Candy-making is one of the time-honored arts of an old-fashioned Christmas–the very notion conjures visions of nineteenth-century kitchens and copper pots and paper cornucopias stuffed with homemade treats. I’ve always been enchanted by the whole idea, if not a little intimidated. But it just would not be Christmas for me without that bubbling pot of spicy sweetness simmering away on a December morning, or the little bakery boxes of homemade treats that result, tied up with a red ribbon and ready to be doled out to my dear ones.
My friend Rachel, steadfast in extremities great and small, has proven invaluable amid the mazes of candy-making. For years now we’ve tweaked ingredients, critiqued and compared notes, celebrated our successes and explained away our failures. Seeing as weather is a major factor in a happy outcome, I’ve learned to call her on the morning of a day’s proposed candy-making to see if she thinks our ever-present Southern humidity is low enough for the attempt. “Well,” she might say, “my hair is pretty flyaway today, so I think it’s perfect candy weather!” Even with Rachel’s support, of course, my long history with caramels is fraught with trial and error. But candy-making has become one of my dearest holiday traditions, a mindful pause in such a busy time. And the result (other than piles of delectable caramels!) is the satisfaction of a recipe I can absolutely trust.
If you have never made caramels before, it’s important to remember that success lies in cooking the mixture at the right heat for the right amount of time. As with all candy-making, temperature is everything, but the requisite 248 degrees must not be reached either too fast or two slow. A digital candy thermometer with a specific temperature setting (I love this one) clears up this anxiety for me: all I have to do is set the temperature, clip it to the side of the pot, and keep an eye on the clock. Twenty minutes really is the sweet spot for this recipe: less time will result in exceedingly sticky caramels and more time will make them so hard you won’t be able to get a knife through them when it comes time to cut the sheet of candy into squares. And don’t be afraid to tweak the heat setting as the caramels cook; when mine are on the stove I’m constantly nudging the knob up or down to keep the temperature rising at a steady rate. It is worth mentioning, however, that those last fifteen degrees or so take longer than the rest.
Decide ahead of time where you’re going to keep the caramels to cool for the 24-hour period, as you can’t move them once they start to set. When it comes time to cut them, use a large kitchen or bread knife, but try not to use a sawing motion, as this will stretch the caramels out of their perfect little squares. I highly recommend investing in some confectioners’ grade cellophane wrappers, as this will not only save considerable time in the packaging of your candies, it will ensure that they stay fresh.
2 pints heavy cream
2 cups light Karo syrup
4 cups white sugar
12 Tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into ½ inch pieces
½ cup unsulphered molasses
1 teaspoon Madagascar bourbon vanilla extract
¾ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger, or more to taste
¾ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
Coat a large, rimmed baking sheet (13-by-18-inch jelly roll pan works great) with cooking spray. Cut a piece of parchment paper 2 inches longer than the baking sheet and line the coated pan. Coat the parchment and set aside.
Mix the salt and spices thoroughly in a small bowl and set aside.
In a stock pot, bring the cream, corn syrup, sugar, butter and molasses to a boil over high heat, stirring until the butter has melted and all of the sugar has dissolved. Clip a candy thermometer to the side of the pot, and reduce heat to medium-high. Cook for about 20 minutes, stirring frequently, until the mixture reaches 248 degrees (firm-ball stage).
Remove from heat and stir in vanilla and the salt-and-spice blend. Promptly pour into the prepared pan (don’t scrape the pot!), and set on a cooling rack in a place where the caramels can remain undisturbed at room temperature. Let stand, uncovered, for 24 hours without moving.
The next day, coat a large cutting board with oil or cooking spray, and lift the parchment to unmold the caramel, inverting it onto the cutting board in a sheet. Peel off parchment and cut caramels into 1-inch square pieces. Wrap candies individually in cellophane and store in an airtight container for up to a month.