For all of you whose New Year's resolution was to eat more candy in 2008, this recipe is for you.
Yes, while the rest of the world has puckered its lips in the direction of dessert and sworn to monitor sodium for the foreseeable future, I offer you this timely little morsel, smelling of burnt sugar and dusted with sea salt. Happy January... make yourself some salted caramels.
In the interest of honesty, I made these as Christmas gifts, but I'm here to convince you that these candies are easy enough and good enough to stock candy stashes of kin and co-worker throughout the year. All you need is some parchment paper, a candy thermometer, and some decent sea salt. Then, with a little patience for repetitive candy-wrapping, you'll have a batch of velvety caramels studded with bits of crunchy salt. This recipe scores a perfect 10 on Sarah's salty-sweet scale of goodness, which, in case you're keeping score, beats bacon brittle, but finishes neck and neck with burnt caramel ice cream with black Hawaiian sea salt.
These caramels hold their shape without threatening to pull out your fillings. That means they're both better tasting and safer than the beloved Sugar Daddy, a candy I loved to lick, and dared to chew, as a grade-schooler with wobbly teeth. I suppose I wasn't as enterprising as a certain "Jason from New York" who had this to say about the subject of Sugar Daddies and molars on oldtimecandy.com:
Back in the late 70's, when I was 7 or 8 years old, my molars were taking a long time to come out. they'd get loose, but I couldn't extract them myself. so I bought a sugar daddy. I'd sink my teeth into it, wait a few seconds, and rip open my jaw! 9 out of 10 times there'd be a tooth stuck to it. it would also gross out other kids (especially the girls). ironically, I'd use the money I got for my tooth to buy more sugar daddies!
Should the fleur de sel caramel strike your fancy, and should next December's holidays seem simply too far off to warrant dusting off your candy thermometer, please think of St. Valentine. Your sweetheart will be charmed by your homemade confections, but, more importantly, you will have done your part to encourage lovers everywhere to renounce the Whitman's Sampler box. If you're inclined to think that salted caramels won't muster that whiff of romanticism, chill your candies in the fridge, dip them in melted dark chocolate, and then sprinkle with sea salt. Sexy, no?
On the subject of salt: I tend to favor Morton's Kosher salt for cooking. It's inexpensive, stocked in every grocery store, and fine tasting. But a candy like this which features salt as a primary ingredient requires good fleur de sel, the "flower of salt" hand-harvested from the top layers of sea salt pans. These salts can be pricey, but I've recently tried without disappointment two inexpensive brands: Baleine Sea Salt (from Whole Foods) and Trader Joe's Salt of the Sea, which is harvested from South Africa. In the end, price may not be a necessary condition of salt's flavor. In a taste test conducted by Dan Crane of slate.com Morton's kosher salt and Maldon sea salt--both of which are easy on the wallet-- outperformed all but one of the other contestants. I'm glad to know my everyday salt stands up to fancier brands, but I would still opt for a coarser sea salt for this recipe. Mr. Crane's salt testers were wowed by the "giant pyramid-shaped flakes" and "extreme texture" of Maldon sea salt. Sounds like a winner to me...I'll try to get some in my kitchen before I sprinkle any more salt on my candies or ice cream.
Fleur De Sel Caramels
Adapted from Gourmet, October 2004. Makes about 40 (1-inch square) candies.
canola or vegetable oil for pan
1 cup heavy cream
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces
2 teaspoons fleur de sel, plus more for sprinkling
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1/4 cup water
1. Line bottom and sides of an 8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper, then brush parchment lightly with canola or vegetable oil.
2. Bring cream, butter, and 2 teaspoons fleur de sel to a boil in a small saucepan, then remove from heat and set aside.
3. Boil sugar, corn syrup, and water in a 3- to 4-quart heavy saucepan, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Boil, without stirring but gently swirling pan, until mixture is a light golden caramel.
4. Carefully stir in cream mixture (mixture will bubble up) and simmer, stirring frequently, until caramel registers 248 degrees F on thermometer, 10 to 15 minutes. Pour into baking pan, sprinkle generously with sea salt, and cool 2 hours. Cut into 1-inch pieces, then wrap each piece in a 4-inch square of wax paper, twisting the ends to close.