Thursday, May 28, 2009

Fleur de Sel Caramels

I have always been a very impressionable person. Call it weak-mindedness if you must, but it's true; my suggestible nature has a history for nearly getting me into trouble. After watching The Mighty Ducks, I got it into my head that playing hockey was part of my destiny. Luckily, my mom had the sense to derail that ambition early on, as my combined lack of physical coordination and the rigidity of cold, hard ice would not have mixed. I recently watched a wiry woman at the gym use a wall to balance herself in a handstand and execute the first and only upside-down push-ups I have ever witnessed. I toyed with the idea of attempting them myself, but thankfully, my boyfriend ensured me that such a venture was more likely to land me in the hospital than in annals of history as a victorious athlete.

Alas, there are times when even my ever-vigilant friends and family cannot prevent me from plunging headfirst over the Ledge of Bad Decisions. When I was seven years old, there seemed to be a neverending stream of television commercials advertising products that detangle the unruly locks of the everyday woman. They all followed the same formula, showing a frustrated lady with a comb or brush hopelessly entangled in her hair, lamenting the "tangles and knots." This image was of course followed by a depiction of the miracle-working product and the woman easily executing her desired grooming.

Any rational child would be inspired to complain to her mother, begging her to buy said product, in order to deal with her own tangles and knots. But along with my tendency for suggestibility, I have always also harbored intense impatience. So rather than wait for mom to show up, I instead took a pair of blue-handled kid scissors, meandered over to the nearest trash can, and bitterly cut out each of the knots I found in my own hair. The stupidity of said act didn't even occur to me until my parents suspiciously asked me how large clumps of my hair had somehow ended up at the bottom of our plastic (and regrettably translucent) trash bag. Rats. So I ended up with a compulsory trip to the hairdresser and a pixie-ish new cut, which left me looking like a boy. As did my long-suffering younger sister, for the sake of sibling matchery. Poor girl.

These days, my whims have far fewer drastic consequences. In fact, I thank my lingering suggestibility for these Fleur de Sel Caramels -- without it, Ina Garten's delicious treat would never have tempted me for a moment. The caramels are incredibly soft and rich, but the sweetness is well-balanced because of the salt both in and on the candies. Ina makes hers absolutely enormous, but I found that cutting them smaller made me enjoy them much more. Plus, then you have more to give as gifts. Particularly if you owe someone bigtime for causing her to endure an unattractive haircut for a key year of her youth. Whoops.

Fleur de Sel Caramels
Adapted from Ina Garten
Equipment needed:
Deep saucepan (as the caramel will bubble up violently at one point in the process, so high sides are needed to prevent messes and burns)
Small saucepan (for cream/butter/salt mixture)
Candy thermometer (can be found at kitchen supply stores, as well as some grocery stores)
8" x 8" baking pan, lined with parchment paper and lightly oiled with vegetable oil

Shopping notes:
- Fleur de sel is a fancy French sea salt, but regular sea salt will work nicely instead of the fleur de sel
- Heavy cream spoils very quickly, so unless you have another recipe on hand to use up the heavy cream (sometimes also billed in the grocery store as whipping cream), I would recommend buying the smallest container the store has to offer. Just make sure that it contains at least 1 cup.
1 1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1/2 cup water
1 cup heavy cream
5 TBS butter
1 tsp fleur de sel or sea salt
1/2 tsp vanilla extract


1. Bring cream, butter, and 1 tsp fleur de sel to a simmer in a small saucepan on one burner of your stove, over medium heat. This took a while for me, so I started it on my smaller burner while the sugar/corn syrup/water mixture came to a boil on the larger burner.

2. While the cream/butter/salt mixture is coming to a simmer, combine the granulated sugar, corn syrup, and 1/2 cup water in the deep saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat.

3. When the sugar/corn syrup/water mixture turns a warm, chestnut brown color (warning, this can happen pretty quickly after remaining colorless while boiling for a few minutes), carefully and slowly add the cream mixture from the other saucepan into the deep saucepan. (WARNING: The contents of the deep saucepan will bubble up violently when the cream mixture is added.) Once the bubbling settles a bit, stir in the vanilla extract with a wooden spoon and cook over medium heat for ~5-10 minutes. While it is cooking, swirl the pan rather than stirring the mixture. Insert the candy thermometer and keep an eye on the temperature. Also remember that the mixture will continue to cook when removed from the burner. Your goal temperature is 248 degrees F. As soon as the thermometer hits 248, carefully pour the hot caramel into the prepared pan and refrigerate until firm.

4. When the caramels are cool, use the parchment paper to pry the sheet from the pan onto a cutting board. Starting at one end, roll the caramel up tightly until you've rolled up 1/3 of the sheet. Cut the sheet across, then roll the second third tightly, cut the sheet across again (severing the rolled part from the flat part), and roll the last third tightly. You will have 3 8" logs. Sprinkle all logs lightly with additional fleur de sel, and cut the logs into pieces of your desired size. Store in the refrigerator or at room temperature. Yields ~40 caramels

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