12.8.11 Candy Land (Caramel Giveaway)
It's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas. Around here, that's signaled by the annual frenzy of caramel-making that kicks in right after Thanksgiving. A gorgeous snowfall helps, and the strains of Misa Criolla, a traditional peasant mass, and Handel's Messiah are never far behind. Joanne, the lady at our local post office, was in awe of how many packages we mailed out today (around 100, some we hand-deliver) and was curious about how the tradition got started. I actually started making the legendary caramels in the late '90s to give to clients, but the line between clients and friends has blurred over the years, and the word has spread far and wide. It's not just that they are deliciously addictive, but that they are made by hand and with love, and that they appear year after year around the same time. This notion of tradition is so important to us, especially around the holidays. It's rather poignant for me because, with both my parents dead and no children in our house, traditions can seem a bit, well, pointless. Sometimes I am gripped with the sad realization that there will be no one to carry on what I do, but then I rally and realize that's all the more reason for me to do whatever I can, in the best way possible, right here and right now—and to share it with as many people as I can, including you.
Thanks to Amazon, my Christmas gift from G not only came early but the contents were plainly written on the outside of the box, thereby spoiling the surprise and justifying an instant unpacking. Inside was the glorious copper pot you see above, the very same one I hinted about back in July. I am so lucky. (I recently received the second issue of Lucky Peach, David Chang's magazine, and in it was an article about the best dried apricots from Tajikistan and I ordered 9 pounds of them and now I can make a big batch of jam in my new pot!) It was actually perfectly timed with the advent of caramel-making.
Over the summer, when I made caramels to go into the gift bags for the presenters at the Emmy Awards, I experimented with making double batches and it was quite successful. This significantly cuts down on the time spent stirring up 8 batches—that's about 2,000 caramels. This year I made classic vanilla and chocolate infused with red chile.
For the chocolate, I infuse the cream with about a dozen chiles de árbol, and then later I sometimes add a teaspoon or two of cayenne to increase the spice quotient. Both kinds are finished with coarse sea salt, which adds a great flavor counterpoint and a light crunch. For the vanilla I used Maldon sea salt, and for the chocolate I used their smoked version.
The recipes call for cooking the caramel to the firm ball stage (244-5º) but I found that, especially when making double batches for some reason—it's best to stop a couple degrees shy of that. I prefer my caramels to be a touch chewier, although by the time you work them around in your mouth a bit, they all soften up to that perfect creamy consistency.
The cutting is an arduous job and one best left to professionals (i.e. my husband). I'm so grateful that I have a partner in crime. I do all the cooking, G does all the slicing, and then we sit together FOR HOURS watching movies and wrapping the caramels. It takes about 2 solid days of work.
One of the many benefits of living in a teensy town is that there is no line at the post office. I still have emotional scars from the years we had to do this in the city. Next to a mall on Black Friday, a New York City post office around Christmas may be the world's most hellish place.
HOLIDAY SPECIAL: I've got 2 bags of caramels set aside for readers of this blog. Just write a comment below telling me about your favorite holiday treat and you'll be a contender to win one. I'll announce the lucky recipients next Wednesday, the 14th. Come on, the only thing you have to lose is maybe a couple of teeth...