Signatures can be a double edged sword. For sake of example: While Stairway to Heaven brought Robert Plant and Led Zeppelin a great hit, it also brought an endless deluge of requests for the song, so much so that years after its release, Plant refused to play the song in concert. And a more personal example: our Grandma Nancy wears Clinique perfume. It is so completely entrenched in my brain’s idea of her that I cannot walk through an airport or mall without smelling it on someone else and immediately craning my neck for a sight of her. She has worn it as long as I can remember and she will have to for as long as I live, if I have a say in it. That’s how it is with a signature- with any signature scent, accessory, or dish comes great responsibility. People come to expect it and would be disappointed to lose it. It becomes a part of tradition even, as these sea salt caramels have for me.
Every year I make these for the holidays, to snack on, share and give as gifts. My Christmas prep does not feel complete until I am wrapping up boxes of these (brown paper packages tied up with strings, of course!) and dodging requests from my husband Troy to eat his share before we give any away. What is your traditional holiday food? Do you have a signature dish that relatives and friends have come to expect? Do you still enjoy making it, or like Robert Plant, are you beginning to wish you could get away from that corn casserole legacy you created for yourself? Share in the comments below!
Chocolate Covered Sea Salt Caramels (adapted from the recipe by David Lebovitz)
makes 40-50 1″x1″ caramels
3/4 cup heavy whipping cream
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract, bean paste, or powder
rounded 1/2 teaspoon + 1/4 teaspoon flaky sea salt, I use the pink Himalayan salt from Trader Joe’s
1/2 cup (160 g) light corn syrup
1 cup (200 g) granulated white sugar
4 tablespoons of good salted butter, I use Kerrygold’s salted Irish butter for its superior butter fat content from Trader Joe’s or Costco, cubed, at room temperature
Candy thermometer- digital thermometers are the easiest to use but run a little higher in price, I still get by using a simple glass candy thermometer like this one
1 medium size sauce pan
1 large, heavy duty sauce pan or stock pot- mine has a clad bottom but copper also works very well, you just want something heavy duty enough that the sugar will not scorch. It should be large enough for the liquid sugar mix to triple in size since it swells considerably when bubbling and boiling, and I have experienced the messy and dangerous issue of overflowing molten sugar before
parchment paper- I use parchment paper all the time for baking and storing baked goods. I highly recommend picking up a roll if this isn’t already one of your kitchen staples.
How to do it:
1. Line a 9-inch (23 cm) loaf pan with parchment paper and spray the inside with cooking spray.
2. Heat the cream with 2 tablespoons of the butter in a small saucepan with the vanilla and 1/2 teaspoon sea salt until the mixture begins to boil. Stir, then remove from heat, cover, and keep warm while you cook the syrup.
3. In a large, heavy duty saucepan, fitted with a candy thermometer, heat the corn syrup with the sugar, and cook, stirring gently, to make sure the sugar melts smoothly. I tend to start heating on medium on my stove top and then slowly bring the heat up to medium high so that it will reach the desired temperature faster. It usually takes about 30 minutes. Once the mixture is melted together and the sugar is evenly moistened, try to only stir as necessary to keep it from getting any hot spots. If you overstir here, the mix can get air bubbles in which will not look as pretty when your caramels harden.
4. Cook until the syrup reaches 310ºF or 155ºC on your candy thermometer. Be sure to properly test the heat of the mixture by tilting your thermometer into the pan so that the end of the bulb is completely covered by the liquid and hold it there until the reading steadies itself.
5. Turn off the heat and carefully, in a couple of small batches, stir in the warm cream mixture, until smooth. The sugar mix will be so hot now that it will react to the cool cream and bubble excitedly for a few minutes. Stir it through this to let air into the mixture so it will settle and not overflow your pot.
6. Turn the heat back on to medium to medium high and cook the mixture to 260F or 127C. This usually takes me about another 15 minutes. The temperature of the candy at this step is very important- if you overheat the caramels they will become brittle; too soft and you will not be able to cut them into squares to be chocolate covered.
7. Remove the pan from the heat, lift out the thermometer, and stir in the last cubes of butter, until it’s melted and the mixture smooth.
8. Pour the mixture into the prepared loaf pan and wait to cool ten minutes, then sprinkle 1/4 teaspoon of the sea salt over the top. Set on a cool rack or a top shelf in your fridge and let cool completely.
9. I let the caramels cool in the fridge for 1-2 hours and then cut them. Lift the corners of the parchment out of the pan and place the candy on the counter. Then use a large very sharp knife and trim the edges, then cut horizontally and vertically to form squares. If the caramels are still too sticky to cut easily, cool them longer in the fridge. If they got a little too hard and are difficult to cut, try running the knife under very hot water.
10. Melt semi sweet chocolate chips over a double boiler or like me, in a heat proof glass bowl fitted to sit over a pot with 1 inch of boiling water inside. Heat the chocolate slowly and do not let any moisture in, otherwise you will shock the chocolate and though still edible, it will never be able to melt again. To prevent shock, do not let the water in the pot touch the bottom of the bowl, and let it heat slowly over a slow simmering boil, not a rolling boil. Stir the chocolate until all melted then remove the pot from heat but keep the bowl over the heat so the chocolate retains temperature and stay melted while you dip. One at a time dip the caramels squares into the chocolate then place them back onto the parchment paper. Leave space in between each caramel. Optional: after dipping, you can add a little more salt to the tops of the caramels if you like a very pronounced flavor.
Storage: Stack on layers of parchment paper in an air tight container, then store in the fridge. If storing in the fridge, let the caramels come back to room temperature before eating. They will keep for about one month.