You know the caramels that are wrapped in wax paper and literally seem to melt when they hit your tongue? That's what I was envisioning. Instead, after standing at the stove and stirring the ingredients for hours (I think it actually was over an hour...that makes it plural, right?), the temperature finally reached the appointed 250 degrees, I poured it into a pan, and the next morning I found it brick hard. I can remember pounding a knife into it and not even making a dent.
But we didn't give up, and since that time, we've learned a few things and can now whip up a pretty darn good batch of caramels (if I do say so myself) without hardly even thinking about it. In case you've experienced a few caramel woes yourself, here are a few lessons learned from our own trial and error.
1. Start with a good recipe
There are basically two kinds of caramel recipes: those that use cream and those that use sweetened condensed milk. Although a confectioner would probably look down her nose at me, Mike and I both agree that you should go with the sweetened condensed milk version. With that very first batch of caramels, we really were standing and stirring it for soooooo looooong. Part of that was due to a temperature problem (see #2), but we were also using a recipe that called for cream, and it just takes a lot longer to heat up than sweetened condensed milk (speaking from observation and not any kind of scientific knowledge).
2. Find the right temperature
You know how a lot of cake recipes will give alternate baking directions if you're baking at a higher or lower altitude? Well, altitude also affects the temperature candy needs to be cooked to. A general rule of thumb is to subtract two degrees Fahrenheit for every 1000 feet above sea level. Which means that since my elevation is over 4000 feet, I need to subtract at least eight degrees Fahrenheit from whatever the recipe says. Trust me, a few degrees can literally be the difference between soft/chewy and hard/harder.
A couple tips: (1) use a thermometer (we used to use a candy thermometer, but I broke it when we moved, so this time, we just used our digital thermometer, and it worked just fine) and (2) test your candy in a cup of cold water (drop a small bit in the water, then take it out and examine the firmness/consistency). Really, you should use both these tips in conjunction with each other. It's like making a decision with your heart AND your head. :-)
3. Guess what? You can start over!
Four years ago when we had our first miserable failure, I was so depressed because not only could we not eat the candy (unless we wanted to break all our teeth), but we had also wasted a whole vat of ingredients. And I hate throwing away money.
But then my sister-in-law told me you can reheat the caramels, melt them down, and basically start over...with the same ingredients! We tried it, making sure to aim for a lower temperature, and, hooray, it worked! You do have to add a little liquid to replenish what boiled off, but then you're good to go. Just think about it: you can take one pot of ingredients and basically keep reheating and cooling until you've perfected the art of the perfect caramel! (Just kidding, I actually don't know how many times you could reheat it and still get good results.)
The caramel recipe we use is from some dear friends who go to our church. They have been making delicious candy longer than I've been alive, so they know what they're doing. Here is their recipe:
Wipe down a large, heavy saucepan with butter (this will help cut down on crystallization). Combine the following ingredients in the prepared pan:
1 cup butter
1 1/2 cups white corn syrup
1 can (14 oz.) sweetened condensed milk
2 cups sugar
(I didn't say these were healthy.)
Place pan over medium heat, stirring constantly until mixture comes to a boil. Wash crystals down from side of pan with pastry brush and water
Continue stirring until candy reaches the softball stage, which they said is between 229 and 232 degrees Fahrenheit. When we do it, we like it closer to 234 degrees Fahrenheit.
Pour immediately into a buttered 9x13" pan. Allow to cool. Then Mike flips out the whole 9x13" chunk and then uses the kitchen shears to cut long strips of caramel, and then he snips those strips into smaller squares. (Kitchen shears=genius idea) Then wrap the individual pieces in wax paper (Mike takes the entire roll of wax paper and cuts it all at the same time). At this point, enlist any willing children, or make sure you have a good movie to watch (or audiobook to listen to).
Now all you have to do is package them up and share them with family and friends. If you don't want to go with the traditional cellophane bag or Christmas-y tin, try this classy way my friend showed me::
Start with a square piece of pretty paper (mine was about 10x10"). Fold the paper approximately where the lines are (don't judge me too harshly; I was just proud of myself for getting any lines at all on the picture).
I tried this two ways: creasing the folds sharply and also leaving them rounded. The first way makes it more like a little envelope packet. The second way leaves it in a cone shape, making it seem more like what I envision roasted chestnuts come in. Both ways are cute, just depends on the look you're going for.
Secure the second edge with a couple pieces of tape
Take the top triangle and fold it over
Secure with tape
Now add a ribbon and label and ta-da! Cute, with a bit of class.