Homesteading Holiday Gifts; Caramels

Hi, folks! I’m back! I’m going to spare you the details of a long year for this post (maybe I’ll get to detailing it better later), and sum it up by saying that my partner, Greg, opened his own business this year with a retail board game store. (For those that don’t know, Greg and I are yonder modern and “nerdy” folks.) If that doesn’t eat up every minute of every day, I don’t know what does! Yes, I have continued homesteading… I have built a new garden bed, made some changes to my flock of chickens and herd of rabbits… But most of it came to a screeching halt over the summer as the store opened. The garden I built became over-grown with weeds (and volunteer acorn squash that grew from my compost, nothing I planted lived, really), and I fell behind on making any real advances.
Now that the weather is chilly again, and the store has settled in, I have time to start updating my blog again. Hopefully this will be more regular as well. Our homesteading task this month is tackling the holidays with a touch of old-timey know-how.
We’re making small gift baskets for our families. Gift baskets full of local and home-made gifts. We have several things going into the baskets, and each basket will be a bit different. We’ve already made Apple Butter and canned it in pint jars for a few people. (Something that I did last year as well.) The next step on our home-made Christmas gifts list? Caramels.

My sister and I are buckling down to make some candies this year. She’ll get some to keep and some to give to her husband’s family. I’ll have her dishwasher and more spacious kitchen and fancy cooking tools to work with… And more importantly, her company while cooking candies.

Last night we got together to make a bit of headway on the project. The goal is three flavors of caramels, and four (or so) flavors of old fashioned hard candies. We started with the big batch of classic soft caramels we were making and discovered that making caramels is STUPID easy. Unfortunately, Greg ran my phone through the laundry (and despite my best efforts to dry it, I will need a replacement) so I didn’t get any photos of the actual process. But I figured I could detail it for you below. This is a very old soft caramel recipe, is printed under lots of names, and makes some of the best caramels in the world, full of buttery goodness and a million calories. These are really, truly, some of the best caramels you will ever eat.

Soft Caramel Recipe
Makes: An unreasonable amount (More than 1lb, or about 200 candies depending on how big you cut them and how many you eat. This is enough to fill a whole gallon Ziploc with once wrapped, if you cram them.)

2 Cups of sugar
1 Cup of dark brown sugar (You can mix 1C white sugar and blackstrap molasses to make this, or I suspect you could just use all raw sugar instead.)
1 cup of butter
1 cup of cream
1 cup of milk
1 cup of light corn syrup (I don’t know any substitutions for this for people looking to avoid corn… If you do, please let me know!)
1 tsp vanilla

Making caramels is really easy. Start by buttering a flat pan, about 13×9 or a bit bigger. Make sure you butter the HECK out of it, especially in the very middle. Get a BIG saucepan. We used a small (6qt) stock pot and were pretty happy we did, but you could probably get by with a 4qt pan. Don’t go any smaller, though! This puffs up like popcorn! If you can get a nice heavy bottomed pan/pot that heats very evenly, and not non-stick, that would be your best option.

Just place the saucepan over medium heat, and add everything EXCEPT the vanilla. (I suggest adding the butter first, to start it melting so the rest doesn’t stick.) Then cook it forever and ever, stirring it pretty frequently. Once the butter is melted and you have a good boil going (this is when it will expand rapidly as the air gets mixed in), you’ll be wanting too cook it for another 20-30 minutes, still stirring. Your total cook time will probably look something like 40 minutes depending on your heat and pan type. When you’re done, the liquid will have reduced and the foaming will have gone down.

Around 15 minutes after it starts boiling, you’ll want to start to test for doneness. The easy way is a high quality candy thermometer reading 244*F exactly. But I don’t actually have a candy thermometer and my meat thermometer only goes up to 220*. Luckily there’s another way to check the doneness. Prepare a small cup of ice water, and then drop a small amount of boiling caramel into the ice water. It may sink as it falls in. Scoop it out and feel it. It should be pliable, but firm and holding it’s shape, feeling stiffer in the middle then on the edges. When you eat it, it should feel like a caramel in your mouth.
If the caramel is too soft, it needs to cook longer. If it’s too hard it’s cooked too long. Add two tbs cool water and lower the heat, mixing until it meets the above description. If your mixture meets that description, remove it from the heat, place on a trivet or hot pad and then stir in the vanilla.
When you add the vanilla, do not have your face over the mixture to smell the delicious sweetness, stand back a bit instead while stirring. As you pour it in, the moment it touches the lava-like candy liquid, all the alcohol will burn off IMMEDIATELY in a cloud of very hot steam that will be rather unpleasant to have your face in.

Once the vanilla is stirred in (this will only take a few seconds) pour the mixture into your buttered pan, scraping the inside of your pot with a rubber spatula. Work quickly as the mixture will start to cool as you pour and if you take too long it will come out lumpy and funny looking. It should pour in nice and smoothly and form a nice, flat surface to cool. Take this opportunity to immediately wash your pot or pan in hot soapy water before the caramel can cool and dry, sticking to the sides worse then glue.

Let your caramel cool completely… You should be able to gently tap the center of the caramel in the pan without leaving an indent on the surface with your finger, but it should give if you press on it. At this point you can cut it with any old knife and eat as is, but my sister and I found a better way. We pulled a large sheet of parchment paper out, and flipped the pan on top of it, gently removing the caramel sheet from the pan onto the parchment paper. We then used pizza cutters to cut the caramel into strips and then into small bite-sized pieces. We went for about 1″ strips, cut into about 1/2-3/4″ pieces. They varied in size a bit, but came out beautifully.

We then used the same parchment paper to wrap them individually. We had a 15″ long roll and cut that into 3″ strips which then got cut into quarters (making rectangles of about 3″x 3.75″). This size worked perfectly for wrapping them individually.

caramels1

And voila! We sat and watched some TV as we wrapped out delicious little beauties into wonderful looking candies for Christmas! I hope you consider making caramels for your own family and friends for Christmas! It was extremely easy and they are delicious!

Next time, flavored caramel and hard candies!

Until then, stay calm and farm on!

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