This Hanukkah, give presents from the heart and the kitchen with homemade food gifts. In this series, we’ll present four sweet and savory ideas to spice up your holiday gift giving for everyone on your list.
Homemade candy makes some of the best DIY holiday food gifts. Besides its visual appeal and delicious taste, most candy recipes produce big batches, so you can knock everyone off your list at once. This year I decided to try my hand at salted caramels, which are simultaneously nostalgic and trendy. They’re not difficult to make, but the secret is all in the temperature.
The base of all caramel recipes is essentially the same: butter, sugar, cream, and corn syrup. Of course, the kind of butter (salted vs. unsalted), sugar (white vs. brown), and cream (heavy cream, condensed milk, or even crème fraiche) vary wildly, as do the order in which to cook it all.
After a good deal of experimentation, I can tell you that I have a preferred method (see below), but that cooking the ingredients in a totally different order also yields tasty results. For example, you could cook the sugar, water and corn syrup together first before adding the cream and butter.
Like I said, what really matters is the temperature. I found somewhere between 248-250F yields the perfectly firm yet chewy results. Any lower and the caramel would properly set. Any higher and you’ll end up with a hard candy akin to Werther’s Originals (delicious, but not the goal here). And while the initial rise in temperature, to about 220F or so, is quite rapid, the final stretch takes a good 20 to 30 minutes, tricking you into thinking you can do other things around the house. You can, but you must always keep one eye on the thermometer so you can be sure to heat that temperature sweet spot.
Should you wish you coat the caramels, temperature becomes even more important as you need to temper the chocolate. While it’s not difficult, it does require practice and, more importantly, precision. For a great tutorial on tempering chocolate, check out this one from Chow.com. It’s simple and to the point.
Besides the option of whether to chocolate coat the caramels or not, you can also customize them with your choice of salt. With entire stores now dedicated to salt, you can add complexity and a unique spin just by switching up which salt you sprinkle on top. Just make sure it’s a coarse salt that will stick on top. Add some heat, a smoky note, or something floral. No matter which way, even plain, these are a delicious gift to make and give this holiday.
Chocolate Covered Salted Caramels
Makes about 50 to 60 caramels
1 cup heavy cream
¼ cup light corn syrup
¼ cup water
1¼ cups granulated sugar
¼ cup brown sugar
5 tablespoons (71 grams) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 teaspoons sea salt
1 pound bittersweet chocolate (preferably couverture discs)
Coarse salt of your choice, for finishing
1) Line an 9-inch loaf pan (or 8-inch square baking pan) with parchment paper and rub all sides with butter or oil.
2) Put the cream in a medium-size, heavy-bottomed saucepan with a candy thermometer attached and bring to a gentle boil.
3) Add the corn syrup, water, and white and brown sugar. Bring to a boil, stirring very gently until the sugar is fully dissolved. Wait until it reaches 250F, stirring occasionally (it will rise very quickly to 220F, but will take 20 to 30 minutes to get to 250F). If any sugar splashes up the side of the pot, you can use a wet pastry brush or clean paintbrush to wipe away (sugar on the side of the pot like that could crystallize and ultimately mess up your end product).
4) Remove from the heat and add the butter, vanilla, and salt. Stir until the butter has fully melted and been incorporated. If the butter separates from the mixture and it looks oily, put it back on the heat for a minute, stirring constantly, until it’s fully incorporated.
5) Carefully pour the mixture into the prepared baking pan. For quick results, pop the pan in the freezer for 20 to 30 minutes. Otherwise, allow to cool fully in the refrigerator or at room temperature, about 2 hours.
6) Remove the cooled, solidified caramel from the pan. If you are not going to coat in chocolate, then sprinkle with coarse salt of your choice and gently press into the caramel. Cut into ¾-inch squares. Put on a parchment-lined baking sheet and refrigerate while you temper the chocolate (or, if not coating in chocolate, wrap individual pieces in wax paper and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks).
7) Fill a small pot about ¼ of the way with water and bring to a boil. To temper the chocolate, rest a heatproof bowl fitted with a candy thermometer on top and add half of the chocolate. Stir with until the chocolate is melted and has reached a temperature of 118-120F.
8) Remove the bowl from the pot and add the remaining half of the chocolate. Stir until fully melted and incorporated, and the chocolate has decreased in temperature to 80F.
9) Return the bowl to the pot of simmering water and heat to 88F. Remove, but keep the pot of water simmering should you need to reheat the chocolate while you work – you want it to be between 87-89F for perfectly tempered chocolate.
10) Line another baking sheet with parchment paper. Remove the caramels from the fridge and, working one at a time, drop each caramel in the chocolate, turn to coat, and carefully remove with a fork or slotted spoon and put on the prepared baking sheet. Sprinkle with coarse salt of your choice. Continue until all the caramels have been coated, and allow to sit at room temperature until set.
11) Store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.