(Trust me; I did add the salt. I just didn’t include the picture because, well, there was this ugly mishap with a dull knife that I used to open a package the other day. Let’s just agree that there are better ways to open packages … and that I added the salt.)
Now, you’ve got to work on what goes in a bigger pot (your great grandmother’s pot, perhaps?) … like sugar. Lots of soon-to-be-burnt-into-something-even-better sugar.
And water. And also some corn syrup – but just a little bit.
Now that everything’s in its proper place, it’s time to start cooking some cream and butter, but not too fast because you still want the mixture to be a little warm when you pour it into the burnt sugar. You want to melt that butter sweetly and gently, like the sweet cream butter that it is.
In the meantime, you’ll want to start cooking some sugar. Watch as that lumpy sugar-water-corn syrup mess begins to melt into a smooth, sweet liquid.
Soon, the sugar will start to bubble, even if all the sugar crystals haven’t dissolved yet.
See that island of undissolved sugar sitting in the middle? You don’t want that. You want your sugar to cook smoothly and evenly. But if it refuses, then swirl (don’t stir) the pan once or twice. That should do the trick.
Tah-dah! No more sugar island. This will be a much better caramel as a result of the swirling.
But don’t forget about the butter-cream on the next burner. It should be boiling by now.
Boiling it is, so stir in some vanilla and remove it from the heat. But leave your handy dandy fork/spoon/whisk in it because you’ll want to stir it quickly right before you add it to the burnt sugar.
Now back to the sugar cooking. Look at that! It started to change color on you.
Yellow is a very cheerful color, but it’s not quite what you want for your caramel. Don’t get distracted. The sugar will turn a deeper golden color any moment.
Told you so. See how the color is changing slightly unevenly? Give your pot another quick swirl to even things out. After all, you want your caramel to be the prettiest, yummiest candy at the party, don’t you? After swirling, let it darken a little more to a golden-reddish amber color.
Beautiful. Stir your cream really quickly now because you’ve got about 15 more seconds until your caramel starts to give off a burnt, smokey smell. You can go ahead and pour your cream in immediately (i.e. before there’s a slight smokey-burnt smell in the air), or for a more complex caramel, pour it in right when you detect the smell.
(Note: This might take practice, but in the end, it’s better to pour the cream in a tad early than end up with burnt caramel. Of course, if you realize you’ve waited too long, don’t waste the cream and butter by pouring it in. Just start over with the sugar and corn syrup. They’re the cheapest ingredients of the bunch anyway, and you probably have more on hand.)
When you pour the cream into the burnt sugar, it will bubble up a lot. This is why you used a big pot to begin with.
If it does bubble over, not to worry. Your caramel will still taste delicious, and once you clean up the stove, no one will know the difference. But make a mental note to use a deeper pot next time.
After the preliminary bubbling has gone down a bit, insert your candy thermometer into the pot so that the end tip of the thermometer is submerged in the liquid but is not hitting the bottom of the pot. This way, you’ll know that it’s telling you the temperature of the caramel, not the bottom of the pot which is directly in touch with the burner underneath.
Your candy thermometer is now your best friend because it will tell you when your caramel is done. But it won’t let you have whatever you want when you want it – it’s your friend, not your grandmother. So, no, your caramel is not ready yet.
But it’s getting closer. So pay attention. That means no multi-tasking, so leave the little pot and its creamy-buttery glaze in the sink with the rest of the dirty dishes. You don’t want rock-hard, crack-your-teeth-in-half caramels, do you?
And just like that the thermometer has reached 249F, and it’s go time.
Pour the caramel into the prepared pan (lightly oiled or lined with parchment paper) immediately. Do NOT use a spoon; anything left in the pan likely contains hardened clumps of sugar crystals, which is why it’s stuck to the sides and the bottom. The only thing crunchy about these caramels should be the fleur de sel sprinkled on top (optional), so don’t make the caramels contain surprise rock candy.
Such pretty caramel. Smooth and reflective like glass … glass made out of deliciously burnt sugar. I knew you could do it.
Here comes the hardest part. You have to wait for the caramel to cool. I know it smells incredible, but don’t taste it. You will literally burn the taste buds off your tongue. Now’s a good time to get those dirty dishes done and cut up some 2×2-inch squares of wax paper or parchment paper to wrap the caramels in once they’ve cooled.
Once cooled, you want to transfer half of the caramel to a cutting board so you can start rolling and slicing it into bite-sized bits of burnt sugar joy. Try to remove the caramel from the pan with a spatula, so that it comes off nice and smoothly. If the caramel is too pliable, then put it in the fridge for 10 to 15 minutes to harden it up a bit, then try again. Roll one end of the caramel over itself (width-wise, so it’s easier to manage) until there are roughly 2-3 layers within the roll.
