simple is true, and for Christmas ::::
I went through a laborious process of caramel making for my pumpkin pepita caramels, well worth it, but realize that not everyone has the wherewithal, time, or desire to try that method, especially when busy with various holiday preparations. You need a candy thermometer. You need a fair stint of focused attention at a hot stove. You need a heavy pot. Not that I don’t appreciate the time-honored tradition of candy-making and the time it takes to make it. But when it flops after all of that work, I am more disappointed and irritated at the failure. I’m all about time efficiency. Well, as best as can be expected with young children, a job, and a food blog.
That being said, I flopped at my first attempt of this embarrassingly easy recipe. It is quick start to finish, thus saving on the time aspect, but it is a little persnickety. The microwave is your friend or foe here, creating the best caramel candy you’ve ever had to turning the mix into rock hard toffee in seconds. While the toffee is not a terrible end point, it is a clear disillusioning toothsome departure from the chewy, creamy caramel one expects at the end of this sprint. The trick is to be prepared to need to experiment (in other words, you may have to try this couple times before you get it right).
The original well-detailed recipe that Averie presents on her website is dedicated to her microwave settings, though she clearly explains this caveat and encourages readers to adjust according to their microwaves. Trimming of 30 seconds from the last heating time may make a world of difference. My beef is that there is little visual to cue you to know when you’ve gone too far here. When heating that last time period, it’s bubbly, caramelly, wickedly hot. I could tell on my first attempt after the fact (the inadvertent toffee creation) the color of the caramel was darker, but this was hard to catch when staring into the window of a microwave oven, bathed in yellowy light. Your weather may also play a role: humidity can soften the candy some, so a rubric on exact timing methods for specific brands of microwaves is moot. Basically, you have to figure it out yourself, per your given conditions. But the results? You will have, arguably, the best caramel you’ve every tasted. And dipped in chocolate? Squeeeeeee!
I’ve given instructions on tempering chocolate, mostly culled from my experience from reading lots of candy recipes and from about.com. Admittedly, it is a little tricky, but can be accomplished without any fancy kitchen utensils except one. An instant-read thermometer is needed to track the temperatures carefully. This is key for proper tempering. In fact, the chocolate dipping for this recipe is harder than making the caramel itself!
- ½ cup (1 stick) butter, unsalted or salted
- ½ cup sugar
- ½ cup light brown sugar, packed
- ½ cup light corn syrup
- ½ cup sweetened condensed milk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- sea salt, for sprinkling and/or melted chocolate for dipping (both are optional). I also added chopped pistachios and unsweetened shredded coconut after chocolate dipping. How much chocolate you need will depend on how big you slice your caramels and if you plan to dip them all.
- Prepare your mis en place ahead of time, as this is a fast-moving recipe from start to finish. Make sure you have a space in your refrigerator for the pan to cool. Fully concentrate on what you are doing as the mixture is very hot.
- Line an 8x8-inch pan with foil and generously butter. Averie recommends spraying with cooking spray. My take: generously spraying cooking spray on the foil imparts an artificial taste to the caramels. I opted to use real butter. Set aside the pan when prepared.
- Using a very large microwave-safe bowl (to accommodate bubbling of a very hot sugar mixture), melt the butter. To this, add the sugars, corn syrup, and sweetened condensed milk. Stir until smooth. Place bowl in the microwave and heat on high power for 3 minutes and 30 seconds.
- Remove the bowl (careful, it's hot!) from the microwave and scrape down the sides really well. You want to make sure that all of the sugar granules are mixed in to prevent crystallization in the finished caramels. Just one sugar crystal can do this!
- Return bowl to the microwave and heat on high power for -- this is the kicker -- 3 minutes and 30 seconds, or less. How much time you need here is important, but can only be determined by your microwave. Differing wattages will change how much cook time you need; I argue different microwave brands may also heat food differently. Humidity can also play a role. I tried 3 minutes and 30 seconds first -- this was too much. I ended up with some beautiful, but toothsome, toffee instead. My second attempt was partially by gut feeling: I microwaved for 3 minutes and 16 seconds. If you create a rock hard candy instead of caramel, I recommend (as does Averie) to microwave less 30 seconds on your next attempt. Try 3 minutes on this section instead. I could have gotten away with 3 minutes here, most likely, instead of 3:16. During this section, the mixture will bubble and foam vigorously. Watch this carefully.
- Remove bowl and add vanilla extract very carefully, at arm's length. It will bubble as you add the extract.
- Pour the very hot mixture into prepared pan. Allow to cool to almost room temperature, cover pan with foil, and place in refrigerator for 2 to 4 hours to firm up.
- To slice: flip the caramels onto a cutting bowl so that the foil is upside down. Peel this off carefully (it should be pretty easy given all of that butter). Slice them into 1-inch pieces, or similar.
- Wrap in parchment or wax paper to store, or in an airtight container with pieces not touching, parchment/wax in between layers. They store at room temperature for many weeks or in the refrigerator for months (but who would actually have them for that long??).
- IF DIPPING IN CHOCOLATE: Melt two-thirds of your chocolate over a double boiler. If you want to be specific about tempering your chocolate so your candy has a nice hard shell at room temperature, bring dark chocolate to no higher than 115 degrees F (46 deg C) and milk and white chocolate to no higher than 110 degrees F (43 deg C). Caution on this method for desired results: don't heat the chocolate too quickly, as the temperature will continue to rise even after removed from heat. Heat the double boiler water somewhat slowly. If you go too quickly and the temp is too high, then you may lose the window of tempering and end up with chocolate that is gooey at room temperature. Keep the candy in the refrigerator if this happens (or start over).
- When melted, remove chocolate from double boiler heat, add in the remainder of the chocolate and stir to melt. Keep the instant-read thermometer in the chocolate to watch the temperature.
- When the chocolate reaches below 84 deg F (29 deg C) -- this may take some time so check and stir occasionally -- remove any chocolate pieces that do not melt.
- Then, rewarm the chocolate over the double boiler, 88 deg F (31 deg F) for dark chocolate and 87 deg F (30 deg F) for milk and white chocolates. This goes quickly, so watch carefully. Do not exceed temperature over 91 degrees F. Chocolate should be smooth and satiny when cooled, and form a hard shell at room temperature, if properly tempered. See the candy piece in the lower right corner on the header photo? That is an example of non-tempered chocolate -- it is wet looking, not satiny.
- IF YOUR CHOCOLATE SEIZES UP: When heating it, chocolate can suddenly harden, or "seize up," when it comes into contact with water or steam. Chemically, how does this happen? When the melted chocolate comes into contact with water, the dry sugar particles become moist and can stick together, which can quickly ball up into a gritty mass. Prevent this from happening from using very dry utensils and preventing any splashing from the double boiler into your melting chocolate. Steam from the double boiler as well as it forming on the bottom of the melting bowl can cause this occurrence. You can't "unseize" chocolate; however, the hardened chocolate can be chopped up and used for other baking such as additions to cookies or cakes.