Do I have a treat for you all today! Honestly, if you live in Chicago, come on over, because I’ve literally got a treat for you. Homemade caramels! Or if I happen to bump into you while we’re out and about, and if I happen to forget to offer you one myself (unlikely, because my official holiday obsession of 2011 is doling out these chewy confections), please just ask, because I’ve gotten in the habit of carrying around a dozen or so of these in the big pocket of my purse, to give as little spur-of-the-moment holiday surprises. For all you out-of-towners, I hope the recipe itself will be treat enough. I do think it will, because half the fun of these incredible homemade caramels lies in making them yourself!
I’ve always adored caramels. Not just liked, not just loved even, but adored. In fact, one of my fondest, most precious childhood memories revolves around caramels. When I was little, a sweet old lady named Mrs. Rupp lived three doors down from my grandparents, in a little pitched roof home that in my eyes looked like a real life gingerbread house. A far cry from Hansel & Gretel's witch though, Mrs. Rupp was the neighborhood’s Candy Lady. Everyone knew, that if you were brave enough to ring her bell all by yourself (no grown-ups I mean - you could bring cousins along of course), you’d be rewarded with a choice from Mrs. Rupp’s candy tin. So anytime we’d visit Grandma & Grandpa, my sister Molly and I would make a quick trip, dashing through the backyard woods, then up the gingerbread steps, to ring the Candy Lady’s doorbell. We’d wait a few minutes as small, frail Mrs. Rupp would slowly amble with her cane to the back door. We wouldn’t even have to ask, just smile and say hello. She’d sweetly smile herself, reach for her candy tin on the little shelf beside the door, and hold it out towards us, as she’d done countless times before. The selection was simple, always three choices - bright yellow butterscotch hard candies, those round swirly peppermints wrapped in cellophane, and you guessed it, caramels – but it was always such a thrill, and I always chose the caramels. Then after quick exclamations of ‘thank you’ (which in hindsight were much, much too quick, because how can you properly thank someone for such a lovely, lasting memory, for weaving such sweet, idyllic charm into your past, with just those two little words?) we’d dash back again to our buzzing hive of a family, before anyone even knew we’d disappeared.
Our Candy Lady’s caramels were always the Kraft kind. And don’t get me wrong, Kraft caramels are Good. Good with a capital G! But with all sincere respect to sweet Mrs. Rupp, homemade caramels are Better, with a capital B! If you too adore caramels, even if you merely love them, you have to make these. You’re going to just about die, they are so good.
Taste and texture battle it out with every chew, each competing to win your heart. Immensely rich and impossibly buttery, with deep caramel complexity that somehow yields the most simply thrilling satisfaction, the taste is pure heaven. But then the stretchy, tender chewiness grabs a hold of you, and suddenly you find yourself in a sweet, sticky, golden love triangle. I suppose it doesn’t matter really, what you like best about these caramels. I for one will never be able to decide. All I know is that I’ll forever be hopelessly smitten.
And hey everybody, this is the perfect time of year for making these! They really are sensational gifts. I hope you’re not too intimidated to give them a try. Please don’t be. Really. Because, and I can’t lie, I was a bit intimidated myself, thinking at every turn that these were just not going to turn out right, but then, was instead unfailingly surprised at every turn, and repeatedly thrilled by the easy results. I’ve made them twice already, because they’re disappearing fast. And I’m pretty sure I’ll make them again a few times more, before the season is through. I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed giving these to friends and family. And I bet a bit of that just may have to do with my memory of Mrs. Rupp. Because every time I reach into my big purse pocket, or pull down my own candy tin from the top kitchen shelf, I can’t help but think of her. So with every gifted caramel, I send her up an extra little thank you, and smile to myself, knowing that I’m passing on a sweet little tidbit of her lovely tradition.