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Vanilla Caramels

(Thai curry caramels and Burnt sugar caramel variations are below)

I don't remember where I got this recipe.  I found it at a time when I had just discovered the amazing cookbook collection in the Natural Resources library at UC Berkeley.  There were books for home cooks, professional cooks, old books, new books.  So I was able to compare and contrast dozens of recipes.

The keys to this recipe are to measure very precisely, to use a precise thermometer designed for candy making, and to stir every square inch of the bottom continuously once the mixture begins to boil--scorches are unrecoverable.  You will need 15-30 uninterrupted minutes during which the only thing you are doing is stirring.

As with any candy, the temperature is precisely predicts the final texture.  The boiling point of the solution depends the sugar concentration:  the higher the temperature, the higher the sugar concentration, and the harder the final candy. 

2 C sugar
1 C light corn syrup
1 C sweetened condensed milk (1 standard can is more than 1 C--use ONLY one cup)
1/2 C heavy whipping cream
1/4 C butter
1 C milk (I have used whole and skim milk both with good success)

2 tsp vanilla (don't waste your time with imitation vanilla here; it's not worth it)

optional:  2 C toasted nuts, coarsely chopped (have these measured out before you begin, and keep them warm in a 150 degree oven so they don't cool the candy too quickly when you add them at the end)

Before you start heating, butter an 8 inch square pan.  You won't have time to do this later.  Ideally, this will be a silicone pan that you can later 'peel off' the caramels, to drop them onto a cutting board for easy slicing into serving pieces.

In a large saucepan--I use a six or eight quart pan, because you need a lot of room for the mixture which will dramatically increase in volume as it boils up, and you want lots of room between the hot sugar syrup and your hand--mix together everything but the vanilla.  Over medium high heat, bring to a boil.  Stir constantly, every bit of the bottom of the pot, and regularly also stir along the lower sides of the pot.  Move the thermometer around as you stir so that there are no "dead spots" where the mixture may begin to scorch.

The temperature will increase rapidly to the boiling point, then it goes very slowly as it starts to go above 212.  When it hits 235 degrees, check the temperature very frequently.  You want to get it off the heat immediately when it hits the desired temperature, and keep stirring until it stops boiling.  The original recipe calls for cooking to 248 degrees but in my hands that makes a fairly hard caramel, perhaps because residual heat after it is removed from the burner cooks it just a bit more; I get the best results when I stop cooking at 242-244 degrees. 

Stir in the vanilla and nuts (if using).  Pour into the prepared pan and set aside to cool.  Wait until it is completely cool and set before cutting.  It is easiest to cut if you turn the entire block out of the pan at once (one of the new silicone pans is perfect because you can peel OFF instead of prying the candy OUT), and slice with a very sharp knife rinsed off in hot water between cuts. 

Thai Curry Caramels

These are quite amazing with a fantastic aftertaste, inspired by a really lovely peanut brittle from Morning Glory Confections, but translated by me into caramels, the only candy I have much interest and experience in making.

Start by preparing the curry seasonings, as that's going to take a while, and once the caramel is cooking, there is NO TIME to stop and do anything but stir it.

I prepared the seasonings mostly by grating across a microplane zester, that does a marvelous job of minimizing the fibrousness of the resulting stuff



12 ounces whole roasted unsalted peanuts (they're often easy to find raw in Asian markets, and can be roasted at 300 degrees about 25-30 minutes; keep them in a warm oven, 150-180 degrees, until ready to add to the finished caramel

Curry seasonings (vary to your preferences)

1 vanilla bean, chopped and pulverized as best you can (I chopped mine into quarter inch pieces, the dropped it into my spice grinder)

Fresh ginger, a good sized knob, about 1 ounce (25-30 grams) grated finely

Fresh galangal, a good 1/2 inch or so of a thick knob, grated finely, about 10-15 grams

Thai lime leaf, about 8 double leaves, leaves cut away from center stems and then very very finely minced, until the pieces are tiny bits no more than a millimeter in their longest dimension, about a teaspoon or so, maybe 10 grams

fresh lemon grass, 1-2 stems, outer coarse leaves peeled off, and then the stem grated, bottom up, peeling off additional leaves as they start to become more fibrous (yes, this is an odd direction, but it makes sense once you're working with the lemon grass), total a teaspoon or two, 10-20 grams

About 16 ripe red tiny Thai chiles:  I found these frozen in a local Thai market, and they seemed a lot more appealing than the unripe green chiles or dried brown versions.  With gloves on, cut off the stem end, make a linear cut in the chile, scrape out the seeds, and then stack the chiles laid flat, several deep, to slice and then mince very finely

For the caramel base

2 cups sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
1 cup sweetened condensed milk (only 8 ounces--DO NOT pour out the full 14 oz from a standard can!)
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
1 cup coconut milk (do shake up the can before pouring out 1 cup's worth)
1/4 cup butter

Prepare the caramel base as above--bring to a boil and cook to 238 degrees, soft ball stage, stirring ceaselessly.  Remove from the heat, add the curry seasonings, boil again briefly while stirring rapidly to evaporate some of the excess liquid from the seasonings (especially the ginger and the peppers), add the peanuts, and pour into the prepared buttered pan. 

Wait as long as you can stand, ideally until they've cooled completely, and then slice up and dig in.

Burnt Sugar Caramels

Darker and a little bitter, really just notes on a work in progress

Optional:  1/2-1 tsp sea salt (more if you're using a coarse salt, less for a fine grained variety like table salt)

Mix the condensed milk, cream, butter and milk in your large saucepan, set to low heat to warm to just below boiling.

Measure out and reserve the corn syrup.

In a separate saucepan (I used a three quart pot, and needed all of it before the end), heat the sugar with about a half cup of water.  This can be done without water by melting the sugar directly, but dissolving it and heating the syrup works will with less concern for burning prematurely.  Place over medium heat and stir until the sugar is dissolved.  When the syrup comes to a boil, cover the pan briefly to let the steam wash any undissoved sugar crystals off the sides of the pan.  Uncover and let boil down until it is a dark amber, and remove from heat immediately.

*Very carefully* pour the reserved corn syrup into the hot sugar syrup.  It will boil up violently and try to splatter and burn you.  Stir to mix well, and set aside to let cool down a bit.  If you add it too soon it may curdle the milk, which can't be undone. 

Stir the hot but not actively boiling syrup into the milk mixture, which should be just near boiling.   Cook this down as you would the regular caramels.

And do consider dipping these in fine dark chocolate, perhaps with a tiny sprinkle of additional salt on top. 

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