I had a wee bit of a dilemma recently. In my refrigerator was a half-jar of crème fraîche, that I had to use up before I left for a recent vacation on the beach. I’d been thinking about making caramels with it, but I also knew that I would be slipping on a swimsuit within a few weeks. And being alone in my apartment with an open jar of ultra-rich crème fraîche was probably not a good idea.
So what did I do? I hemmed and hawed about it, until I channeled my mother, who would have flipped out if I tossed away the rest of the crème fraîche. (Or anything, for that matter.)
So I made caramels.
I love candy making and used to dream of opening a shop that only sold homemade candy. I don’t think it’d be much of a success, simply because a lot of people don’t care about homemade candy as much as I do. But when you make it yourself, you can use the best ingredients and anyone who has ever experience the smell of good cream and butter sizzling in a pot of deep-dark caramel knows what I’m talking about.
When I moved to France, I picked up my wonderful copper candy pot at a flea market for about €30, which I treasure, and it’s really sturdy. But unlike the copper pot—and everyone who lives in France is going to love me for this—you know how the aluminum foil here is thinner than newsprint and rips as soon as you try to shape it around anything?
Get yourself to Auchan, which I learned a few years ago, has heavy-duty foil. It’s amazing how the little things make me happy nowadays, like a pot of cream or sturdy foil, isn’t it?
Speaking of thick French things, the first time I tried these, the thick crème fraîche, 40% fat content, made them smell amazing when I cooked the caramel, but the finished caramels were oozing silky, slippery, butterfat all over the place. And while delicious, the little squares were a bit hard to hold on to and my head hurt thinking about the comments that would generate ; )
Curiously, in France, it’s very easy to find crème fraîche in any supermarket. But fresh, pourable heavy cream (crème liquide) is difficult to find. Like in the states, ultra-pasteurized is what’s usually available. But do try to find one that’s fresh, not ultra-pasteurized.
Because salted butter caramel deserves only over-the-top ingredients, my Bordier salted butter was called into service. I have three or four kinds of butter on hand at all times, but reserve this mostly for spreading on my morning toast because it’s so precious. It’s €1.80 for 125 g (about 4 ounces, or 1 stick) and even though it’s pricey, I’d pay twice that it’s so good. So don’t tell the fromager who I get it from. (Who last time winked at me, which was worth the extra euros!)
A few tips:
1. Pay attention all the time. Don’t leave the kitchen with a pot of caramel boiling and use a heavy-bottomed, large saucepan. And be aware that the boiling caramel is very hot so take precautions handling it at all times.
2. Have all your equipment and ingredients ready. Pretend you’re a surgeon and have all your tools well-arranged before you start.
3. Candy making depends on accuracy, so you’ll need a candy thermometer. Don’t use those one of those with a probe at the end of a metal cord. I had a Polder one and the device blew out on its first use. When I called, they said if the probe touches the bottom of the pot, which is hotter than the syrup, that can happen. So that was $30 down in the trash and they refused to replace it. Lesson learned.
Hand-held digital probe thermometers are inconvenient for candy making, so I use a simple bulb one, a Taylor. You can get candy thermometers inexpensively in almost any supermarket or hardware store. If you’re unsure if your thermometer is accurate, bring a pot of water to a boil with the thermometer in it; at sea level, it should read 212ºF (100ºC.)
3. Use a heatproof spatula. I am a huge fan of the spoon-spatulas made my Le Creuset. When I taught classes in various Sur La Table stores, I’d get to the stores a few hours early and make a beeline for the Sale rack which was full of discontinued merchandise. Le Creuset runs various colors at certain times of the year (orange, for example, around Halloween, red around Valentine’s Day). And afterward, the items got heavily-reduced so I’d snatch up as many as I could. They’re pretty great.
4. Don’t overstir the syrup. Sugar is a crystal and once you melt it, stirring encourages those crystals to hook back up. So only stir as much as necessary to keep the mixture smooth and to make sure nothing is burning on the bottom.
5. These caramels are slightly firm, but will still melt in your mouth. Waving the blade of a sharp chef’s knife over the flame on a gas burned to warm it will help you get nice, even slices if you do it before each cut.
Salted Butter Caramels
Because many people are leery of corn syrup, you can use Golden or rice syrup in this recipe in its place. (For those into agave nectar, I haven’t tried it, but suspect it may not have the right sugar density for candy making.) If using one of these darker syrups, you’ll need to be a bit vigilant and stir it as it’s cooking, since it can cook quickly in certain spots of the pan. Your finished caramels will also be darker, too.
I use salted butter. Traditional wisdom was to only use unsalted butter in baking so you could control the amount of salt. But I like the slightly funky taste of salted butter, and if you can find one that’s cultured, the flavor is incomparable. If you only have unsalted butter, just add a few extra flecks of salt to the cream.
- 3/4 cup (180 ml) heavy cream
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract, bean paste, or powder
- rounded 1/2 teaspoon + 1/4 teaspoon flaky sea salt, preferably fleur de sel
- 1/2 cup (160 g) light corn syrup, golden syrup (such as Lyle's) or rice syrup*
- 1 cup (200 g) sugar
- 4 tablespoons (60 g), total, salted butter, cubed, at room temperature
1. Line a 9-inch (23 cm) loaf pan with foil and spray the inside with cooking spray.
2. Heat the cream with 2 tablespoons of the butter in a small saucepan with the vanilla and 1/2 teaspoon sea salt until the mixture begins to boil. Remove from heat, cover, and keep warm while you cook the syrup.
3. In a medium, heavy duty saucepan (4 quarts, 4l), fitted with a candy thermometer, heat the corn syrup, golden, or rice syrup with the sugar, and cook, stirring gently, to make sure the sugar melts smoothly. Once the mixture is melted together and the sugar is evenly moistened, only stir is as necessary to keep it from getting any hot spots.
4. Cook until the syrup reaches 310ºF (155ºC).
To get an accurate reading while the syrup is cooking, tilt the saucepan to make sure the bulb of the thermometer is fully submerged in the syrup, tilting the pan if necessary.
4. Turn off the heat and stir in the warm cream mixture, until smooth.
5. Turn the heat back on and cook the mixture to 260F (127C).
6. Remove the pan from the heat, lift out the thermometer, and stir in the cubes of butter, until it’s melted and the mixture smooth.
7. Pour the mixture into the prepared loaf pan and wait ten minutes, then sprinkle 1/4 teaspoon of the sea salt over the top. Set on a cool rack and let cool completely. Once cool, lift out the foil with the caramel, peel away the foil, and slice the bar of caramel with a long, sharp knife into squares or rectangles.
Storage: These caramels can be individually-wrapped in cellophane or waxed paper. Once cut, they may stick together if not wrapped. Store in an air-tight container, and they’ll keep for about one month.
*The rice syrup I use is from the Asian market I shop at, found in the Korean foods aisle. I don’t know how it compares to rice syrup sold in natural food’s stores, but if anyone knows, you are welcome to leave that information in the comments.
Related Recipes and Links
Caramel Wrappers (Amazon)
Salted Butter Caramel Sauce (Smitten Kitchen)
Quince Caramels (Chez Pim)
Espresso Caramels (101 Cookbooks)
Coffee Toffee (Zoë Bakes)
Lyle’s Golden Syrup (Amazon)