Sunday, 14 February 2010

Salted Chocolate Caramels

Happy Valentine's Day everyone.

In the weeks coming up to Christmas I decided that I wanted to bake some Christmas goodies as gifts this year. I've never distributed handmade gifts before, mainly because my presentation skills leave a lot to be desired, but I was determined to try this year.

Since I love to bake sweet things, you think it would be easy picking something that would be suitable but it was actually really hard to choose! There are so many delicious things that could be made, plus my co-workers (who were part of the intended recipient pool) have already tasted most of my baking and I wanted to try something different.

I wandered over to Smitten Kitchen where Deb has helpfully compiled a list of her recipes that are suitably Gift-Worthy and my attention was caught by her Salted Chocolate Caramels. I love salted caramel, but after reading through the comments and then the reviews on the original recipe I became a little apprehensive and I wasn't game enough to give them a try in case they didn't turn out. I ended up making Malted Milk Cookies with Chunks of Dark Chocolate and Malteser Smashings as Christmas gifts, because they are absolutely awesome and my co-workers hadn't tasted these as I first made them when I was sick.

I still wanted to make these caramels, but I wanted to wait until I had lots of time and patience so I could prepare myself if they didn't turn out. I set aside some time, arranged my mise en place and prepared to make some candy.

As I said, I read quite a few reviews before I started this. There were a few who were talking about the variation in the temperatures between different thermometers and that this can really affect the outcome. This being my first try at candy making, I tried to minimise the possibility of burning by using two thermometers. Despite this, I still burned my first batch. The recipe says to boil the sugar/corn syrup mix until a lovely deep golden, but my mix crept closer and closer to the 255 degree F mark without colouring. I think my heat was a little too high but the markings have long since rubbed off the oven in our rental home and I am not sure which is high and which is low. The mixture still boiled alarmingly rapidly whichever way the knob was set. It went from a lovely clear to a very sad dark brown in a matter of seconds. I still had a lovely pot of cream and chocolate waiting patiently so I had to clean everything off and try again. Reviews also mentioned the mixture splitting, but luckily I didn't have this happen.

Texture seems to be the sticking point (ha) of candy making. Not only is it difficult to predict how your candy will turn out despite monitoring the temperature because of height above sea level and humidity, but you have to take into account how much people's tastes vary when it comes to the hardness of candy. I have never really been one to cook to anybody's preference but my own, to my shame - my friends and co-workers know that they are unlikely to recieve a crispy biscuit because I don't like them, but when it came to this candy I was aiming for a middle ground.

Even with the best of intentions, I took the mixture off the heat at 225 degrees F because I could smell burning and was a bit skittish after the first disaster. As a result, they are very soft. Unfortunately, they are extremely easy to eat. At room temperature they are gooey and rather messy, but they are nice and firm when they are fridge cold. I increased the salt slightly as reviews had suggested that most of the salt flavour came from the salt sprinkled on top. I obviously didn't increase it enough as there is no salty taste in the caramel itself and the saltiness only comes from the fleur de sel sprinkled over the top. Some reviewers cut back the amount of butter and I'm of two minds as to whether to do so myself or not. They are greasy, still very tasty.

I'm glad I didn't try and make these for my Christmas gifts, because while I am very happy to keep them in our fridge for snacking and even to take to a friend's house for after-dinner sweets, they didn't turn out as perfectly as I wanted my Christmas gifts to be. I don't know if I would make this particular recipe again, I have since done some research and found similar style recipes just for salted caramels (i.e. without chocolate) and that appeals to me much more. I do need to experiment with salt levels. Should I have increased the salt level further because I was using fleur de sel? I thought that since it was a finer grain than Maldon or other kosher salts I needed to be careful not to overdo it, but thinking back I've always found fleur de sel to be less "salty" tasting. Much more experimenting is needed.

See the post on Salted Chocolate Caramels on Smitten Kitchen for Deb's version of the recipe or find the original from Gourmet Magazine posted here on Epicurious.

Thanks to a huge backlog of posts, the posting of this recipe has been a little delayed. It was originally made in December 2009.

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