It’s December, and that means right now people everywhere are hunting through kitchen cupboards and drawers in search of the holiday cookie cutters, eagerly anticipating an afternoon spent baking and decorating sweetened butter cookies. Others are pulling out the treasured family recipe for fudge, excited that the time has come once again to savor that special treat.
Indeed, one of the best things about this time of year is the way that it connects us to our food traditions, reigniting memories through the scents and tastes of our childhood. Amidst all this tradition, though, there is also space for trying something new, for making sweets today that will themselves become tradition in the years to come.
For me, that new ritual may very well come in the form of sea salt caramels, a treat I made this past Friday for a holiday gathering of friends that happened on Saturday. When I saw Ina Garten make them on her show a few weeks ago, I thought sacks of the little treats would make great party favors; plus, in a season in which people are receiving plates full of cookies, fudge and fruitcakes from friends and neighbors, this little bag of caramels would be an unexpected treat. What’s more, they last a good long time, much longer than cookies or fudge, and therefore could be put away and enjoyed next month, even, when one is not being offered sugar-laced snacks several times a day.
I was indeed glad I made these. First, they were fun to make, and the kitchen smelled intensely of butter and vanilla long after the caramel mixture was setting in the fridge. In addition–and perhaps more importantly–they taste great: creamy and rich, with buttery, nutty, salty notes; you can tell they were made from scratch.
The recipe is below. As you’ll see, it calls for fleur de sel, but the $18 tin that I found was a bit out of my food budget this month, so I went for Trader Joe’s sea salt. It worked fine. The idea is to have the salt boost the caramel flavor, and to me, the TJ’s sea salt did just that. Don’t worry about the candies being too salty; they aren’t. But of course, if you are worried about dusting each with a sprinkling of sea salt, you can always test it out on just one caramel and see what you think. That’s what I did, and I noticed a definite difference between the salted and the unsalted caramels.
My other suggestions follow throughout the recipe in brackets. I usually offer suggestions after the entire recipe, but since my suggestions are related to various steps in the preparation, I thought it would be more helpful to people to read them as they go. I just wanted to add here that the recipe for Fleur De Sel Caramels at the Food Network site is wrong. Fortunately, recipe reviewers who had copied the recipe while watching the episode of Barefoot Contessa in which Ina makes these pointed out the errors and offered the corrected measurements of each ingredient, so I went off that advice. It’s worth noting here that the recipe has been wrong for over a year, and reviewers have, apparently, notified Food Network, but the webmasters there have failed to fix the recipe. I have long thought that Food Network has one of the worst websites out there, and this experience just further underscored that for me. I’m thankful to the reviewers who corrected the problems with the recipe as it is printed on the Food Network site.
Fleur De Sel Caramels
Recipe from the amazing Ina Garten
1 ½ C. sugar
¼ C. corn syrup
½ C. water
1 C. heavy cream
5 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1 tsp. fleur de sel, plus extra for sprinkling
½ tsp. pure vanilla extract
Line the bottom of an 8-inch square baking pan (or loaf pan) with parchment paper, then brush the paper lightly with oil, allowing the paper to drape over 2 sides. [I used a 9 X 13″ pan, and it worked fine for the job. In fact, I will probably use it again next time, because it causes the caramel mixture to form a thinner layer and therefore cool rather quickly in the fridge.]
In a deep saucepan (6 inches diameter by 4 1/2 inches deep) combine the sugar, corn syrup, and 1/2 cup water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Continue to boil until the caramel is a warm golden brown color. Don’t stir – just swirl the pan to mix. Watch carefully, as it will burn quickly at the end! [The mixture was about the color of peanut butter–or browned butter–when I added the milk and cream, which is what you need to do as soon as the sugar mixture becomes this “warm golden brown color.”]
In the meantime [meaning, while you are waiting for the sugar to turn a warm brown color], bring the cream, butter, and 1 teaspoon fleur de sel to a simmer in a small pan over medium heat. Remove from the heat, set aside and keep warm.
When the caramelized sugar is the right color, slowly add the cream mixture to the caramel – it will boil up violently. Stir in the vanilla with a wooden spoon and cook over medium heat for 5 to 10 minutes, until the mixture reaches 248 degrees F (firm ball) on a candy thermometer. [This only took four minutes on my stove top, so go by the temperature, not by the time. If you don’t have a candy thermometer, invest in one before you make these. They are cheap and easy to come by; I think I even got mine at the grocery store many years ago.]
Very carefully (it’s hot!) pour the caramel into the prepared pan and refrigerate until firm.
When the caramel is cool, use the parchment paper to pry the sheet from the pan onto a cutting board. Starting at 1 end, roll the caramel up tightly until you’ve rolled up half of the sheet. Cut the sheet across and then roll the second half tightly. You will have 2 (1 by 8-inch) logs. Sprinkle both logs lightly with fleur de sel, cut each log in 8 pieces. Cut parchment papers in 6 by 4 1/2-inch squares and wrap each caramel in a paper, twisting the ends. Store in the refrigerator or at room temperature.
[I did things a little differently here. I took the long edge of my caramel sheet and folded it over about an inch. I then pressed down slightly to fuse the two layers of caramel and then cut this “log” free from the sheet and sliced it into chunks that were about ¾” long and about ½” high. I repeated this process until my sheet of caramel was no longer a sheet but rather several two-layer “logs.” Since Ina rolls her sheet of caramel to make a very big piece of candy, she only got 16 very large caramels from her batch; mine yielded nearly 70 smaller ones, making them not only a fun and sweet holiday gift, but a budget-wise one as well. One last thing: I salted my caramels individually, and found that doing so ensured that the salt stayed on the caramels better, and coated each more evenly. But you should do whatever is easiest for you.]