Soft & Chewy Salted Caramel

homemade caramel

Two years ago, I made my dad caramels for his birthday. They were hard and crunchy, like gold-wrapped Werther’s, the kind that would crack like glass when you bit them.

While I’d been after something a little more chewy that time, since that’s how Dad likes them most, it turned out candy-making could be something of an art, especially when you were new to it, so all I could muster were those smooth caramel stones, best for placing between your tongue and the roof of your mouth and slowly melting away. I gave them to him, presenting them proudly, and I put my candy thermometer away.

cooking caramel

But then this year, when Tim and I were up visiting a few months ago, talking to my dad in the kitchen about dinner plans or about something we’d baked, Dad, almost out of nowhere, asked if I’d thought about trying caramels again. Maybe soft and chewy this time? he’d asked, hopefully, like it would really mean something to him if I could.

caramels in pan

Now I know a lot of people would say their dad is great, the best, the guy they always looked up to, but my dad, who continually surprises me with his generosity and compassion and ability to think of other people more highly than himself, really is something special. And since he so rarely asks me to make him anything, I didn’t just want to make him these caramels—I had to.

Which meant it was time to revisit the art of candy-making.

caramels to cut

There’s a reason they call things an art, you know? The art of painting, the art of marriage, the art of caramels—you can’t just check some tasks off a list and expect genius. There’s some skill involved. Some creativity and some adjusting and some finding a rhythm. And usually, art isn’t easy.

For me, as if trying to make candy in the first place wasn’t challenge enough, I also wanted to do it with better ingredients: without corn syrup and without white sugar.

But while art isn’t easy, it is worth it.

caramels, wrapped

Because guess what? It worked.

It took three tries and two bonus trips to the grocery store, but last Wednesday night, while Tim and my brother-in-law and I drove up to Chicago for the holiday weekend, it was with more than thoughts of turkey and sweet potatoes and homemade cranberry sauce: It was with these soft and chewy salted caramels, created with sorghum syrup and sucanat, sitting in the back seat, individually wrapped and tucked inside a burlap-covered mason jar.

Happy birthday, Dad.

(He was worth it, too.)

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Sprouted Coconut Cocoa Banana Muffins

sprouted coconut cocoa banana muffins up close

The first week Tim and I got back to Nashville, while we settled into a regular rhythm of making meals and paying bills and sharing a home office together, I began tackling the to-do list that follows a wedding. There were thank-you notes to write, bank accounts to merge, a pretty major name change to take care of—at the DMV, the social security office, with basically every account I have on record anywhere—and even looking back now, with it all done and finished and behind me, I can tell you there were definite low points (i.e., AT&T: Why is it so hard to get two existing users spun off into a new account? WHY?) and definite high points (i.e., these muffins).

baking muffins

I’ve always been the kind of girl to crave a couple hours alone in the kitchen. When I used to work a regular office job, I’d often come home at the end of the day, tired and not really wanting to go anywhere, and I’d comfort myself with cooking (eventually with my camera and you guys to join me, and thus this blog was born). Sometimes I’d play music or watch an online TV show in the background. Sometimes I’d talk to myself out loud. What mattered was the way it felt like downtime—cooking doesn’t always feel like that.

dark chocolate

If you talked to our friend Corri, for example, who came over for dinner last week, he could tell you what a different kind of cooking looks like. He could tell you about walking into a house and seeing both cooks still in the kitchen, green beans on the stove, chicken in the oven, flour all over the counters, and about hearing the sad, sad story of two back-to-back attempts to remake macarons and failing. At some point during our meal, I’m pretty sure I was apologizing to him for apologizing, that’s how bad things had gotten in my mind—and I do mean in my mind because the reality was our meal was perfectly good, thanks to that very capable man I married—but rather than loving my time in the kitchen and my contributions to what we were eating, I had been frustrated by it, by how my results weren’t matching my expectations.

