Home Plate: Chocolate caramels are the perfect holiday gift
By 1949, when my copy of Mrs. Simon Kander’s The Settlement Cookbook rolled off the press, it was already in its 29th printing. My career-minded mother, when she received it as a wedding gift, must have taken one look at the book’s subtitle, “The way to a man’s heart,” and shelved it for decades, because by the time she gave it to me, it looked virtually unused. After 20 years in my kitchen, though, the poor book has lost its spine and is held together with packing tape.
How I love Mrs. Kander. First of all, she put the index in the front of the book, and If I ever publish my own cookbook, I will do the same. Why? Because people who actually cook (as opposed to the people who read cookbooks just for pleasure) want to cut to the chase. They are looking for a specific recipe, like macaroni and cheese, or are looking for recipes that use a certain ingredient, such as the nine pounds of kohlrabi that make up that week’s CSA order.
Which means the first stop in a cookbook should be the index. Suggestion to cookbook publishers: let’s skip the (ghost written) famous chef introduction. Ditto the (ghost written) prologue detailing how the cookbook’s (purported) author came to love food and cooking and suffered in the five star kitchens of Europe or the torture of a Gordon Ramsay television competition before opening a tiny spot in Brooklyn with lines out the door and homemade bitters behind the bar. Let’s get straight to the recipes.
The second reason I love Mrs. Kander is that her book contains everything. She was writing at a time when convenience foods did not exist, when people had to cook seasonally. She actually wrote a recipe for kohlrabi (steamed, then cooked with its greens, butter, some of the steaming water and a little flour to make a sauce – simple and good).
And the third reason I love Mrs. Kander is for the following recipe for Chocolate Caramels, my holiday gift to all of you. It is easy, inexpensive, and I have yet to meet a person who doesn’t love it. It’s easy to tailor to your own tastes and one batch yields enough for presents to at least 10 people. Best of all, you can add a bit of cream to the caramel that remains in the pot to make a little chocolate sauce for yourself.
For no-fail results, though, you really ought to use something Mrs. Kander didn’t have: a digital thermometer that can register to at least 250 degrees. Which, if you love to cook, you ought to have anyway. Why not give yourself one at the start of a New Year?
Chocolate Caramels (and Leftovers Chocolate Sauce)
4 cups white sugar
2 cups brown sugar, packed
2 cups dark corn syrup
1 cup cream (1/2 cup more if making chocolate sauce)
1 cup unsalted butter, cut into pieces, plus a little extra for the pan
6 ounces unsweetened chocolate, cut into pieces
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla
a variety of sprinkles for the top, if desired, such as ground hot chilies, sea salt flakes, caraway seeds, etc.
half-sheet tray with a rim
parchment paper for the pan
parchment paper or wax paper for wrapping the caramels
digital thermometer capable of reading up to 250 degrees
large, heavy pot with a lid
large metal spoon for stirring
large sharp knife
clean cutting board
Place all the ingredients except for the vanilla and toppings (and extra cream if making the sauce) in the pot, place over a medium-low flame and stir well. Leave the lid on the pot for the most part, but stir occasionally, until the mixture comes to a boil, adjusting the flame if necessary to keep the mixture from scorching.
While the mixture is beginning to cook, butter the half-sheet tray, then place into it a piece of parchment larger than the pan (so the edges stick out of it). Butter the paper thinly but completely all over. Set the pan aside.
When the caramel comes to a boil, leave the lid on and let it boil for five minutes. If it threatens to boil over, turn the heat down a bit.
When the five minutes is up, remove the lid and continue boiling the mixture. Stir only occasionally, as too much stirring can crystallize the caramel. Cook the caramel until it registers 145 degrees on the thermometer. This will take a long time, as much as half an hour or more – the last few degrees take forever. That said, watch it carefully, because if the caramel goes over 147 degrees, it will get too hard.
When the caramel is 145 degrees, pour it into the prepared half sheet. Do not scrape the pot, just let as much caramel run out as will run out. Scraping can cause the mixture to crystallize. Set the pan of caramel aside to cool and harden.
If making the chocolate sauce, put the pot back on the stove (no need to turn on the flame – there should be residual heat in the pot) and stir the extra 1/2 cup of cream into the caramel still sticking to the pot until well combined. When cool, store in the refrigerator for up to one week, reheating gently before using as an ice cream topping.
When the caramels have cooled and hardened, lift the paper out of the pan and turn the caramels over onto a cutting board (make sure the board doesn’t smell like garlic!), and remove the paper. If you would like to top the caramels with salt, chili peppers, etc., use a large sharp knife to divide the block into large pieces. Sprinkle each large piece with the desired flavoring, then gently roll over the top of the caramel with a rolling pin to embed the sprinkles in the top of the caramel.
Cut the caramels into approximately 1-by-1-inch pieces, separating them from one another as you work so they don’t stick together. Wrap in squares of parchment or wax paper, twisting the ends of the paper to seal.
Stored at cool room temperature, these will keep for a few weeks. But they won’t last that long.