Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Goldilocks and the Three Caramels

Much like Goldilocks and her three beds, I set off on an adventure to find the perfect caramel.  It is one of my absolute favorite sweet treats and I thought it would be an interesting process to make my own.  Having never attempted to make caramel -- or any kind of candy -- I was a little intimidated to get started.
First things first, I searched for the most promising recipe and came upon two that I was dying to try. The first I found was via the wonderful Ina Garten on Food Network and the second I came across while reading my favorite blog, Jones Design CompanyBoth were slightly different but each had rave reviews, so I didn’t think I could go wrong. I printed both since the ingredients were similar and figured I’d have a chance to try each at some point.
Second step, obtaining a candy thermometer -- I mentioned I’d never made candy before so one was missing from my kitchen. I got a very simple one from Sur la Table since I had a gift card to use and am trying my hardest to put more money in savings right now and less in the pockets of my favorite retailers.
Third step, pick up my ingredients. Caramel is surprisingly simple despite its absolutely amazing taste, and contains things you most likely already have on hand. The couple extras I needed were heavy cream and corn syrup.  Also, as long as you buy a little extra cream, you could make this recipe a few times before needing to restock ingredients -- either because it tastes so wonderful you ate the first batch without sharing, or you messed up once or twice.
Time to get started! Ina’s recipe is actually really great at explaining what to do, so I won’t repeat the steps. Instead, I’ll try to explain what did and didn’t work for me.   As you’ve probably guessed, it took a couple rounds for me to get it just right.
Case in point, here is my oh so sad first attempt… 
As Goldilocks would say, “OUCH! This caramel is much too HARD!” After letting it cool, I had zero luck cutting into this solid block. I even let it set out over night to get to room temperature and still failed at cutting it into pieces -- there was absolutely no way I would get half of this to roll-up.  After my first attempt I spent the day doing some caramel research. Since mine turned out to be similar to toffee in firmness, I wondered if I cooked it too long, not enough, too fast, too slow, etc.  After reading a few informative websites and comparing my recipe to a few others, I decided for my next attempt I would adjust a few things:
·         First, I think my stove’s version of ‘medium-high’ is hotter than most so I’d lessen the heat in each of my steps.
·         Second, a few recipes I read only heated to caramel to ‘soft ball’ stage which is around 240 degrees as opposed to ‘hard ball’ stage which is 248, so I decided that I had possibly over cooked my first attempt.
·         Another tip I’d come across a few times mentioned never scraping the sides or bottom of the pan when you’re pouring the caramel.  Since I was born with about ten sweet teeth, I am a chronic bowl scrapper.  I want every last drop so naturally, I scraped away when pouring my first batch. Apparently, that scraping got a few of the well done parts on the bottom of my pan.
·         Last thing I want to adjust was the pan I poured the hot caramel in. The recipe calls for an 8x8 and once it’s hardened, you cut the square in half and roll each half starting from the long ends.  Even though mine was un-cuttable, it would have been a very thick roll if I was able to do what the recipe called for.  I decided in my second attempt, I’d pour it into a 13x9 pan, cut that sheet into thirds and roll each starting from the long end.
Ok, new plan in mind, time for round two!  
I definitely think lowering my stove temperature helped this time around. When I poured the caramel, I noticed more came out and none appeared to be slightly scorched on the bottom. And speaking of pouring, I was also able to control myself and resisted scraping the pan to get all the sweet, gooey caramel -- it was a big moment.  I also was very pleased with the thickness of the caramel when poured in a 13x9. It’s definitely your preference, but this was more the size I was looking for and allowed me to make a bit extra since I plan to give some away as gifts.  
My last tweak to my first attempt was my caramel temperature. I cooked only to 240 degrees this time around and was very pleased with the color, way it poured, etc. -- it looked so promising!  Since I did my second attempt during my lunch break, I put it in the fridge to cool and decided I’d cut and roll when I got home from work.
I thought it might need some warming up when I was ready to roll, but surprisingly, it was very soft and pliable after hours in the fridge. I started to roll my first third and immediately cut myself a piece to try -- It tasted AMAZING and melted right in my mouth. I didn’t have time to cut more and wrap each right then, so I put it back in the fridge and decided I’d finish later. When I checked on it the next morning, the log I had rolled, had melted right back into a thin layer of caramel! In the words of Goldilocks, “this batch is much TOO soft!” AHHHH! It was so promising. 
Despite its non-chewy caramel texture, I was not about to let this go to waste. It certainly couldn’t be rolled and expected to keep its shape but it would pour into a bowl just perfectly. Over a week or two, I managed to find many uses for it -- dipping apples, topping ice cream, eating with a spoon -- my personal favorite -- etc.
So, second attempt a little more successful than the first, but not what I was going for -- time to re-evaluate and tweak a couple more steps in my process. For my third attempt, I decided to keep almost everything the same with one exception. I would go back to the original goal of heating to 248 but do so at a much slower pace and using the lower stove setting from the second attempt. 
I went along like normal and incorporated my new tweaks; however, during the final stage of heating, I noticed that the thermometer was stuck and had not gone up after several minutes. I decided this must be due to my electric stove which heats and turns off, heats and turns off, in order to maintain a lower temp. UGHH! The caramel was starting to look burnt and I was convinced another batch was ruined. 
Out of anger and despair, I poured this batch into a plastic container that I didn’t mind tossing once it had cooled.  After I’d poured it, I was surprised to find that it didn’t look nearly as burnt as it did on the stove.  I had also once again resisted scrapping the pot and had a moment of hope that maybe it would work out! I quickly poured it from the plastic container into my pan and let it set up in the fridge for a couple hours. When I went back later to cut and roll, it was soft enough to mold but not so soft that it would lose its shape. I couldn’t believe it -- SUCCESS! As Goldilocks would say, “This one is juuuuuust right.” I of course tried a piece to make sure it not only looked pretty, but tasted right. Then I tried one more to make sure I wasn’t imagining its amazing taste and texture. Then I tried one more just because the second one was so great, and then forced myself to stop trying a fourth.
After I rolled and cut all the pieces, I decided to dip half of them in milk chocolate to make a homemade milk dud -- I was told this was a favorite treat of my gift recipients.  I melted the chocolate in a double boiler, dipped half the caramel pieces using tongs and let them harden. Once they were set, I cut parchment paper into squares and wrapped each piece, securing the ends with a twist. I divided the caramel in half, reserving just enough pieces for my family to try, and put them in two cellophane gift bags. I then tied them with ribbon, added a label and placed them in Chinese take-out gift boxes I’d found a year earlier in the dollar section of Target.
They were a huge hit with everyone who tried them and despite the three tries it took to get just one good batch, I was quite pleased with the outcome.  Just remembering how great they tasted gives me the courage to try again and see if I can succeed in fewer than 3 attempts this time!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Snow Day!

