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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
Soft & Chewy Salted Caramel
Adapted from Judicial Peach
Makes about 20 caramels.
This recipe isn’t complicated—–basic ingredients, basic instructions. The only tricky part, and the reason I had to try it three times to get it right, is temperature. Candy-making is all about the temperature. The downside is you really have to watch it closely because once the temperature starts rising, it rises fast, and if you miss it, there’s no going back.
But the upside? I now know this same recipe for chewy salted caramels also makes a great caramel sauce (think: dipping for apples) if you pull it off the heat at the soft ball stage and leave out the extra salt. It’s like two recipes in one! Bonus.
Coconut oil or butter for greasing the candy pan
1 cup sucanat (or palm sugar or another sugar)
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup sorghum syrup (maple would also work)
1 cup heavy cream
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon sea salt, plus extra for sprinkling
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1. Line an 8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper. Lightly brush the paper with the melted coconut oil or butter.
2. In a small pot, bring the cream, butter and one teaspoon of sea salt to a simmer, over medium heat. Do not let it boil. Once it has reached a simmer, turn off the heat, and set it aside.
3. In a deep saucepan, combine the water, sorghum and sucanat. Over medium-high heat, stir only until the sugar has dissolved. Then allow the mixture to boil, without stirring, until the mixture is a warm, golden brown. Watch very carefully, as the caramel can burn quickly toward the end.
4. When the sugar mixture is done, remove it from the heat and slowly add the cream mixture to the sugar mixture. Be careful because it could bubble up violently. Stir in the vanilla.
5. Return the mixture to the heat and cook over medium heat until a candy thermometer reads firm ball—for my thermometer, that was 260 degrees F. Pour the caramel into the prepared pan, but don’t scrape the bottom. Refrigerate for an hour or so, until firm.
6. Remove the caramel from the refrigerator and allow it to come close to room temperature. Pry the caramel from the pan by tugging on the parchment ends and/or inverting the pan over another surface and peeling off the parchment. On a cutting board, cut the square in half. Using parchment paper, roll each piece of caramel into a tight 8- to 10-inch log (this is key). Sprinkle the logs with sea salt. Cut each log into 3/4-inch or 1-inch pieces. Individually wrap each caramel in parchment paper, twisting the ends. Store in the refrigerator or in an airtight container.