Caramel is my absolutely favorite thing of all time. True story. When I was a kid, I’d receive a box of See’s vanilla caramels for special occasions, which I would hide and ration out for weeks. At some point, See’s stopped making the plain caramels and only made them with nuts, which wasn’t ideal but I coped. Then one year, they stopped making them entirely. My heart was broken. That was the year my little sister, she must have been about 10, made me homemade vanilla caramels for Christmas. It was such a thoughtful thing to do and they were perfect. Then the unthinkable happened. On Christmas night the damn dog got into the tin and ate ALL of them. I cried. When that dog had the runs for the next two days, I was not sad.
As an adult and someone who knows things, I now make my own caramels whenever I want. They are wonderful, dare I say better than See’s, and I especially like them with a big pinch of flaky salt on top. There’s a reason salted caramel is so popular – that salty-sweet combination is irresistible. I often experiment and have made some wonderful variations – with apple cider, speculous spices, bourbon, Indian and Mexican inspired flavors and today I’ll share with you another good one … Chocolate Fleur de Sel Caramels. They’re like a cross between fudge and caramel and a perfect marriage of both.
Homemade caramels aren’t that difficult but they do require a few things to keep in mind to make them correctly. First and foremost, a candy thermometer is an absolute necessity. I’ve never had much success with the old school method of dropping spoonfuls of hot caramelized sugar into cold water for the “ball test”. By the time I figure out if the texture is correct, the caramel has cooked beyond that point. A digital thermometer beeps when the proper temperature is achieved. Really, why even discuss other options? Embrace technology.
Another tip is to heat the cream and butter so that when you add it to the pot of caramelized sugar, it doesn’t seize up into a big clump. While the mass will melt and work out eventually, if the cream is warm going in the process moves along at a much smoother clip.
My final tip is to use a light-colored pan – like an enameled cast iron or a silver pan – so you can see the color of the caramel. This is important as the darker the caramel, the dark and more assertive the flavor in the end. If all your pots are dark, have a white plate on hand and drizzle bits of the caramel on it throughout the caramelization to check the color.
Here are some other tips:
- Use a candy thermometer but check it first for accuracy by placing it in a pan of boiling water – it should register 212°F. If it doesn’t, adjust accordingly. This time around, I noticed mine was off by 10 degrees which would have made a big difference in the finished texture.
- Line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper to make it easy to remove the caramels but don’t grease the pan as directed in many recipes – it makes a greasy caramel. There’s enough butter in the recipe that sticking is definitely not a concern.
- A rubber spatula works best here but make absolutely sure it’s a heatproof spatula. Melting plastic and caramelized sugar are not a happy coupling.
- When caramelizing sugar it’s important not to stir the mixture too much – agitation can encourage crystallization. Instead, swirl the pan around as the sugar melts to incorporate the darker caramelized edges.
- Keep an eye on the caramelizing sugar and add the cream once it’s a deep amber – this is usually about the time when you can begin to smell it. But be careful – it will go from perfect to burnt very quickly.
- Have a glass, like a pint glass, of water nearby. When the thermometer beeps, remove it from the pan and place in the glass of water. Later, it will clean up easily and you won’t have a caramel coated thermometer probe fused to your countertop.
- The best way to clean a dirty caramel pot is to fill it with water and bring to a boil. All the stubborn bits of hardened caramel will dissolve, making clean up incredibly easy.
- Most important – be careful. Hot caramel can leave a nasty burn. Keep a bowl of ice water nearby just in case.
And finally, I’m just going to clue you in now that wrapping these caramels is a royal pain, tedious as all get out. I’ve experimented with all sorts of wrappers and find that regular parchment paper cut into squares works just fine. Also it’s best if you grab a few people and make a party out of it. The process will go much faster and be more enjoyable if you’re not bitching by yourself.
STRESS THERAPY BAKING FACTOR: THE BEST. The combination of chocolate and caramel and salt is outstanding. These are pretty great. They’re also project-y and challenging enough to make you feel very accomplished and they make great gifts, fulfilling the bake and release mantra perfectly. I have yet to meet someone who isn’t delighted to get a bag of these.
Other caramel recipes: Caramelized Roasted Pears, Caramel Corn Rice Krispie Treats, Salted Caramel Apple Pie, Pretzel Caramel Shortbread, Whatchamacallit Brownies, Rum Butter Bars
Eight years ago: Khachpuri (cheesy Georgian bread)
Seven years ago: Blood Orange Marmalade
Six years ago: Chocolate Ganache Tart
Five years ago: Baked Cheddar Olives
Four years ago: Chocolate Cherry Buns
Three years ago: Chocolate Crème Filled Cupcakes
Two years ago: Flourless Chocolate Cookies
Last year: Chocolate Banana Bread
CHOCOLATE FLEUR DE SEL CARAMELS
Makes about 50 pieces
1 ½ cups heavy cream
6 Tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
8 ounces high-quality bittersweet chocolate (no more than 60% cacao), finely chopped
1 ½ cups sugar
¼ cup light corn syrup
1 teaspoon fleur de sel (sea salt)
½ teaspoon fleur de sel (sea salt), I really like a flaky salt for topping, like Maldon or pyramid if you have it
50+ pieces of parchment paper, about 3”x3”
- Line the bottom of an 8” straight-sided square metal baking pan with a piece of parchment paper trimmed to fit just the bottom of the pan. Do not grease the pan.
- Have a candy thermometer and a glass of water ready next to the stove.
- Bring cream, butter and vanilla just to a boil in a 1-1 ½ quart heavy saucepan over moderately high heat, then reduce heat.
- Off heat, add the chocolate.
- Let stand 1 minute, then stir until chocolate is completely melted. Set aside.
- Bring sugar and corn syrup to a boil in a 5-6 quart light-colored, heavy pot over moderate heat, stirring until sugar is dissolved.
- Boil, uncovered, without stirring but gently swirling pan occasionally, until sugar is deep golden, about 10 minutes. Careful! Caramel will go from golden to burnt very quickly.
- Immediately take pan off the heat and carefully pour in chocolate/cream – mixture will bubble and steam vigorously.
- Continue to boil over moderate heat, stirring frequently, until mixture registers 250°F on a candy thermometer, about 10-15 minutes. Remove the thermometer and place in that glass of water you had a the ready (or easy cleanup later.)
- Add the 1 teaspoon of salt, stirring vigorously to evenly distribute, then immediately pour into lined baking pan (do not scrape any caramel clinging to bottom or side of saucepan).
- Let set for a 1-2 minutes to cool a little then sprinkle with ½ teaspoon salt, maldon if you have it or more fleur de sel.
- Cool completely in pan on a rack, about 2 hours or overnight.
- to cut/wrap: Carefully run the backside of knife or a bench scraper around the edge of the caramel to separate from the pan.
- Invert the caramel onto a clean, dry cutting board and peel off the parchment.
- Using a large heavy knife and cut into 1” x ½” logs and wrap in parchment squares, twisting each end to secure.
- Store, tightly wrapped, at room temperature for up to 2 weeks. The texture will start to go after that point.