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Thursday, February 13, 2014

choc box -- salted caramels in chocolate

 Salted caramels coated in chocolate.

Ah, yes. More Valentine's Day prep. That day. I know, I know. My American readers will enjoy this. My other readers will feel quietly irritated because it's that day, because I'm married, because I am being mushy gushy and concocting sugary treats for my sweetheart.

Well. Only half of this is for my sweetheart, actually. The other half is not for me -- he is forced to share his half -- but for a few select family members who need a pick-me-up this month. And it was fun to make. This also gets a confusing decadence and frugality tag, because they taste so amazing yet cost relatively little to make. Can you imagine buying a 25 piece box from a good chocolatier? Me, either. Yikes. This won't cost a bomb. You might even have cash left over for a cute little red-and-hearts-covered tin from the local dollar store.

Finding a proper recipe citation was difficult. This particular recipe seems to have been splashed about all over the internet, word for word, without proper sourcing attached! Major blogger faux pas! I am attaching a link to the recipe here, and will continue with my own notes as to the process of caramel making. Nope, the first batch was not perfect. But this is a reliable enough recipe that you should manage to get something edible, at least, and the second or third try will probably yield something obviously homemade but delicious and charming. Like mine. (I knew you were looking at that chocolatey photo above and thinking it doesn't look very professional! Nope. Better than.)

The "original" instructions, as found on several blog pages, read as follows:

  • 1.5 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1 tb vanilla extract
  • 1 cup heavy or whipping cream
  • 4oz salted butter, room temperature
  • coarse sea salt (I used La Baleine Coarse Sea Salt)
  • special equipment: candy thermometer 
Combine sugar, honey, and vanilla extract in a large non-reactive pot. Turn on the heat and let the sugar and honey melt and cook until caramelized (it will slowly become a deep, dark brown color.)
While the sugar is cooking, bring the cream to a simmer.
When the sugar reaches the color you like, whisk in the butter in small knobs, until well mixed, then add the warmed cream, whisk until smooth.
We let this mixture cook until the temperature reached 233F. 
Pour the hot caramel onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment. Let cool about ten minutes, and then sprinkle with coarse sea salt. Continue to let it come to room temperature, and then cut into small squares, roll, and wrap in packets of parchment or waxed paper.

I have to laugh that everyone gives away their naughty little cut and paste trick by failing to remove the side note, "I used La Baleine Course Sea Salt". Ha. Okay, enough jabs. Down to work.

My instructions

1 1/2 cups white sugar -- you want the most refined sugar possible, as less refined (brown, raw, etc) yield inconsistent results

1/2 cup honey -- yes, I did use raw honey. I currently have a gallon of the most beautiful honey bought straight from a local beekeeper, which has never had heat applied to it, leaving it a beautiful pale yellow. The recipe still works.

1 Tb vanilla extract -- vanilla bean paste works, too, although the pics in this post are of a batch made with extract

1 c heavy cream -- in the UK, this would be double cream

4 oz (8 Tbs) salted butter, softened

Celtic sea salt for sprinkling

You also need a candy thermometer, a large non reactive pot at least 8 inches diameter and 6 inches deep, and a second pot suitable for heating the cream. No lids required here. I also found a whisk to be better for controlling the rising bubbles than a wooden spoon.

You also need about one hour of time. Yes, an hour. It takes approximately 30 mins just tending the stove while you bring the fully combined ingredients to the right temperature, so if you have kids...set aside the time. Make this during naps or something. Melted sugar is HOT and burns badly so take the precautions necessary, and don't do as I do with most cooking and involve the toddler. Yes, he napped during this one, then woke early and was plopped in front of a Curious George show while I finished pouring out the 'batter' and snapping pics.

Before you get started, line a casserole dish with parchment paper. I hate wax paper. It doesn't work. Use parchment, and on the sides as well, not just the bottom. I know, the "original" recipe says cookie sheet, but I tried that the first time and it just spread out way too thin. I want something to bite into. I used a 7x11 inch casserole dish with relatively straight sides (less angled, more straight up and down) and got an even sheet of caramel a little less than 1/2 inch thick.

In the large pot, measure out sugar, honey and vanilla and turn on the stove heat to medium.

In the small pot, measure out cream and get that heating on medium-low. Cold cream would be a bad thing to add to hot sugar, so you need to bring the cream to just under simmering and keep it there, ready.

Cook the sugars together. It might take about 10 or 15 mins to achieve a good, dark color. The first time, I melted it all down and didn't really take the time to caramelize the sugars (burn them) and the flavor wasn't quite right. The raw pale golden honey also lightened everything for me. You want to try to achieve a dark oak color in the caramelized sugar. Not actually burned, just dark.