It doesn't happen often in Dallas, but once or twice a year we get lucky and snow -- mostly ice -- makes its way through the metroplex, covering everything and keeping everyone indoors. Since we live in the most unpredictable weather capital in the US, these days are often preceded and followed by 60 degree and sunny weather. So, for those of you worried about the Super Bowl, don’t be. The sun and warmer weather will be back in just a couple days -- much like it was just two days ago.

For today though, the snow is still falling and a thin layer of ice has covered the ground! It felt like Christmas morning waking up and hurriedly going through emails just hoping to find one titled, “Office Closed.”  Since I slept through my alarm this morning, finding this one was even more exciting -- if it wasn’t there, I was going to be over an hour late, and if it was there, I’d been able to sleep in and didn’t have to make my way to the office -- WIN!

I’ve only braved the outdoors once so far today. Unfortunately, having pups means going outdoors at least 3 times a day be it rain, snow, sun or shine -- so, the three of us bundled up and made our way outdoors. The stairs and sidewalks were covered in ice so getting to the courtyard was a slow and slippery chore. It was Nolan’s first experience in snow / ice and it took him a little while to find his “snow legs.” He fell over a few times trying to mark his usual spots but was not deterred. Once he got stabilized, he and Shiloh were running and playing harder than normal. For some reason, the colder and uglier the weather, the more they want to play and the more I have to plead with them to do their business so we can go back indoors!  I let them have their fun until I could no longer feel my ears and forced them back indoors. I’m already dreading the lunch time potty outing and digging around for some warmer winter accessories.  If I get bundled up enough, I’ll try to get some pictures of my little snow puppies.

But for now, I get to enjoy a cup of coffee, watch “Regis and Kelly,” and think about projects I want to tackle on this unexpected snow day!