Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Salt, Caramel, Chocolate

One of the good things about being a chocoholic is that you've always got something in which to drown your sorrows, something to give a bit of comfort when life gets you down. The better the chocolate, the better the mood upswing (though I learned at an early age that one should always keep a bag of chocolate chips in the freezer for emergencies).

I've been trying to juggle too many eggs recently, but indulging in some homemade chocolate cake, chocolate almond bars, or hot cocoa always manages to simultaneously calm me down and lift up my spirits a bit.

Given all this, I felt it was time to share a particularly exciting chocolate recipe I've had in the pipeline for awhile now.

Chocolate. Dipped. Salted. Caramels.

Take a moment to wipe that drool off your keyboard and keep reading.

Now, this probably isn't the best recipe to attempt when you're juggling eggs, but if you've got a weekend afternoon to burn, the results are more than worth the effort.

Don't be scared away if you've never made candy before. I'm not going to go into the intricacies here… these posts already tend toward the long side, and I'm a novice candy maker anyway. I do suggest you crack open Joy of Cooking or another solid cookbook and read the intro section on candy making first. You might also consider starting out with a half batch.

The first thing to do is gather your weaponry:

(As always, click on the image for a larger version)

Rainbow spoons
(Note: these items are just for the caramels; the chocolate dipping part will actually come in a separate post.)

Put your recipe up somewhere visible. Yes, I like to tape mine to the microwave. If you're making a half-recipe (a good idea if this is your first foray into the world of candy making), write out the conversions. Oh, sure, you may think you'll remember to add just one cup of sugar instead of two… but speaking from experience, it's best to err on the side of caution here.

As you stir, it'll go from looking like this smooth concoction:

…to this bubbling brew:

…to this vat of golden, sugary goodness:

You need to stir continuously until it comes to a boil, but after that, just stir occasionally and dick around with your camera in the meantime.

Reminds me rather strongly of the mudpots at Yellowstone...

When your candy thermometer starts getting close to 257˚F, keep a close eye on it and start testing to see if you're at the hard ball stage yet. You may want several small dishes of cold water handy for this.

The gist of the water test is that, as a sugar mixture cooks, the water evaporates (this is not rocket science). Mixtures with higher concentrations of sugar react differently in water, with the chilled product becoming harder and less flexible.

At the hard ball stage, a small amount of sugar syrup dribbled into cold water from a clean, dry spoon (wooden or silicone, not metal) and quickly picked up forms a relatively rigid ball. If it's only at the firm ball stage—about 244˚-248˚F, at which the cooled syrup forms an easily squishable ball—it needs to be cooked longer.

Water test aftermath

Time for a public safety announcement: sugar syrup is really hot. It hurts somewhere between the dickens and the blazes if you get it on your skin, so please be careful. If you do have an incident, immediately submerge your singed bits in ice water and slather on some aloe.

Now, you don't want to undercook your caramel. I made that mistake the first time, and while the end products were a delightful combination of chewy and melt-in-your-mouth, they oozed back together after a few days in a storage tub to become an unmanageably large block of candy.

But neither do you want to overcook it, or you'll wear out your jaw trying to chew the damn things. It's a delicate balance.

Once your goopy, syrupy mixture hits a perfect 257˚F or hard ball stage, add the remaining ingredients and pour it all into your prepped pan. Let it cool for a few hours.

Don't skimp on the foil here

Eventually it'll be cool enough to dump out onto your cutting board and slice up into logs. Score a line down the center to mark it into halves, then quarters, then eighths. Then you can actually cut through the block.

Your knife is gonna get ├╝ber greasy here. I found it worked best to keep my right hand on the handle (and away from anything oily) and my left hand on top of the blade (watch those fingers), and to use a rocking motion to push the knife through the caramel, rather than trying to saw through.

I dunno what's up with those speckly ends

Caramel bokeh

Each caramel strip will yield about 10 pieces, so technically you'll end up with about 80 caramels… though I found a few of mine somehow disappeared along the way. Funny how that always happens when I bake.

For dipping the candies, you can temper the chocolate to give it a sinfully smooth and shiny luster (more on that soon), or just dunk 'em in a bowl of microwaved melted chocolate. Sprinkle on some fancy salt after they've cooled a bit but are still sticky.

Salted Chocolate-Dipped Caramels
Adapted slightly from the New York Times T Magazine

1 1/3 cups heavy cream (also called heavy whipping cream)
2 cups white sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/3 cup honey (buy local to avoid lead contamination!)
6 Tbsp unsalted butter, cut into ~1/2" cubes
1 tsp vanilla extract (the real deal, not imitation)
2 tsp sea salt
~1 tsp fleur de sel, pink salt, orange salt, black salt, the coolest salt you can find
1 1/2 lbs bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped (you can experiment with other types of chocolate if you like)
Vegetable oil

1.   Generously line an 8x8" pan with foil and grease it up with veggie oil.

2.   Prep the rest of your ingredients and have them easily accessible.

3.   Get out your biggest saucepan—4 quarts will do the trick nicely—and bring the cream to a boil.

4. Pour in the sugar, corn syrup, and honey. Stir, stir, stir with a clean, dry wooden spoon until the mixture comes to a rolling boil.

5. Let boil, stirring occasionally, for somewhere between 15 and 30 minutes. Keep an eye on your candy thermometer (keep it in the pan the whole time to get accurate, instant readings); when it gets close to 257˚F,  watch it, hawklike, and test to see if it's at the hard ball stage. Candy can hover for seemingly forever at one temperature before suddenly sending the mercury rocketing up, so focus.

6. As soon as it hits 257˚F or the hard ball stage, remove from heat and stir in the butter, vanilla, and sea salt. It's a good idea to wear oven mitts when you're doing this to protect against 257˚F sugar splashes.

7. When the butter has melted, pour the mixture into your greased, foil-lined pan and let it cool and solidify. If you're not going to dip the candies in chocolate (WTF is wrong with you?), sprinkle the block with your fancy salt when it's partially solid but still sticky enough to hold the grains.

8. Once it's at room temp, turn that pan upside-down to put the caramel on a cutting board. Carefully peel off the foil (wash it and reuse it!), then invert the candy block again. I'm not sure if that second inversion is reallllly necessary, but it's in the original recipe, so let's just go with it.

9. With a heavy-duty knife, score 1" thick sections in the caramel, then cut through with a rocking motion to create eight 1" logs, strips, whatever.

10. Cut each caramel log into 1" pieces (the original recipe calls for 1/2" thick pieces, but I liked the larger, square candies better).

11. Melt the chocolate in the microwave or a double boiler. Use a large fork or tongs to dip each caramel in the chocolate. Let them drip on a baking rack set over plenty of scrap paper. Sprinkle with salt after every 8-10 caramels (you don't want to salt them too soon or the grains will melt into the chocolate), and transfer the pieces to parchment paper to fully dry.