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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always, with lemon (roasted cauliflower)

sunday lunch at adam's

While it’s true I’m easily persuaded about most things, whether it’s trying cookies without flour, taking trips to new places or realizing I’d been wrong all along about that crazy thing called meatloaf, you could still say there are a few fixed aspects of my nature, ones I don’t expect I’ll ever shake.

It’s hard to imagine a me that didn’t love the sky, for example, who didn’t stare at the clouds or gasp at a golden sunset. Would I still be myself if I didn’t notice the seasons change? I love the way my dad chuckles when he knows he’s wrong, the way my mom only shows her full grin when she’s laughing hard, how my younger brother is a better driver, planner and cook than I am. And really, I’ll always move towards relationships without pretense. That’s just who I am.

cauliflower chopped

Since they say a person is defined by what she really loves, you might as well also know, in that case, that I like fall leaves and fresh fruit and people who sacrifice without expecting anything in return. I want warm sunshine and broad daylight and to spend time with those who know me.

Also, and no less important, there is lemon.

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close your eyes and eat

brown butter cookies

The truth is, I have more to tell you about D.C.—like about the crazy-sweet frosting at Hello Cupcake, which was tall enough to catch on the tip of our noses when we bit into the cake; the breakfast crepes across from our hotel, filled with Nutella and strawberries; the Neapolitan-style pizza at 2 Amys, a restaurant more than one of you recommended and that makes some killer prosciutto and potato croquettes. But that will all have to wait, maybe for a day when you and I sit down in person instead, because right now, there are bigger things to talk about. Things like this brown butter shortbread.

I actually made these shortbread cookies in December, and as for why I haven’t posted them until now: all I can offer is a pathetic nod to the seemingly unending cookie recipes that were flowing around here at that time. It had reached the point where, one day, I had to promise myself to stop—no more cookies!—in an effort to keep from being the Blogger Who Only Talks About One Thing, ever. Then again, now that I’m looking back, would that have been so bad?

There is a comfort in familiarity, which is probably why I’ve been craving cookies so much lately. When you’ve fought the world, so to speak, whether at your office, with your kids or on the highway—it’s nice to come home, take a warm bite of sweetness in your hands, close your eyes and eat.

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up and down

kale

Oh, spring.

I have been waiting for you for such a long, long time.

And now that you’re here, you’re playing games with me.

One minute, we’re pure magic—all fresh breezes and warm sunshine. Bailey and I go for an evening walk, his paws trotting past tiny green buds peeking out of the earth and I breathe in the new air, cold and clean, inhaling it down deep and sighing, happy sighing, the kind filled with satisfaction yet anticipation. The next, you’re waking me up in the middle of the night, my eyes swollen and my throat tight, while what feels like a hundred tiny hammers bang against my head and nothing—not the Vicks VapoRub® or the warm compress on my eyes or the two tablets of pain medication—makes me feel well again. I always forget about this part. Every year.

Then, just when I’m ready to give up on you—to say I’ll bide my time and wait for summer’s long, hot days—my mom buys and brings me a neti pot, a small contraption in the shape of a genie’s bottle that, when filled with lukewarm saltwater, clears my nasal passages and frees my airways and makes me breathe again, so I can taste your sweet, windy gusts that burst through my windows, signaling the rainstorm that will come, along with the temperate days and green, green grass.

Spring, I take it all back. I think I love you.

When I look at things clearly, I say you’re like kale. Does that make sense? Kale is dark green, leafy, sold in thick bunches wrapped with bands, filled with promise, the kind of produce you want to take home with you because it’s beautiful and healthy (!) and, you know, there will be a way to enjoy it. Even though it’s usually considered a winter vegetable, kale is easy to find on days like these in March, just like natural light and rainy evenings and smells of charcoal grills wafting through the sky.

But after I’d made a failed winter vegetable gratin and a botched attempt at blanched kale, I was ready to give up on kale. And then.

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what brought me back

homemade chips

The only time I spent in the food industry professionally, I was being paid $125 a week and living in the place where I worked, as a full-time waitress and a part-time counselor at a camp in northern Wisconsin.

It was the summer after my freshman year, a nine-month span I’d spent in Florida, doing crazy things like, instead of studying, taking impromptu trips to away soccer games, sneaking away with girlfriends to the beach and, worse, speeding over 100 miles per hour down a causeway. I still remember the brown-haired boy in the car with me, sticking his head out the sunroof, laughing, hitting his nose against the ledge of my awful magenta car, making the bridge between his eyes bleed when we hit a bump in the road.

By the end of that year, the first I’d spent away from home, I’d been through bedbugs (and the resulting moving, moving again in response), an attempt to give blood (in which I passed out), my first really, really terrible report card and the most terrific case of homesickness you’ve ever seen. Even looking back, I don’t know what prompted me to, instead of returning home, move to Wisconsin, but that’s what I did.
I’d signed up, willing to do anything, and by some act of grace, I wasn’t assigned cleaning duty. Instead, they put me in the kitchen.

Early mornings, before campers and counselors were awake, I’d walk in the almost daylight to the white dining hall, the scent of warm yeast in the air. I pulled trays of puffy doughs and fresh-made eggs off the rolling warmers and set them in the buffet line. I collected dishes from round tables covered in plastic tablecloths. Sometimes, I even got tips: one elderly man told me he wanted to give me little something, as he handed me a $5. I almost cried.

When the weather was nice, the kitchen crew transported things to a picnic area in the woods, complete with an outdoor cooking area and tables lined up for a food line. It was there that I burned myself for the first time, just slightly while I carried a hot plate, causing a small scab to grow over my left forearm.

In a lot of ways, I think it’s good to burn yourself early: it gives you a healthy respect for cooking tools, and you think more carefully when you’re working with them. But in my case, it also gave me an irrational fear, and I have avoided a lot of things since—things like hot oil, bubbling and popping in a pan on the stove, which is something of a problem for a fried-food-lover like myself.

So the recipe that got me to conquer those fears would have to be a pretty special recipe, don’t you think?

Enter homemade tortilla chips.

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