Use a paring knife to slice the long roll of caramel off of the remaining sheet of caramel. It doesn’t have to be pretty. These are homemade by you, which is so much better than a perfectionist machine. And once these babies are wrapped up, no one will be able to tell how straightly you cut their edges.
Then, sprinkle fleur de sel along the top of the rolled caramel. Unless you don’t like salty-sweet. But maybe you’re not sure, in which case, you should probably cut off the not-pretty-anyway end-piece of the caramel roll and taste it to see whether you prefer salted or unsalted. Quick! No one’s looking! And I promise not to tell.
Slice the caramel roll into bite-sized pieces that are approximately the width of a thumb or index finger.
Summoning all the self-control you have, do not pop each buttery, smokey, sweet-and-salty piece of caramel into your mouth. Once you go down that road, there is no telling when you’ll stop. So don’t go there just yet. You already tasted the ugly end-piece of the roll, so trying to claim that you’re only tasting them for your guests’ sake won’t work – you already know the caramels are burnt sugar perfection.
Instead, place each caramel on the pre-cut 2×2-inch squares of wax or parchment paper.
Roll the bottom edge of the paper over the caramel, hold it in place while wrapping the top edge over the caramel, and twist both loose ends of the paper to seal the candy in.
Repeat the rolling, salt-sprinkling, cutting into bite-sized pieces, and wrapping for the rest of the caramel, until you have a pile of cute and delicious candy treats.
Then, invite as many people over as possible so you don’t eat them all.
Fleur de Sel Caramels
Makes 1 lb. of candy
Before I turn any burners on, I typically measure out and pour all the ingredients into their two respective pots and place all remaining tools and ingredients I’ll need (pan to pour caramel on, candy thermometer, measured amount of vanilla/liqueur) within arm’s distance. This helps reduce the probability of mishaps that might typically occur at the most critical points in the caramel-making process (e.g., when the sugar mixture is reaching its optimal “burnt” point before it actually becomes disgustingly over-burnt, and when the almost-finished caramel is approaching the optimal temperature that determines how hard or soft the candy will be).
I usually cook my caramel to 249°F because I prefer a softer caramel that won’t pull out my fillings while I’m eating it, but if you want something a bit firmer, bring it to 251°F. You might need to experiment with one or two batches to get it to your preferred level of firmness.
1 c. heavy cream
5 Tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 tsp. fleur de sel (sea salt), plus more for sprinkling
1½ c. white sugar
2 Tbsp. corn syrup
¼ c. water
1 tsp. vanilla (or favorite liqueur)
Lightly mist baking sheet with oil, or line with parchment paper (parchment preferred). Set aside.
Bring cream, butter, and fleur de sel to a boil in a small saucepan, then remove from heat. Add vanilla, stir, then set aside.
Boil sugar, corn syrup, and water in a 4 quart heavy saucepan, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Boil, without stirring but gently swirling the pan to ensure even caramelization, until mixture is either a golden caramel or reddish golden caramel (NB: lighter caramels are more of a simple sweet, whereas the darker red caramels have a more complex, smokier flavor; I prefer mine smokier, but you should make them according to your preference – try two batches and taste test!).
Immediately and carefully stir in cream mixture, which will bubble up. Simmer, stirring frequently, until caramel registers 249°F (251°F for firmer caramel) on candy thermometer, approximately 10 to 15 minutes.
Pour immediately onto baking pan. Do not scrape the sides because they contain solidified sugar crystals that will ruin the candy’s texture (think shards of sugar in your otherwise creamy caramel). Cool for an hour.
Remove caramel from pan, and cut into 3 or 4 strips (depending on preferred size), lengthwise. Roll each strip over itself lengthwise two or three times (NB: If you’re finding the caramel too pliable to work with, put the caramel back on the pan and pop the pan into the refrigerator for 10 to 15 minutes until the caramel hardens up a bit. This will happen sometimes when it’s too warm or humid in your kitchen, so if you notice that it’s humid out, cook the caramel 2 degrees higher than normal. Too-pliable caramels might also mean that your candy thermometer is inaccurate, but before you toss the thermometer, test its accuracy by boiling a pot of water and arranging the tip of the candy thermometer so that it sits in the middle of the water. Water boils at 212F, so if your thermometer reads a different number once the water starts boiling, either invest in a new thermometer or adjust accordingly each time you make candy). Then sprinkle with additional fleur de sel if desired (NB: I’d suggest tasting one piece with salt sprinkled on top and another piece sans salt to see which you like best; in my experience, people have very different preferences here). Slice into bite-size pieces (about half an inch). Arrange the pieces on a dessert plate, or wrap in parchment or wax paper, twisting the ends to seal the candy in.
Caramels will keep approximately 2 weeks at room temperature if kept in an airtight container, or less than 1 hour if left in the staff room at the Bar Method’s Downtown San Francisco studio while you work out.