This past holiday I made lots of candy. At one point I had so much candy in my fridge I didn’t have much room for non sugar-based food. The lack of real food and an abundance of caramel that didn’t turn out quite right, mostly because of cooking it to the wrong temperature, resulted in more than one over indulgence.
I made caramel and vanilla cream swirls (remember Bullseyes?); molded chocolates with a caramel filling; peanut butter cups; chocolate cups filled with gooey caramel; walnut rolls (like the Southern pecan rolls but with walnuts); hard caramel dipped in dark chocolate (great by itself, as a garnish, or broken up into homemade ice cream); and, chewy caramel, some with walnuts and some without, some of both with either chocolate and hot pepper powder or a trio of salts.
The primary variable that caused more trouble than others was different temperatures to cook the caramel to. My tested recipe calls for the sugar, corn syrup, and water mixture to be heated to 250 F. Then the butter and heated cream and sweetened condensed milk is added and that is cooked to 244 F. Some of my problems were due to me trying to account for not being at sea level. I had read the final temperature should be increased by 1 degree F for every 500 feet of elevation above sea level. I am at about 1,650 feet so I tried increasing the final temperature 3 degrees. Although I got caramel it was too hard and not chewy. A few of the recipes I tried called for cooking the caramel to 250 degrees F. These results were also too hard. Eventually I started disregarding the temps listed in recipes and substituting ones I know work. This change was successful. I will retry some of the failed recipes with different temperatures, well before the next holiday season.
The walnut rolls were new to me. The center is divinity. That is then covered in caramel, made with dark corn syrup and light brown sugar (two ingredients other recipes say to avoid because the impurities, molasses, increases the potential the sugar will crystallize during cooking), then rolled in chopped walnuts. Not being a southerner and liking walnuts more than pecans I did not have the cultural imperative to make them traditionally with pecans. These tasted great and after I figured out what I was doing were not that hard to make. Getting to that point, however, caused some stress, mostly as relates to making and forming the divinity.
Divinity is an interesting thing. You beat egg whites until they have stiff peaks. This has to be done in a stand-up mixer. The egg whites are beaten with the whisk attachment. Then heated sugar is whipped into the egg whites, now with the paddle attachment, until the mixture is cool. My first mistake was forgetting to change attachments until the mixture was cooling and getting very thick. The whisk does not have enough strength to handle this. So, mid-way through I switched attachments and, other than a mess, things seemed to work. My second mistake, maybe my first, was doubling the recipe. This became an issue when I was mixing the whole thing and the volume rose significantly, almost going up and out of the mixing bowl. A sticky mess narrowly averted.
Forming the divinity into logs was initially a challenge. The recipe said to just roll them into the shape. It didn’t say anything about the mixture being as sticky as it is – I think you can hang wallpaper with it. As I was rolling the first log I realized this is not going to work. It is so sticky it stuck to my hands and everything it touched in clumps; getting a nicely shaped log seemed impossible. Added to that, I was borrowing my mom’s mixer, which I thought was going to be forever covered in divinity. To try to save the mixer I washed my hands, I know, a novel idea, to limit the spread of the divinity. It turns out divinity does not like water. The divinity started to dissolve and came right off my hands. Then off the mixer. Then, with moist hands, I could readily form the log centers. Why didn’t the recipe I used give this simple tip? Is this known to everyone but me? I find that unlikely because if I and others needed the recipe it was probably because we didn’t know how to make it and didn’t know about this nifty trick.
The basic chewy caramel recipe I use comes from The Fine Art of Confectionary. It is one of the few caramel recipes that I have found that calls for sweetened condensed milk and I don’t know what it does, but the recipe works. I use this recipe for my basic chewy caramels and for the caramel and vanilla cream swirls. The only difference for the latter is that I pour the hot caramel into two lined cookie sheets instead of one. That way it is thin enough to roll. For the caramel swirls I hand pat onto the caramel a vanilla cream. I tried an offset spatula and other spatulas but they did not have the rigidity to smooth it out and when they did it stretched the caramel. It is easy enough to do by hand.
My advice for chewy caramel is the final temperature to cook the mixture to should only be about 244 degrees F, unless you are significantly above sea level. Test the recipe before you need it – a little extra caramel around the house is better than not finishing what you want and it freezes well. Let the caramel cool at room temperature overnight before you cut it so it is less sticky (it can be covered with plastic after it and the pan have cooled completely). Add sea salt or other flavors, if you are adding any (I used a combo of Hawaiian pink and black salt and an alder smoked Pacific Northwest salt), after maybe 1/2 hour of the caramel cooling so the caramel is soft enough to allow the salt to stick but not so soft that it sinks into the caramel, unless that is what you want. Use the correct pan, size and heft, and a good candy thermometer that you have tested in boiling water to calibrate. If you are above sea level remember that water boils at less than 212 degrees F. I used too small of a pan for one batch and when I added the cream and butter to the hot sugar the whole thing boiled up and over the pan, creating another sticky mess on my stove (I created lots of messes during this whole thing). You will inevitably end up with caramel in the bottom of your pan. Fear not. Put it back on the burner to heat it back up, add some cream and continue to heat until the sugar dissolves into the cream. Your pan will now be cleaner and you will have a caramel sauce you can store in your fridge. If you don’t want caramel sauce substitute water. Above all, have fun. After a batch or two you will realize making caramel it is not that hard and you end up with a lot of caramel that is likely as good as or better than anything you have purchased before. The chewy caramel recipe I used can be used to caramel apples, I poured it into two lined cookie sheets instead of one for the caramel and vanilla cream swirls, and I don’t see why it wouldn’t work for anything else that calls for chewy caramel.