I don’t want to make any blanket statements, but I think I’m probably the only person who has made caramels so far this year in a Tufts dorm kitchen. I made caramels, not because I have a masochistic love of boiling sugar on slightly unreliable kitchen appliances, but because I wanted to bring something to a get-together in Brookline that traveled well and used minimal ingredients. Caramels are something I’ve made many times before at home, and they come together easily when you have potholders and a laser thermometer at your disposal, but they require a little more creativity and chemistry outside of without modern equipment. Turns out, a small ice water bath (or moderately cold water bath) allows you to check what stage of caramelization the sugar is at during the cooking process. For caramel candies, the ideal stage is somewhere just beyond the “soft-ball” stage, meaning that when a few droplets of caramel are added to the ice water, they will solidify into a small clump that can be rolled into a ball that will hold its shape but will yield easily under pressure. The technique is nowhere near as precise as using a thermometer, but while I don’t mind borrowing the odd plate or cup from the dining hall I’m not yet bold enough to borrow a glass thermometer from my biology lab. (Don’t worry, Mom, Dad, and any other concerned adult reading this; I don’t plan on doing that for at least another semester.)
The stars—and Massachusetts humidity—could have aligned against me that Friday, but luckily the caramels set up perfectly—they were firm enough to hold their shape but not a danger to orthodontia. Unlike most candies the almost-bitter taste of the caramelized sugar keeps the caramels from being too cloyingly sweet, making it all too easy to eat more than one. Just one batch of this recipe makes quite a few caramels, so if you happen to be going to a college reunion in place of your dad on one night and hosting a TV night the next, you’ll have plenty of caramels for both events.
For those of you back home who are curious about what the dorm kitchens are like, here’s a snapshot of the Houston kitchen:
On the stovetop is a batch of Brown Sugar Cookies that I made last Sunday, and Kenny and Ellie would like you all to know that they got their stamp of approval.
Soft Caramel Candies
Makes about 64 Caramels
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
2 tablespoons water
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons heavy cream
- Fill a small bowl with ice water and set it within reach of your stovetop. Line an 8 x 8 inch baking pan with parchment paper and set aside.
- In a large saucepan, combine the sugar and water and place over medium-high heat. Cook without stirring until the sugar melts and begins to caramelize, swirling the pan to ensure even cooking. Continue to cook until the caramel is the shade of deep amber but not yet burnt—this process will take 10-15 minutes total depending on the material and surface area of the pan.
- Once the caramel is about 30 seconds from becoming burnt sugar, take the pan immediately off the heat and add the butter and cream. Stir until the butter is melted and incorporated, then return the pan to the burner over low heat and cook, stirring constantly with a whisk, until the caramel has reached the soft-ball stage. This means that when you drop a small spoonful of caramel into the prepared bowl of ice water, it will quickly form a soft, malleable ball that can be flatten once squeezed but will not harden into a toffee. Alternatively if you are cooking in a well-equipped home kitchen and not the basement of your dorm, cook the caramel until it registers 245-250F. Once the caramel has reached the appropriate temperature, pour it into the prepared pan and let it sit until set, at least 2 hours. Remove the parchment and the caramel from the pan and cut with a sharp knife into caramels about 1 square inch in size. Wrap the caramels in small rectangles of parchment, twisting the ends to close. Keep in an airtight bag or container, and serve within 2 weeks.
Note: If you have some nice sea salt and want to make salted caramels, stir ½ teaspoon of sea salt into the caramel along with the butter and the sugar and sprinkle a few flakes on the top of each individual caramel.