I had big plans for this celebration. I was ready. I figured I have been known to make some candy on occasion. I’ve got the fudge thing down. I’ve dabbled in chocolate covered nuts. I’ve even ventured into chocolate cremes with some success. I was feeling confident. It was National Caramel Day and I decided I would make my own caramels. I could picture it. I had the vision. I would create a whole tray of soft chewy caramel that I would cut it up into bite size pieces. I even thought I would wrap them individually in some wax paper so I could distribute them to friends, maybe even put some in the mail. Yep, this was going to be epic.
A caramel is simply a candy created by heating sugar to 340 degrees Fahrenheit. You heat it slowly which allows the molecules to break down and form new compounds that have a deep, rich flavor and dark golden brown color.* There are other tricks to it too like adding in butter and corn syrup for flavor and making sure you are stirring constantly, but essentially you are just heating sugar. Sounds simple enough, right? All I had to do was follow the recipe and not burn myself. I found a recipe from the folks at Land O’Lakes. I figured if anyone knows anything about rich, creamy food, it would be the butter people. This recipe was called Aunt Emily’s Soft Caramels. Aunt Emily was apparently the nicest of old ladies who would make her homemade candies for all the farmers that would bring their milk to the Land O’Lake factory – at least she was in my mind. They don’t really say who she really was, but they do say the recipe has been enjoyed for generations. If it had Aunt Emily’s name on it, it was good enough for me.
I actually made these on Tuesday night on National Caramel Day Eve after I got home from work. I had to make them then because I knew they would need time to rest before I could cut into them. I couldn’t wait until the actual day to make them because I’d run out of time, so after dinner on Monday, I got all my ingredients together including the butter, the sugars, the corn syrup and the milk. I also grabbed my handy dandy candy thermometer. Everything went in the pot and then I just let it all cook. Pretty soon all was melted together and a slow boil had come to the pot. I kept letting it cook and started watching the candy thermometer. Aunt Emily said to cook it until it hits 244°F, so that’s exactly what I did. It’s never easy to read a thermometer, especially when your glasses steam up when you put your head over the boiling sugar, but I watched it and when it hit that magic number, I pulled it off the heat. I added vanilla, stirred, and then poured it into a prepared pan. It smelled wonderful like a good caramel will. I did it! I left the caramels in their pan to set then I cleaned up (I actually left all the pans soaking because they needed to) and went to bed with visions of soft caramels dancing in my head.
On National Caramel Day I woke up and ran downstairs with a bounce of excitement in my step to check the caramels. They were still in the pan on the kitchen table and they were hard as a rock. Really, no give to them at all. I tried to cut into them or pull them out of the pan. Nope. They were in there forever as best I could tell. They looked good. They had a nice brownish color to them and a special little gleam of shininess when they caught the sun. I chiseled along the side. I turned it upside and tapped. I even put a warm towel on the bottom. Nothing. I had just made a caramel scented pan filler. I left for work still perplexed about what to do. I kind of hope Lola would find them and would try one and would be able to pull one out like Arthur pulling Excalibur from the stone. No such luck, when I got home, they were still there as hard as ever.
I finally filled a cake pan with really hot water and I let the pan of caramels sit in that for about ten minutes. That did the trick and the slab of caramels slid right out. It was still solid however and it had the texture of a very thick lollipop. I tried to cut them, but that wasn’t working. Then I did what you have to do in these situations: I hit it with a heavy object. My knife sharpener to be exact which I find to be a very useful blunt instrument. I also feel that if the game Clue was set at our house, one solution could very much be Professor Dan in the kitchen with the knife sharpener. That worked and suddenly my slab of caramels had broken apart like a shattered mirror. I grabbed a small shard and took a bite.
My first observation was that if my dentist saw me eating this, he would either scream in horror or he would see dollar signs in his eyes. Like eating rock candy, it had that sharp, raw sugar feeling against your teeth. It snapped off with a bite using my molars leaving residue deposits of sugar behind. It was sweet, but it was also buttery and creamy too. I took another little bite, and another. It was actually really, really tasty, but it was not a soft caramel. Lola knew what it was. I had to convince her to try it, but when she did she immediately said “This is toffee.” And so it was. Lola liked the flavor too, really liked it, but she wanted melted chocolate over it, like you would a nice toffee. It was a Heath bar to her.
I must have cooked it too long. Perhaps my candy thermometer was not calibrated correctly. Maybe I’m just blind. Whatever the reason, my caramel was definitely on the toffee side. I wasn’t that far off. A toffee is essentially a type of caramel that is just cooked a little longer to the hard crack stage. I should have pulled it from the heat earlier. You live and learn. I gave it a shot and I now have a Tupperware full of really delicious toffee. It’s kind of like a Werther’s candy. That’s not so bad, right?
Later that night I had to take a two-hour online course to become certified for safe alcohol serving. I’ve done that before, I just had to go through the steps again to get re-certified. The video training is a mixture of cheesy corporate training films from the eighties and even cheesier filmstrip-like information that you follow along with. Definitely some good info to know, but I kind of already knew it. But I took the course and then I took the test which I passed with a 95. I’m now certified and to celebrate this, I had a dish of ice cream with caramel sauce. The sauce was store brought (I think from Smuckers), and I felt it was the perfect reward with having to have lost almost two hours of my life in search of a certificate that will sit in a file somewhere. That’s how I really got my official caramel fix for National Caramel Day.
Well, I went into the day with high hopes, but sometimes the best laid plans turn out to be hard rock candy that gets stuck in a pan. Lesson learned. I think I could make it again and achieve that soft caramel stage. I will try this again. Hey, if Aunt Emily could do it, so can I. Another lesson I learned on this little question that I can try to make anything. Most times it will come out ok, but if not, I’ll just look back and see what happened. Usually you can figure out where you took a wrong turn. Trying again is not a defeat. In fact, if I make it right on the second try, it will bring a reward of soft, chewy delight into our lives. That’s worth trying again and again.
Next Up: National Caramel Popcorn Day
*Info from TheSpruce.com