Friday, January 18, 2013

Fresh Starts and Caramels


     I know. It's been a while doesn't even start to cover it. Let us leave it at - I never meant to stop blogging and I never ever imagined I would stop cooking. Sometimes, when life gives us lemons (or the MCAT and organic chemistry lab) documenting the lemonade-making process falls by the wayside. But oh - oh oh oh I'm so happy I'm back and that's all that matters now. Everyone who has asked me, "When are you going to post again?!" Thank you for believing - this one's for you. 

     But the apple cider caramels, I'm sorry but these caramels are going elsewhere. You may remember my obsession with care-package-sending (see here..and here)...but I'm not sure if we've talked about birthdays. I love birthdays. Anything that gives me an excuse to buy things or make things and wrap them - elaborately...bows included - and watch an unsuspecting person open troves of gifts makes me want to jump up and down. 

     So, when I told myself I had to blog This week, and found out it was my friend's birthday, and realized he would be back at college right about now and Need some homey food - everything came together. The what to make? Well, since I left off with Deb and Smitten Kitchen, it seems only fitting to return with her too. The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook came out, and a beautiful soul gave it to me for Christmas, and all I'm saying is that it actually Delivers on that constant cookbook promise of: "You'll want to make the recipe as soon as you see it!" Yes, I normally hate caramels. Yes, I don't own a candy thermometer. And yes, I saw this recipe and then I made it. 

     The English language fails when attempting to describe certain things: the appley-spicy-almost-pumpkin-pie fragrance that pervades the kitchen when apple cider is being boiled down to a bubbling syrup, the firm-yet-soft-and-melty nature of an apple cider caramel as you bite into it, and the perfect bit of autumn that you taste when it hits your tongue. Please make these. They are far easier than ordinary caramel because apple cider is being boiled down instead of that dangerous sugar/water combination, and they are so worth the reward for you - and your friends. 

Apple Cider Caramels 
Adapted (barely) from Smitten Kitchen

3 3/4 cups Apple Cider (not hard apple cider or apple juice - I bought mine from Trader Joe's)
1/4 cup Puerto Rican Rum
1 stick Unsalted Butter 
1/3 cup Heavy Cream
1/2 cup Light Brown Sugar
1 cup Granulated Sugar
1/2 tsp Ground Cinnamon
1 tsp Sea Salt (or 2 tsp if you use a flaky sea salt like Maldon)
Canola or Vegetable Oil to coat knife 

Note: My friend turned 21 and my theme (as you will notice over the next few posts) is that everything I send him should have some sort of alcohol in it...obviously. So, I substituted 1/4 cup of the cider with 1/4 cup of rum. However, its a tiny note and you can barely taste it, so if you have none or want it for other activities, I will never tell on you and no one will miss it at all - just use 4 cups of apple cider.  

In a 3 quart saucepan (or bigger) at high heat, boil the apple cider and rum until it reduces down to a thick, dark syrup that is from 1/3-1/2 cup in volume, stirring occasionally. 

While it is reducing (it can take up to 45 minutes), line an 8x8 square pan with two long crisscrossed sheets of parchment paper and set aside. Cut the stick of butter into chunks and collect your other ingredients. In a small dish, mix the ground cinnamon and sea salt. If you do Not own a candy or deep-fry thermometer, get one or two small bowls and fill them with water and some ice - this will allow you to check when the caramel is done. 

Once the apple cider is reduced, remove the saucepan from the heat and stir in the butter, both types of sugar, and cream - making sure the butter melts in completely. Return the saucepan to medium high heat and (if you have one) attach a candy/deep-fry thermometer to the side. Do not stir the caramel at all now for best results! Let it come to a boil, and then (within 5 minutes of coming to a boil) the temperature should rise to 252 degrees (not 225) and you should remove the saucepan from the heat. If you are not using a thermometer, drop a tiny spoonful of the caramel into the cold water and see if it is firm, chewy, and can be plied into a ball.* As soon as this is possible, remove the caramel from the heat. 

Next, pour in the cinnamon and salt mixture, stirring the caramel a few times to disperse it. Then, pour the caramel into the prepared 8x8 pan and let it sit until it is cool and firm - for about 2 hours, or slightly less time if cooled in the fridge. Once it is cool, transfer the parchment paper sling containing the caramel onto a cutting board. Coat a knife with a neutral oil and cut the block of caramel into 1'' by 1'' squares. Rubbing oil (I used a paper towel for this) over the knife between each cut is highly recommended. Wrap each square in a 4'' by 4'' piece of wax paper, placing it in the center and folding the top and bottom of the paper over the caramel, then twisting the sides. The caramels keep for 2 weeks in an airtight container. 

*Note: Two bowls are helpful because I was so paranoid about overcooking the caramel that I kept dropping little bits of caramel into the first bowl and it got cloudy and hard to tell which the newest pieces of caramel were. To tell if it is done, make sure the caramel is Firm and not so soft that it falls apart in your hands. 

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