For Christmas this year, I decided it would be fun to try to make homemade candies to give to friends. I've made barks, truffles, and fudge in the past, but this year's trend seems to be caramels with sea salt, so I wanted to give those a try.
Caramel is temperamental and has given me trouble before, but since I got a candy thermometer and learned the water trick, I've been finding it easier and easier to work with. (The water trick involves dripping some caramel into a glass of ice water, fishing the dripping out, and rolling it around between your fingertips. If the caramel rolls up nicely into a little ball, then you know it's at soft-ball stage. It's helpful when you don't have a thermometer.)
I followed a recipe from Food & Wine and had no trouble making the caramel. The problem arose when I tried to separate the caramel from the oiled foil I had poured it on. I kept tugging at the foil and it would rip off in tiny pieces. It took me quite a while to pull away most of the foil, and I ended up discarding a little of the caramel because I just ran out of patience. I think that I will try oiled parchment next time. The caramel may still stick, but at least parchment doesn't tear quite as easily as foil.
Note that this recipe is time-consuming, so as I always suggest, read through the whole thing first. You'll need to cook the caramel for an hour and then let it set up overnight. After that, cutting the caramel into squares and dipping them in chocolate and letting them set will take a bit of time as well.
I chose to dip half of the caramels in chocolate and to leave half of them plain. You can do all of them if you like, just make sure you have enough chocolate on hand.
Chocolate-Covered Caramels With Sea Salt (adapted from Food & Wine)
2 sticks unsalted butter
2 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
1 cup heavy cream
1 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1/2 to 1 pound bittersweet chocolate
Coarse sea salt, for decoration
Line a 9-by-13-inch pan with foil (or maybe try parchment) and spray or rub it with vegetable oil. (The pan I used was slightly larger, so my caramels are thinner than what you may end up with.)
In a heavy saucepan, melt the butter. Add the sugar, corn syrup, and cream, and bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Add the vanilla seeds.
Cook over moderately low heat, stirring on and off, until the caramel reaches 245° on a candy thermometer. This will take about 1 hour.
Stir in 1 tablespoon of salt, and scrape the caramel into the prepared pan. (I recommend leaving the salt and a tablespoon beside the stove, so you don't forget this step.)
Let cool and set completely overnight.
Lightly oil a sheet of parchment paper, and line 2 baking sheets with wax paper. Invert the caramel onto the parchment and peel off the foil or parchment (if you can!).
Using a sharp knife, cut the caramel into 1-inch-wide strips and then into 1-inch squares.
When ready, melt the bittersweet chocolate. If you know how and are feeling fancy, feel free to temper the chocolate. This will give your finished squares a shinier look and snappier texture.
Dip as many squares as you like into the chocolate, let the excess drip off, and transfer the squares to the wax paper-lined baking sheets. Sprinkle lightly with sea salt, and refrigerate for 10 minutes.
Wrap any plain caramel squares in wax paper, and tie with thread, twine, ribbon, or other decorative material.
Since I was giving these as gifts, I decided to try to be crafty -- something I don't usually do. I found a bunch of holiday-themed takeout boxes at the Crate & Barrel Outlet that I thought would make perfect candy gift boxes.
Then I went to Jo-Ann Fabrics and searched for filling for the boxes. I finally came across some Christmas-colored pompoms in different sizes and grabbed a few packages.
Then I bought little treat bags and different colored ribbon for tying the bags. Lastly, I found some gift tags at Hallmark for a final touch.
Armed with my supplies and my freshly made caramels, I set to work making gifts.
I filled the cartons partway with pompoms. Aren't they adorable?
Then I added some wrapped caramels and bagged chocolate-covered caramels to each carton.
Everyone whom I've given these to so far has loved them, and the carton I brought to my work Yankee swap got swapped four times! If you're looking for a fun, tasty, homemade gift to give, I'd say give these caramels a try! They're chewy and offer that amazing sweet/salty combo!
Are you giving any homemade gifts this year?