Bar Mitzvah Baking – Part II

I continued the sweet/salty theme with the second item I made for Daniel’s Bar Mitzvah – sea salt caramels.

I know some people call the “salty caramel” phenomenon a trend, and if it was, I am far far behind. But really, wasn’t it just people realizing how good this combination is? Like cupcakes – can cake really be “trendy?” Won’t cupcakes always be cute and convenient and delicious? It’s not a handbag. Sorry – that’s my two cents for the day.

Anyway, I made my own sea salt caramels for the first time, and I was seriously intimidated. Caramel’s one of those things that is possible to just completely screw up. Baking in general is about science and exact proportions, but there’s even less wiggle-room when it comes to candy-making.

But I was pretty excited to try something so new, and it actually went surprisingly smoothly. All you need is a candy thermometer and a little patience…and a mom who reminds you not to scrape the sides of the pan – apparently something disastrous happens.

I couldn’t have asked for more with this recipe. If you follow the directions, you will end up with soft, chewy caramels that are not at all sticky. And you can feel good about the fact that they don’t have any white sugar or corn syrup – just agave nectar and turbinado sugar. (Ok, you won’t exactly feel good in a healthy way….but a little healthier. Hey, when I’m combining nothing but butter, sugar, and cream I take wholesomeness wherever I can get it.)

Sea Salt Caramels

Recipe from Shauna at Piece of Cake

Note: The only problem I had with this recipe was that the sea salt wasn’t spread evenly throughout the caramel, and I ended up with a few small areas chunky with salt (which I just had to throw away). To avoid this, try to mix the salt in thoroughly and pay special attention to the way you pour the caramel into the pan, to avoid all the salt ending up in one spot.

Makes about 4 dozen caramels, depending on size

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups turbinado sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup light agave nectar
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse sea salt, plus more for sprinkling (see note below)
2 teaspoons dark rum (optional)
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla bean paste or extract (see note below)

Line an 8×8 inch baking pan with aluminum foil and spray it generously with nonstick cooking spray.

In a heavy medium saucepan over medium high heat, melt together the butter, sugar, cream and agave nectar. Bring it to a boil, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Clip a candy thermometer to the pot and reduce the heat to low, stirring occasionally (without scraping the sides of the pan), until the caramel reaches 248 degrees (this can take anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes or maybe longer–don’t rush it). As you see the temperature creeping towards 248, stir in the salt and the rum. When the caramel hits 248, pull the pot from the heat and stir in the vanilla.

Pour the caramel into the prepared pan set over a wire rack and let it cool, undisturbed, at room temperature overnight, or if you’re in a rush, 30 minutes at room temperature and another 30 minutes or so in the refrigerator until the caramel is very firm. (Don’t rush this step! The caramel is very hard to cut when it hasn’t cooled long enough.)

Line a cutting surface with a sheet of parchment paper and turn the caramel slab out onto it. Use a large sharp knife to cut the caramel into neat, even pieces (I like mine to be about 1 x 1 1/2 inches). Lightly sprinkle the caramels with more sea salt and wrap them in squares of parchment or waxed paper. Store at room temperature.

Shauna’s notes:

If you’d like to make this recipe using white sugar and corn syrup instead, increase the syrup to 1/2 cup. Regular brown sugar has more moisture than white or turbinado sugars and is not recommended.

Try to use the best coarse salt you can get your hands on here–avoid table salt at all costs (in addition to subpar flavor, it doesn’t measure the same as coarse salt). In a pinch, you can use kosher, but I really recommend a nice crunchy, crumbly fleur de sel, particulary for sprinkling.

Also, I really like vanilla bean paste here because it does double duty of vanilla extract flavor and gives a nice visual of bean flecks in the caramel, but you can just use 1 1/2 teaspoons of vanilla extract instead.

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