Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The caramels that melt hearts; the stuff of Christmas legends

Some family recipes have rather mysterious origins. This old timer made its way into the Zion Lutheran Church cookbook in the mid-1950s in North Germany Township, Minnesota, thanks to my great-aunt, who called it "Amy's Caramels." Who Amy was, and where Artis found the original recipe that Grandma Ethel and Great-Aunt Lorraine made every year, is unknown to me. All I know is that it has become a family tradition to make these caramels every year at Christmastime, since they were the favorite among the fudge, divinity, and various other candies that Grandma made every year for us kids.

There is nothing healthful in the slightest about the ingredients; nonetheless, this is the kind of recipe that could get you a marriage proposal. No, really. Just make sure you have a candy thermometer, a long-handled wooden spoon (burns from hot sugar HURT, trust me) and a lot of energy to stir, because it'll keep you standing over the pot for close to an hour. It'll be worth it. They make an unforgettable gift for family and friends, if you can relinquish the idea of eating the whole pan yourself.

Old-time Homemade Caramels

  • 2 cups white sugar
  • 2 cups white corn syrup
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 4 cups whipping cream (or 2 cups whipping cream and 2 cups half and half)
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 2 cups chopped walnuts (we usually add even more than this, since we're a nutty bunch)

  1. Combine first four ingredients and just 2 cups cream.
  2. Bring to boil, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon (don't use plastic; it will MELT in the hot sugar, and metal will require using a potholder, since this mixture is going to get HOT), lower heat to medium and take care not to scorch. Bring to soft-ball stage on candy thermometer.
  3. Slowly, while continuing to boil, add remaining 2 cups cream (or half & half), stirring constantly.
  4. Continue to stir and cook until candy makes a firm pliable ball when dropped into a saucer of cold water (about 45 minutes entire cooking time).
  5. Add vanilla and nuts and pour into a well-buttered 9x13-inch pan.
  6. Cool, then cover and refrigerate.
  7. When cool, cut into squares and wrap individual pieces in squares of waxed paper.
  8. Keep refrigerated until just before serving (about 30 minutes)
Note: If you haven't made candy before, you may want to read up a little about the various stages of carmelization. The basic idea of the stages, though, is about what texture the candy makes when dropped into ice-cold water. "Soft ball" means that it firms up a bit, and you can squish the caramel into a soft ball. "Hard ball," similarly, means that the ball that forms in the water is hard. Watch the thermometer carefully; if it gets too hot, the candy will be more like a brittle texture, rather than caramels that soften to perfect chewiness when at room temperature. These keep for more than a week in the refrigerator. Mom says a couple months, but that might be pushing it.

We'll be making them in the next week or so, and I'll be sure to update with photos.

The results of this particular cooking adventure got rave reviews from friends at my New Year's party. Particularly beloved were those on which we sprinkled my sister's fleur de sel, a coarse salt from France that transforms the sweet to . . . transcendental.


Claire said...

I'll be sure to make these. My brother has recently become obsessed with candy making and is in a caramel phase right now. Not a bad phase to be in! :)

Ms Heather said...

Not bad at all, Claire -- not bad at all! Let me know how it works out. :) The recipe is a real old-timer.