baking banana muffins

I think that’s part of the difference between baking for leisure and baking for a purpose, and I think that’s what made these muffins such a highlight of our first week of Nashville married life.

muffins in the oven

There were a lot of things I was doing for a purpose that week: waiting for two hours at the DMV, mailing cards, sitting down with Tim to plan our monthly budget—but baking these muffins? That was different.

one sprouted coconut cocoa banana muffin

Because when you’re baking one morning in your pajamas while your husband works in the next room, you can talk to yourself, you can spill flour, you can burn something—you’ve freed yourself to. But when you bake for company or for a business or for the first time at a Thanksgiving dinner with all your family, you constrain yourself into thinking something must be how it must be and anything else is disaster. Or at least I do that.

buttered muffin

These muffins didn’t have to be anything special, just a way to use up ingredients and a way to relax for a few afternoon hours. Heaven knows, Tim and I would eat them regardless of how they ended up tasting. I found the original recipe online, where it came with high reviews, and I improvised ingredients with what we had (hello, huge sale on sprouted wheat flour at Whole Foods!) and ingredients I wanted to add.

muffins in cake stand

When I brought one to Tim, sliced and buttered and still steaming hot, it was just a happy bonus that we liked them—not too sweet, the perfect vehicle for a little jam or honey, yet chocolatey and cakey and a nice morning treat.

buttered muffins

And so it was these sprouted coconut cocoa banana muffins that, set beneath a glass bowl, first graced our dining room table, the dining room table that Tim built, and made our first week together in our first house feel a little more special, a little more right, a little more like home.

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Honeymoon in (Kauai,) Hawaii!

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The first evening of our married life may have been all crisp October air and gorgeous golden leaves and a giant tent filled with our closest friends and family, but that first week was something altogether different. The morning after the wedding, we flew to what felt like worlds away from Chicago or Nashville or anything we knew and went from a night of grass-fed filet mignon, roasted potatoes, homemade cookies from friends and family and pumpkin wedding cake made by my mom, to eight beautiful nights in a land of avocados, starfruit, apple bananas and coconuts that you crack open and drink with a straw.

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We honeymooned in Hawaii: seven nights in a fully equipped condo on the island of Kauai’s north shore and one last night in a beachfront hotel in the Waikiki Beach area of Honolulu on Oahu. And while I loved what Hawaii was—tropical, relaxed, with both jungles and canyons, sandy beaches and rugged coastlines—I loved most what it wasn’t: no more emails or phone calls, no work, nothing left to plan. People ask us what we did there, and there’s not much to say—not much besides drive around in our hard-top jeep convertible, find things to eat, lay by the water, get used to each other in our new life as man and wife.

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So first, there was Kauai, an island that at least four other couples have recently told us was their honeymoon destination as well, chosen for its Jurassic Park-level beauty, lesser commercialization, rich topography and jaw-dropping Napali Coast.

For us, Kauai was a destination chosen more by accident. We had talked about Italy, but it’s expensive, and when I go to Italy, I want to go to Italy, which would be hard when you’re already so exhausted you can’t remember your name (let alone that it just changed!). Then we’d toyed with the East Coast: I’ve always wanted to visit Cape Cod, and there was a farmhouse rental with a gorgeous kitchen and real sheep (!!) that almost won our hearts, but it would be cold there in October, and that made us think about a beach in North Carolina, but North Carolina’s not very far, and we could probably go there in the next few years, and then, one day, I thought, what about our friends’ condo? It’s in Hawaii! And we asked, and they offered a great rate, and we booked it. Learning about Kauai came later.

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So here’s what we now know: Kauai’s beautiful—like, crazy beautiful. Of Hawaii’s islands, it’s the most private and rugged, with no buildings anywhere that are taller than a palm tree, and it’s also diverse: here a tropical rainforest, there a hot beach beneath clear blue skies.

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This time of year, the beaches on the north shore can be a little breezy and overcast, and several spots are pretty rocky, enough so that I started to wonder if all Hawaii beaches would require a sweater with my bathing suit, no kidding, but the south shore (we especially liked Poipu Beach) was amazing: hot weather! soft sand! crystal clear water!

