Sunday, February 17, 2008

Caramel: Impossible

Another Zaar tag game had me making caramels. I love caramels, the buttery, sugary goodness that sticks to your teeth so you have a bit of that taste last for a while...the rich golden color...a real comfort food candy. When I saw that the person who was "It" for tag had a caramel recipe, I just HAD to try it!

Now, the recipe looked pretty simple. Looks can be deceiving, as I learned the hard way. Oh, it's definitely simple enough if you've made caramel before, or seen it being made...but for the virgin caramel maker like myself, it just wasn't detailed enough. When I post the recipe, I'll give a link to the original at Recipezaar and here I'll post the directions my own way, including the feedback I gave the person who posted the recipe. I ended up posting my review before the second batch finished cooling, so I didn't know I had make a mistake again. Oh well, the feedback still stands.

I had a candy thermometer at my parents' house, but that was an hour and a half away and I didn't know when I'd be back there to get it. On Wednesday I had a snow day, so I decided to try it using the cold water test for doneness. Let's just say virgin caramel makers like myself really should use a candy thermometer, there is too much room for error if you don't know how to do the cold water test.

For my first attempt, I put in all the ingredients and set the burner to low temperature as the recipe suggested. I wasn't sure whether to stir at this point or not, but I did go ahead and stir anyway. It was taking forever to boil (which I expected with such a low temp) but the recipe said it should take 25 minutes to make, so I decided to put the burner at medium-low until I got a bit of a boil. I then did the next few steps as directed. It looked great and tasted excellent, but I was not having success with the cold water test. I looked online to see what the hard ball should be, but the online sites I found said that caramels should be cooked to a firm ball. I thought maybe the original poster made a mistake, so I cooked it to what I thought was a firm ball. This did not work out. I had a nice soft caramel that could work as a filling or a caramel frosting of sorts, but it wasn't hard enough for caramel candies.

I wanted to give this recipe a fair chance, so on Saturday, armed with a new candy thermometer, I gave it a second go. I fared a little better. I burnt the bottom a little because I saw something that said caramel shouldn't be stirred, but the recipe did call for stirring, so I wasn't quite sure when to stir and when not to. I didn't think much of it, and went on, choosing to stir so I wouldn't burn any more. I should have known when Wednesday's looked so much better as it cooked than yesterday's that I did something wrong. Unfortunately, I woke up this morning to find that it was a little more firm than last time, although still way too soft, but it did not taste as good.

I decided this morning that I would not give up on this recipe. This woman had it as a family favourite so it should work if only I could figure out how! I looked up information online and hit the store to stock up on the ingredients I needed in case I had to do several more batches. If it took all week I was going to get it right!

This morning I found out, from my research, that brown sugar should not be used for caramel candy because of the extra moisture. Now, I looked around and saw a lot of recipes that called for brown sugar so I thought that if so many people liked brown sugar in caramels, there must be something good about it and there must be a way to get it right. Further research told me that the difference between the ball stages is the percentage of the mixture that is sugar. To me, it stands to reason that if the brown sugar adds extra moisture, the caramel should cook to a higher temp to boil away the extra moisture.


That must be why the recipe called for a hard ball stage instead of the firm ball!

Now for the sirring question. Some recipes called for constant stirring while others said not to touch it. I'm thinking there must be something going on with the ingredients, and from what I've learned it has to do with the crystallization of the sugar. Now I'm not sure why some need stirring but others turn out bad with it, but I'll save that question for later. For now, I'm satisfied that I can stir it the while time because I watched numerous videos on You Tube® that showed people making caramels where they were stirring constantly.

Now it was time to get to business. I was ready for the long haul and was prepped for combat. I was going to beat this caramel if it was the last thing I did! It seems the third time really is the charm. This time they turned out brilliantly. The brown sugar in the recipe gives it a really dark, rich color that you don't always see with caramels, but it tastes excellent! Neither Lee nor I could stop eating them!

The cutting was a bit tricky. I found the best way to do it was to use a pizza cutter to cut the caramel into long strips, then use a knife to cut it into smaller squares. The caramel stuck to the knife too much for the long strips, but the pizza cutter squished the caramels when used for the small squares. The combination worked a treat. To do the pizza cutter, I ran it over the caramel three or four times in the same spot, applying a little more pressure each time. This allowed me to get a good cut, the caramel didn't have a chance to stick, and it kept the somewhat dull pizza cutter from squishing the caramel. (I'm realizing now I really should get in the habit of taking some pictures in the middle of making some of these dishes so I can show what I mean.)

Any downfalls to making caramels besides eating way to many, you ask? Unfortunately, caramel is a very sticky candy and must be wrapped. Also, caramel is served in small bite-sized pieces, so the individual candies are quite small. This means a tedious job of wrapping, which of course can be alleviated somewhat by eating them!

Three quick tips before recipe time:

  1. Use a sauce pan with high edges. The candy boils up and high edges, higher than you think you'll need, will prevent it from boiling over. (I made this mistake.)
  2. Put the pan on the back burner. The candy spits while it's boiling and it will prevent you from being burned.
  3. Resist temptation to taste test candy. It is VERY hot! Only taste test if set on a spoon and allowed to cool for at least 10 minutes. (I made this mistake too. It hurt!)

Aunt Kathleen's Caramels

Takes about one hour and yields approximately 15o candies. (I only counted a portion and guesstimated the rest.)

½ cup butter (2 sticks)
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 cup white corn syrup
1 cup (one small 14 oz. can) sweetened condensed milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
You may add 1 cup chopped walnuts if you like. I don't like....

  1. Line a 8" x 8" pan with parchment paper or aluminum foil. Coat with butter and set aside.
  2. Heat butter over low heat until melted. Swirl pan to coat bottom and sides so sugar doesn't stick.
  3. Add sugar, brown sugar, and corn syrup. Raise heat to medium-high and stir until boiling.
  4. Once mixture begins to boil, reduce heat to medium and keep stirring for 10 minutes while it boils.
  5. After 10 minutes, take pan off heat and slowly add condensed milk, stirring constantly.
  6. Return to heat, insert candy thermometer according to directions, and boil, stirring constantly, until the temperature reaches 250°F (the edge of firm ball and hard ball stages).
  7. Take off heat and stir in vanilla.
  8. Pour into buttered pan and allow to cook approximately 4 hours.
  9. Cut, wrap, and enjoy! Place in plastic container and they keep for about 2 weeks.


Made by Lena