Saturday, December 10, 2011


Caramels & Tiny Vintage Christmas Ornaments

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! 

Lots of Caramels!

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. 

Can of Caramels

Makes about 4 dozen 1-inch square candies (with an 8 x 8-inch pan)
Or about 6 to 7 dozen  3/4 x 3/4  x 1 1/2-inch rectangular candies (with a 9 x 13-inch pan)
Plus scraps :)
Homemade Caramels
2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 cup light corn syrup
1 can (14-ounces) condensed milk
2 cups heavy whipping cream
2 sticks unsalted butter, sliced into 1-inch pieces, plus more for greasing the pan
1 Tablespoon kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Special equipment:
either an 8 x 8-inch square baking pan or a 9 x 13-inch baking pan
a large (at least 5-quart) heavy-bottomed sauce pot
a candy thermometer
lots of wax paper
Caramel Ingredients 
Generously butter the bottom and sides of the baking pan and set aside. 
Combine all ingredients except for vanilla in a large (at least 5 quart) heavy-bottomed sauce pot.  Over medium heat, stir with a whisk to dissolve the sugar and melt the butter.  Whisking frequently, bring to a boil, then turn the heat down to low or medium-low, to maintain a gentle but somewhat rapid boil.  From this point on, try your best to ignore the impulse to stir, and instead just swirl the pan a bit, if things seem to need a mix.  Continue boiling until the sauce turns from pale tan to light gold to deep caramel brown. 

Butter melted and sugar dissolved About 220 degrees

about 230 degrees About 240 degrees 

But do not judge doneness by color alone!  You must, must use a candy thermometer.  All will depend on the final temperature of the candy.  And here you can make some personal choices:  If you like softer, lighter colored caramels, turn off the heat when the thermometer reaches 245°F.  But if you’re after a chewier, more deeply colored caramel, cook until the thermometer reaches 250°F, then remove from the heat.  It’s a very exacting process, so really try hard not to stop before 245°F or beyond 150°F, or they’ll be a touch too soft or too chewy, respectively. 

I have a few thoughts about differences between the two temperatures and the results you’ll get depending on what you choose:  If you decide to stop cooking at 245°F, you will have created the smoothest, creamiest, most tender caramels ever.  They will be perfectly soft and stretchy and all around lovely.  They will also be a little lighter in color.   The main drawback is, they will be so easy to chew, they’ll disappear way too fast.  If instead you choose the 250°F caramels, you will be gifted with immensely chewy, deeply caramelized, intensely flavored blocks of gold.  Not the luscious little confections of 5 degrees cooler, these guys will require a decent amount of chewing.  But don’t get me wrong, this added jaw work-out should not be considered a drawback in the least!  The extra chewiness will ensure that the pleasure of these caramels lasts a little while longer, which you will be grateful for.  I love these as much as the softer ones, and that’s why I just had to include both options in the recipe.  I like to think of these as adult caramels, and the others as perfect for kids.  The only negative I can think of with these 250°F caramels, it that they’re a little more difficult to slice.  Well, not more difficult exactly, let’s just say less easy.  :)

The cooking process can take upwards of an hour, but it won’t need your constant attention.  Once the caramel starts to deepen in color, just give the temperature a check every few minutes, while you stay busy doing something else (washing dishes, cutting wax paper wrappers).  You’ll find that at first, the temperature rises relatively quickly, but the closer and closer you get to your end temperature, the longer and longer it takes. 

One last note about temperature.  Since the ultimate result really does rely on the final temperature, it is very important that your candy thermometer is calibrated.  To do so, bring a pot of water to a rapid boil, and take its temperature.  The thermometer should read 212°F.  If not, you’ll know by how much, and in what direction, you’ll need to adjust the final temperature of your caramel – just adjust it up or down, by however many degrees you were off from 212. 

Add the vanilla and whisk to combine, then immediately pour into the prepared pan.  You’ll be inclined to scrape the saucepot with a rubber spatula, to get out all the remaining sauce sticking to the bottom of the pan, but I advise you against doing this too enthusiastically.  These sticky bottom bits could have reached much higher temperatures than the rest of the sauce, and so may add some tough or even crunchy specks to your smooth candy.  (Instead, allow the pot to cool a bit, then snack on the lingering goodness. Trust me, at this point, you’ll be dying to try your caramels, and will be thrilled to have a an early taste!)

Allow the pan to rest at room temperature, uncovered, until it cools to room temperature.  This will take about 3 hours for the 9 x 13-inch pan and upwards of 6 hours for the 8 x 8-inch pan.

Smooth and Creamy 
When cool, slice around the edges with a sharp knife, just to loosen it from the pan a bit, and then using a metal spatula, lift the sheet of caramel directly from the pan, and transfer to a cutting board.  (You’re going to worry that this will be tricky (I did), but I assure you, it is satisfyingly easy! Phew!)

Now it’s time for slicing.  If you used the 8-inch square pan, you’ll be able to get about 4 dozen 1-inch square pieces. (The height of the caramel in the pan will be roughly 1-inch.)   And if you used the 9 x 13-inch pan, nearly 7 dozen 3/4 x 3/4 x 1 1/2-inch rectangular pieces.  (The height will be roughly 3/4-inch.) 

One piece of advice, in order to get really perfect looking candies, before slicing, first measure the height of the caramel sheet for exactness, and then make little tweaks to the measurements based on that.  For instance, when I made the square candies, my measurement was more like 1 1/8-inch, rather than a pure inch, so I kept this length for each dimension.  It sounds ridiculously detail-oriented, but it really does make a big difference.  Of course, you could go the other (less-anal) direction all together, and roughly slice any size candy that you want - bigger rectangles, littler squares, you name it.  You certainly don’t need to go by my dimensions!


Once you’ve sliced all your caramels, now it’s time to get wrapping.  I’ve found that for the 1-inch square caramels, a 6 x 6-inch square of paper does the job.  For the rectangular caramels, cut your wax paper into 3 1/2 x 6-inch triangles.  To wrap, encircle the candies with the paper, then twist the ends to secure. 

These can be stored  in an airtight container, in a refrigerator for a few months, or at room temperature for upwards of a week.  But trust me, they won’t last nearly that long!

1 comment:

  1. Hello again, everybody! I got this great email from my Uncle Joe, and just had to share it with you all.


    I, too always went for the caramels, Kate! Back in my day there was an occasional dark caramel in the tin, and I took care to avoid those. It seems like Kyle Wheeler was always the one in front ringing the doorbell.

    One of Charlie’s most embarrassing moments involves the time he was steadying Jack who was on his tip-toes atop Mrs. Rupp’s washer and dryer. Jack was straining to reach that cupboard door known to all of Schoenville’s kids when Mrs. Rupp quietly appeared. They were caught in the act – red handed as red-handed could be. Oh the new a$$hole$ she tore them. They hung their heads, muttered a barely audible “I’m sorry” and slunk out the back door. Just as they were about to break into a sprint, Mrs. Rupp called them back – tin in hand – and offered them a choice as if nothing had happened. They said a quiet and quick thank you. Charlie took a caramel; Jack took two.

    Thanks for rekindling the memories,



    Isn't that great. She really was a special lady! Thanks for the story, and for letting me share it, Uncle Joe!

    Also, because a few people have been asking.... If I just HAD to choose between the two kinds of caramels... my vote would have to be with the chewier ones, the ones you cook to 250 F. :)