Archive for caramels


Posted in delicious stories with tags on December 29, 2009 by thatwasdelicious

“There is a direct link between heaven and earth and that is caramel…” (Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore).

There are some Christmas/winter traditions in our household that are non-negotiable. The making of caramels is one of them.

I think that the family legend is that one of my great-aunts had a recipe for caramels. Who knows where it came from–maybe a neighbor, maybe the back of a Karo syrup container, maybe a recipe book. But wherever it came from, it is the recipe that has been passed down through the family for years. The caramels that are made from this recipe are reputed to be the best caramels around. They are the only caramels that my grandfather will eat and when my mom brings him his yearly batch, he will, without a word to anyone, secret them away in his room. These are caramels to be treasured and are only made at Christmas time.

Up until a year ago, it had fallen to my mother to make the caramels. Making caramels is a commitment. The ingredients are rather basic: butter, sugar, Karo syrup, and evaporated milk.The technique is not complicated: put all ingredients in a pot,

bring to a boil,

and stir.

But it is the time that is the issue. In order to make these caramels they have to be brought to a boil very slowly and then the caramels have to be stirred, continuously, until they reach about 240 degrees and that usually takes about three hours.

Last year my mom informed Claire and I that it was our turn to learn the art of caramel making, that it was our turn to woman the stove. And so we did. Our first batch of caramels turned out okay, they were a little too soft. This year we did much better. The caramels are the right burnt golden color and the texture is chewy without being so sticky that the caramels glue your teeth together.

The three hours pass by rather quickly if you have some episodes of This American Life to catch up on. Plus, there is the slightly hypnotizing swirl of caramel around the wooden spoon  in the heavy bottomed Dutch oven that we always use for caramels that lulls you into a sort of meditation.

When the caramels have reached their appropriate temperature, they get poured out into a buttered pan and left out in the cold until they are hard. Then you have to cut them up and wrap them in tiny wax paper squares. Deliver to as many people as you can.

Claire and I are considering messing with tradition, just a little bit, and seeing if we can’t infuse some interesting flavors into the traditional caramel, maybe start a seasonal cottage industry in West Philly come next year. We’ll see. It might just be that next year we will be making caramels only in my mom’s kitchen, only in the traditional way, and only for friends and family.