Add the butter once you've reached a good color. Instantly, as you whisk in the soft butter, the sugar will thicken and lighten, and heat will reduce. (No thermometer yet. You'll just see it bubbling less.)

Once the butter is fully absorbed, add the hot cream. Don't dump and splash it, but do at it all at once. The sugar will right away start to rise and froth. Whisk it! This is normal. This is good. This is why I told you to use a large enough pot.

Now, here starts that half hour process of cooking the caramel to the right temperature.

You need the candy thermometer. Either attach it somewhere convenient, immersed as deep in the center of the liquid as possible without touching the bottom of the pan, or dip it in as needed. You probably won't need to bother checking temperature for about the first 15 minutes.

Oh, and keep that butter paper! It makes a handy slick surface on which to rest your sticky utensils for easy cleanup.

Now, the biggest difference in all caramel recipes is the temperature. The temperature you will need to achieve is dictated by altitude.

Your candy thermometer shows you
  • 240 F = soft ball -- once cooled, candy can be formed into a soft ball, but doesn't keep it's shape
  • 260 F = hard ball -- once cooled, candy can be formed into a ball, or cut, and it keeps it's shape but is still bendy in the hands
  • 275 F = soft crack -- once cooled, a bar of candy can be bent a little but then breaks
  • 305 F = hard crack -- once cooled, the candy is hard and brittle, no bending at all
At sea level, most people will need to reach around 240-244 F for a good caramel texture. Not too hard to chew.

At my altitude, 3000 ft elevation, I need to achieve 252 F. Just barely more than halfway between soft ball and hard ball. One batch my husband and I took to 260 F, as per one blogger's instructions, and it was too hard for our preference.

To find out what you need to reach, keep that thermometer in the pot and watch it, whisking down the froth as needed. Once you reach soft ball stage, use a small spoon to drop a little of the caramel batter into a bowl of cool water. Fish out the caramel, test it, eat it. Decide (quickly) if you like the density. If yes, pour it out into your prepared dish. If no, let the pot cook a little longer. Test every few degrees F increase.

I find that the sugar takes the longest to reach soft ball temperature. Then, the time from soft ball to hard ball is much less by comparison, so do keep an eye on the thermometer as you perform your water drop test.

After you have poured out your caramel batter into your lined dish, leave it to cool for 10 minutes before salting. If you salt right away, it will sink instead of staying prettily on the top. If you leave it much longer than 10 mins, the salt doesn't stick as well.

We prefer Celtic sea salt. Lovely stuff. I buy it course textured in large bags through Azure Standard for the best price, and grind it up more finely as needed for baking with the blender or mortar and pestle. The caramels were salted with course salt.

I let them cool all day. Give them at least six hours in a chilly area of the house. A very sharp knife on a large cutting board, and I chopped up the slab into strips, then the strips into squares. You can do any size you prefer.

At this point, you may wrap the caramels in twists of parchment paper and store for a month (yeah, right!). Or, pop them onto a baking tray and stick them in the fridge. I know, crazy color difference between upper and lower here, right? That's lighting more than anything else. Mine are fairly pale in color, though, due to the raw honey I mentioned. But good flavor.

Really. Fridge them. 2 hrs. It makes coating with chocolate that much easier.

To coat, melt down some good quality dark chocolate over a low heat. Drop the caramels one at a time, bottom side down, in the melted chocolate and use a small spatula or spoon to coat the top. Lift the piece with a fork, shake off excess choc, and place on a baking tray. Non stick. Sprinkle just a little more course sea salt over the top.

I fridged them again at this point. You don't have to, but my house is either warm from an Arizona summer or warm from a winter fire most of the year round, so I find my results are just more consistent if I properly chill all melted chocolate products when I set them up. They don't have to be stored in the fridge. Room temp is fine in most cases. Eat within a month. Shouldn't be too difficult, right?


I am no candy expert. However, I have learned a few things during this process. I've already explained the drop test for determining top cooking temperature for your elevation.

There is a chance you get it wrong. Like me. No, really, I did! Unbelievable, right? 

The first time, I made them too soft. If this happens, you can melt them down again and cook them further, with thermometer, to a higher degree. Cool and cut as directionables indicate. 

So I tried to rescue my first batch. Melting and recooking worked. But I took the temperature too high. This is when I brought it all the way to 260 F, actually I think just a bit higher, and they were...yummy but hard to chew. Rrrh. I didn't feel like melting the same batch down a second time. But, if you cook your caramels too firm, you can melt them down again and add 1 or 2 Tbs heavy cream. Again, cool and cut as before. 

Hopefully, this helps you rescue an otherwise "failed" batch! Please let me know if you make these, and how they turn out. I would especially like to hear from you what temperature you found best, and what elevation that was.   

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