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Sweet Caramel

Today is National Caramel Day! Caramel is a light, brownish-colored, sweet product made by heating sugar. The difference between hard candies and caramel is the addition of milk products. It can be used as a flavoring in puddings and desserts, as a filling in bonbons, or as a topping for ice cream and custard. It can even be used in dinner as a sauce or as an accompaniment to cheese. The difference in sweet and savory is the additions and how long you actually cook it. Savory caramel is actually what is considered burnt for caramel and can have anything from beer to vinegar to fish sauce added to it.

Like many things, the origins of caramel are as unclear as the sauce itself. Some believe the Arabs were making something similar as far back as 1000 AD but it was a hard confection. Others believe it is a purely American made treat. Somewhere around 1850, milk and fats were added to crystallized sugar to create a chewy product. What is known is caramel candy's popularity increased greatly when Milton S. Hershey began his first successful candy business in 1886: Lancaster Caramel Company. Soon after it was established, the Lancaster Caramel Company was shipping caramel candies across the United States and Europe. Interestingly, Hershey discovered the joys of chocolate while seeking candy coatings for Lancaster Caramels. Hershey sold Lancaster Caramels in 1900 to The American Caramel Company for an unheard of, at that time, 1 million dollars.

Different types of caramels are made with the basic ingredients: milk, condensed milk, corn syrup, sugar, oil, butter, and molasses. The milk and condensed milk is what prevents caramel from turning into a hard candy. Corn syrup and molasses are used for adding to the sweetness of the different types of caramels. A fat is necessary for caramel to retain its elastic nature. In the making of caramels, gourmet candy makers use butter as it provides the best quality and taste. Most candy makers use very little butter and mix this with other fats, which is why homemade caramel and gourmet caramel tastes different from store bought caramel.

These different types of caramel include light and dark. They are also very dissimilar. The light caramel hardens into a glossy sheet that looks like a light brown sugar glass. The dark caramel will harden into a more malleable, softer texture with a more intense caramel flavor. Dark caramel is the most common, this is what is usually purchased in stores. Light caramel is more often used for decorations or special desserts, like peanut brittle. Hard caramels and soft are also different types of caramels, but similar to light and dark. Hard caramels are just under the brittle or hard candy marker. These are often used for toppings and nut brittles, sauces, and meat caramelizing. Harder caramels are usually cooked longer than soft caramels and to a higher temperature. The soft caramels include nougats, molded caramel, and sauces. This usually includes sweetened condensed milk and light corn syrup.

Making caramel sauce is not a difficult process, but it must be watched closely. If you will be interrupted, don’t even start it. It takes your undivided attention. Make sure the dogs are taken care of and the kids are otherwise occupied or in bed already. This week meet me in the kitchen for this amber colored delight!

Easy Caramel Sauce

1 cup packed brown sugar

½ cup unsalted sweet cream butter

¼ cup milk

1 tsp vanilla

bean paste

Bring brown sugar, butter, and milk to a gentle boil stirring constantly. Cook until thickened, still stirring, and it starts to darken, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat and add vanilla. So easy! Serve over ice cream or cake or anything you want caramel for!

Homemade Soft Caramels

1 cup unsalted sweet cream butter

4 cups granulated sugar

2 cups light corn syrup

24oz evaporated milk (2 cans)

2 tsps. vanilla bean paste

Line a 9x13'' pan or jelly roll pan with parchment paper. (If you don't have parchment paper, you must generously butter the pan.) Either size pan will work--9x13'' will yield thicker caramels. Add butter, sugar, and corn syrup to a large heavy-bottom saucepan over medium heat. Stir over medium heat until mixture begins to boil, about 5-10 minutes. Gradually add evaporated milk, one can at a time, taking about 10-15 minutes PER CAN to slowly add it, while stirring constantly. You want to make sure the mixture maintains a constant boil, otherwise your caramels can curdle. Stir mixture constantly, scraping sides occasionally until it reaches a firm ball stage (about 238°F on a candy thermometer). It takes patience and time, but it's worth it! (Also, I don't always rely on a candy thermometer either--I like to test it the old fashioned way. Drop a spoonful of hot caramel sauce into a cup of ice water and mold it with your fingers into a ball. When ready, it will feel firm and pliable, but still slightly sticky.) Once you reach 238°F or the firm ball stage, remove from heat. Stir in vanilla. Pour caramels into a buttered jelly roll pan. Refrigerate until cooled and hardened. This is not necessary, but will quicken the process for sure. (Best if you refrigerate them overnight, or for several hours. They will be easy to cut and wrap). The caramel will seem hard in the fridge after they're set, but they should be soft at room temperature. Cut caramel into small pieces and, if desired, wrap like a tootsie roll in wax paper. Try these dipped in chocolate or on pretzel rods.

