I’m not trying to fool you. I know you’ve seen me make caramel before, and in step-by-step detail. But not with bourbon and Fall spices.
For wedding dessert bar purposes, I kept up appearances by making about 400 of my standard fleur de sel caramels. I had to, or there might have been an Occupy Dessert Bar movement. Seriously. People get passionate over burnt sugar with salt, at least in my family.
But for my own creative purposes, I wanted to try something a little different. Something infused with Autumn. Something boozy. Bourbon spice caramels were born.
After pulling out all ingredients, I re-focused on exactly how much butter was going into this dual caramel candy-making escapade. A lot.
As in that entire stick plus 2 tablespoons of butter below was only one eighth of the amount. Granted, no one was going to eat a butter stick’s worth of caramel in one sitting, but some might come dangerously close.
I looked away from the butter and cream mixture and started working on the separate pot of soon-to-be-burnt sugar.
Instead of the water used in my original fleur de sel recipe, I used bourbon here. I’m not sure if that’s how the pros do it, as I admittedly made this up as I went. And even when I looked online later to validate my in-the-moment decisions, all I found were bourbon caramel sauces. Not helpful since they don’t cook at nearly as high of a temperature.
Anyway, beyond the crazy amount of butter, I also went through two entire 10-pound bags of sugar … for the entire dessert bar, not just for the caramels. Although the caramels certainly used their fair share of the sweet crystals. And a little corn syrup to stabilize things.
Melting sugar, as usual.
Eventually the liquefied sugar starts to bubble. Then it will turn yellow, and eventually it will start to burn. So keep an eye on it. Anything between a light golden brown and a reddish brown color will work – it’s more palate preference than anything. The darker the caramel, the more intense the flavor, unless you go too dark, and then you have to toss it and start over. It’s a fine line. So try to test a few batches to see what you like and to get the timing down.
Either way, the butter and cream mixture should be close by, heated up, and ready to pour at a moment’s notice. Actually, while I’m thinking of that, I should probably add the spices before I forget.
That’s the golden brown color I was looking for, although I usually wait a few seconds longer until it gets the darker reddish brown color going on. I like my caramels complex and smoky.
Action! Pour the cream mixture in immediately.
Be careful, as the cream causes the caramel to bubble up violently.
This is a good “do as I say, not as I do” moment. I poured the cream in too quickly and used too small of a pot. I should have known better, as I can usually double the caramel recipe for this particular 4-quart pot. But I got impatient and tripled it.
Naturally, everything bubbled over and created a giant mess. This may or may not have also smoked up my entire apartment right as my friend Kelsey arrived, and she may or may not have been kind enough to open up all the windows and fan the beeping fire alarm … after threatening to include this story in her wedding speech, of course.
Luckily, I didn’t let the mess, smoke or threats get to me. I inserted the candy thermometer, and kept the caramel going on the smoking burner (safety … second? caramels first?) while I waited for another, clean burner to heat up.
Then I transferred the pot over, and Kelsey could finally stop fanning the fire alarm. So I put her back to use with pouring the wine she had brought.
Once the thermometer hit 249F, pour it all onto a pan to cool. Don’t scrape the bottom or sides of the pot, as there may be burnt sugar shards or spices stuck that will mess up the caramel texture. Just leave them in there and soak the pot.
After about 30 minutes of counter cooling time, I usually pop the caramels into the fridge. My recipe makes softer, cavity-friendly caramels, so hardening them a bit in the fridge helps make the cutting process much easier.
If you want harder caramels, feel free to cook them to a slightly higher temperature, maybe 253F (test a few temps and see what you prefer). But be ready for friends and family to shoot disapproving glances your way when they realize they can’t get the caramel unstuck from their cavities or dentures. (Yes, that happened to me a few years back when I was first developing the recipe.)
Meanwhile, get all pans into some really hot water, which helps soften and dissolve the candy.
That mess I made earlier and almost forgot about really came back to haunt me here. I still haven’t gotten everything off that electric burner drip pan. Whoops!
While the caramels continue to cool and before the wrapping madness begins, I thought it would be a good time to relax (or make another batch!). So I poured out some wine – one glass for the candy maker and another one for the candy maker’s mom, who graciously agreed to stop by and help wrap the burnt sugar goodies in parchment paper.
I also used the cooling time to cut parchment paper into squares in preparation for wrapping. This makes things so much easier. Then I started laying them out across the counter in a single layer.
Once the caramel was cold and hard enough to work with, I started cutting the caramels, transferring each piece immediately onto parchment so it wouldn’t stick as it warmed up. This was key because it was 80 degrees in San Francisco the day I made these, so the caramel was softening quickly.
Somehow, I had two different colors of parchment paper on hand: white and brown. So I used brown for the bourbon caramels and white for the salted caramels. Perfect. And perfectly unplanned.
Mid-wrapping (which would be about 350 caramels in), I stopped to admire – and smell – the beautiful flowers my friend Katie brought by the night before. She had also brought wine, but the bottles must have emptied themselves that evening. The mystery remains unsolved.
Back to wrapping, but now on to the fleur de sel caramels.
Over 700 wrapped caramels and a full work day’s worth of wrapping later, I was done. And pooped. But these were the easiest dessert to store and transport, cute to serve, and greatly enjoyed by guests, which made the process worth the effort.
Fleur de Sel Caramels
Makes 1 lb. of candy
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)
See this prior post for full instructions and step-by-step pictures of the entire process. It’s a great resource to review first, even if you’re more interested in trying the bourbon spice caramels.
Bourbon Spice Caramels
Makes 1 lb. of candy; total count will depend on how small or large caramels are cut
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)
1 1/2 c. white sugar
2 Tbsp. corn syrup
1/4 c. bourbon, plus 2 Tbsp.
1 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. ginger
1/4 tsp. cloves
1/8 tsp. nutmeg
Line baking sheet with parchment paper. Set aside.
Bring cream, butter, and fleur de sel to a boil in a small saucepan, then remove from heat. Add 2 Tbsp. bourbon, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and nutmeg. Stir, then set aside.
Boil sugar, corn syrup, and 1/4 c. bourbon 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 and spices 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 to desired thickness (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).
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 or 1 month if kept in an airtight container.