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While I’d soak up sun on a towel, Tim would take out the snorkel mask and go exploring, and every time he’d come back to me, his eyes would be a little wider and more excited about the fish he’d seen.

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And at the risk of killing you with sappiness, I’ll go ahead and tell you we called this place, this trip, this island, our own little love bubble, away from everything and everyone, where we were free to process everything that had happened in the last few days and imagine what would come in the next, and we honestly felt like we’d pulled off some great escape. I’d look at Tim driving the car, and he’d have this huge, goofy smile on his face, like he was so happy he couldn’t hide it, and I’d just want to freeze time right there.

Then there was the food.

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I’m not going to sugar-coat it for you: it’s expensive to eat well in Hawaii, much more than it is here. However, we found some good options: The best deals were on produce at farmer’s markets. We bought ten kumquats for $1, avocados for $0.25 each, passionfruit and starfruit and apple bananas for hardly anything.

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Since the condo had a full kitchen, we ate most breakfasts at home, including one giant omelet morning Tim was in charge of on our one-week anniversary.

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Here are a few other highlights:

Dinner at Postcards, Dessert at Postcards, 5-5075 Kuhio Hwy Kalihiwai, HI 96754:
In a cute little cottage-style building in Hanalei, Postcards was one of our favorite restaurants in Kauai. Lots of fresh, organic ingredients. No refined sugar in the desserts. We liked it so much, we went twice!

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Lunch at Living Foods Market in Poipu Beach, 2829 Ala Kalanikaumaka #24, Koloa, Hawai‘i, 96756:
We accidentally happened upon Living Foods Market while looking for another restaurant, but as soon as we stepped inside, we knew we’d found something good. Kind of like Whole Foods but smaller and with a large cafe/bakery section, it was an excellent lunch stop: margherita pizza and a big salad.

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(Splurge!) breakfast at the St. Regis, 5520 Ka Haku Road, Princeville, Kauai:
This hotel was (long-)walking distance from our condo, and with its window-filled lobby, made a great spot for catching ocean/mountain views. One morning, we treated ourselves to breakfast on the patio, which, at about $50 total(!!!), was a huge splurge, but a great memory. Organic blueberry pancakes, organic banana walnut pancakes, fresh coffee and homemade grapefruit juice.
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An amazing dinner at Mediterranean Grill, 5-7132 Kuhio Highway, Hanalei Colony Resort, Hanalei, Kauai:
Tim gets all the credit for finding this place, which was my all-time favorite from the trip. Our oceanfront meal included rainbow beet salad, spinach fatayers and rosemary rack of lamb.

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Crispy avocado tacos at Merriman’s, 2829 Ala Kalanikaumaka Street #G-149, Koloa, Kauai:
After chips and guacamole, I got the crispy avocado tacos, and Tim got the fish of the day: blue striped marlin. I let my meal’s picture speak for itself.
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And after Kauai, we spent one quick night on Oahu, where credit card rewards meant FREE hotel (and we got ugpraded to an ocean view!) and FREE car. Loved that.
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We visited the Pearl Harbor Memorial Site:
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And had one last excellent meal, at Downtown at the Hisam, located in the Hawaii State Art Museum, 250 Hotel Street, 1st Floor, Honolulu, Hawai‘i 96813:
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We were talking this past weekend about our honeymoon, just as we officially hit four full weeks of marriage, and remembering the food and the condo and how we’d watched a sunset together, sitting on a concrete wall by the ocean. It was such a nice love bubble there, it really was, and now it already feels so long ago, almost like it never happened, and that makes me a little sad.

But then I look at Tim, driving us around Nashville, with that same silly, happy grin on his face, and I wake up next to him every morning, and I share life with him every day, and I remember: honestly, the best part of Hawaii is something that hasn’t changed. The best part of Hawaii was him.

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