Recipe from tastesbetterfromscratch.com .

Easy Dulce de Leche

Dulce de Leche is often called Mexican caramel, but is based completely on browning the milk rather than caramelizing the sugar. This is so easy and is such a tasty sauce. I love using this in cakes and cookies.

14oz cans sweetened condensed milk, label removed-feel free to make as much as you can fit in your slow cooker. This will store in the pantry for about 3 months.

In a large slow cooker, lay cans on side and fill with hot water so cans are completely submerged and have about 2 inches of water above them. Cook on low for 8 hours. (This will give you a light caramel color. If you want a darker color, cook for an additional 2-3 hours.) Remove cans from slow cooker and allow to cool completely on wire racks. You can submerge in cold water for about 15-20 minutes if you want to use immediately. Do not open while hot or the hot caramel can explode out of the can.

Stuffed Caramel Cookies

1 box yellow cake mix

⅓ cup all-purpose flour

⅓ cup unsalted sweet cream butter, melted

¼ cup caramel sauce from above

1 egg

2 Tbsps. water

2 tsps. vanilla bean paste

20 caramel candies from above

½ cup coarse white sparkling sugar

Extra caramel sauce for drizzling if desired.

Heat oven to 350°F. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper. In large bowl, stir together cake mix and flour. In small bowl, stir melted butter, 1/4 cup caramel sauce, egg, water and vanilla until blended. Add butter mixture to cake mix-flour mixture and beat with spoon until well blended. Cover and refrigerate 30 minutes. Shape dough into 20 (2-inch) balls. Press 1 caramel into center of each cookie, making sure to form dough around caramel to enclose and reshape into balls. Roll in sugar. Place 2 inches apart on cookie sheets. Bake 10 to 14 minutes or until edges are light golden brown. Cool on cookie sheet 5 minutes then remove from cookie sheet to cooling rack. Cool completely, about 20 minutes. Drizzle caramel sauce over cookies if desired. Let stand about 2 hours or until caramel is set if you need to stack for storage.

Recipe adapted from bettycrocker.com .

Caramelized Pears

1 Tbsp unsalted sweet cream butter

¼ cup sugar

2 lbs pears, cut into ½ inch thick wedges

¼ cup raw honey, more or less to taste

1 tsp vanilla bean paste

Heat butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add sugar and cook, stirring until dissolved, 2-3 minutes. Add pears and cook, stirring just occasionally, until soft and golden, 12-20 minutes. Add honey and vanilla and cook, stirring, until pears are coated well and very soft, about 5 minutes.

Recipe adapted from marthastewart.com .

Caramel Chicken

1 lb chicken thighs with skin deboned

2 Tbsps. oil

3 cloves garlic minced

1 medium onion, diced

½ jalapeno sliced

Marinade:

1 Tbsp sugar

1 Tbsp fish sauce

1 tsp black pepper, more or less to taste

Caramel Sauce:

1 Tbsp fish sauce

3 Tbsps. water

½ Tbsp sugar

3 tsps. apple cider vinegar

In large bowl, add 1 tablespoon sugar, 1 tablespoon fish sauce and pepper. Add chicken and coat well. Let sit for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, mix 1 tablespoon fish sauce, water, sugar and vinegar in a small bowl and set aside. Heat a large skillet on medium to high heat. Add 1 tablespoon oil. Pan-fry chicken (skin side up) until bottom turns slightly crispy and brown. Repeat the same for skin, until the skin becomes slightly charred. Transfer chicken to a plate. Add remaining oil to skillet and add garlic and onion. Sauté for 2-5 minutes depending on how you like your garlic. Add chicken and sauce mixture to pan. Lower heat to simmer and continue to cook until caramel sauce reduces and becomes amber in color. Make sure you turn chicken a couple of times during cooking. Add jalapeno and continue to cook for about 1 minute. Serve immediately with steamed rice and vegetables.

Recipe adapted from rasamalaysia.com .

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