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mastering disasters

Recipe: vanilla bean caramels

I’m learning. The reason I keep making these confections that I swore to never make again is because I think I’m really close to getting them right. First time I made orangettes, it was a success. Second time, they were rocks. This time – I think I got it. I just finished hand-dipping 160+ candied orange peels. I wouldn’t go to the trouble to make these except people seem to love them and they are one of Jeremy’s favorites.

candy making is a bitch

Today, I made a lot of headway into the list of baked goods and confections. That’s good, because yesterday I blew off baking entirely. There was fresh powder, so I met one of my tele betties on the hill. It was her birthday!

rippin’ at 49 – get it, girl!

After skiing, we had a laaaaate lunch at The Kitchen, in Boulder. Oh boy, how I love the après ski. Their food is so unbelievably good.

their garlic fries are the best

roasted beet salad with chevre and hazelnuts

There are three pounds of Grand Marnier truffles waiting to be enrobed tomorrow. Ugh – tempering chocolate makes me nervous… and insane. But it’s all moving along on schedule. Hopefully this time tomorrow I will be DONE. While I typically like to sprinkle savory recipes in with the sweets, I figured I should post the sweets now in case anyone else is crazy enough interested in making these for the holidays. So let’s get on it.

vanilla bean and cream

People marvel that I am indifferent to chocolate, but there you have it. I like making things with chocolate and I’ll taste it to make sure it’s not crap, but I am not one to sit there eating half of the batter or frosting or glaze… But caramel is another story altogether. Until last week, I had never made caramels. Caramelized sugar, sure – but not REAL caramel.

sugar and corn syrup

This recipe was an optional part of last month’s Daring Bakers Challenge. The original recipe called for golden syrup. Being a yank, I had no idea what golden syrup was and could not find it anywhere. So I punted the optional part of the challenge. On our reveal day, I saw that my dear Tartelette had made the caramels and substituted corn syrup for golden syrup. I learn something new from that woman every day! At last, caramels were within my grasp.

boil the sugar to an amber color

My first attempt was the vanilla bean caramel version. They came out pretty hard and I know that had to do with the final temperature. I subtract 17 degrees from any temperature point in the recipe due to my elevation, but it also didn’t help that I read my candy thermometer incorrectly. Doh! But they had awesome flavor. My second attempt was to make Grand Marnier caramels. Honestly, I can’t taste the Grand Marnier. I feel like I have to empty the whole bottle in there…

stirring in the butter

That second batch was cooked to a lower final temperature, but it still rose another ten degrees after I took it off the stove and was pretty hard (well, they soften up in your mouth, but these things will destroy dental work should you try to bite into them). Chopping them gets a little scary because they are pretty brittle.

after adding the cream

On my third try (third time is a charm?) I took the caramel off the stove quite early. This time, they were soft and chewy caramels, but a complete nightmare to cut up – even with a buttered knife. Oy. Veeeeeery sticky.

pouring the caramel into a greased, foil-lined pan

While I’m happy that I have figured out the whole caramel scene, I think I’ve made enough in the past week that I don’t need to revisit this for some time. I love the vanilla bean version and sprinkled a little Murray River pink flake salt (from Oz!) which is heavenly with the caramel. They make great gifts and I intend to get rid of them all because I’ve nibbled on more than enough.

chewy and not-so-chewy vanilla bean caramels

Golden Vanilla Bean Caramels
[print recipe]
slightly modified from Pure Dessert by Alice Medrich

1 cup golden syrup (I used light corn syrup)
2 cups sugar
3/8 tsps fine sea salt
2 cups heavy cream
1 1/2 tsps pure ground vanilla beans, purchased or ground in a coffee or spice grinders, or 1 tbsp plus 1 tsp pure vanilla extract (I used one whole vanilla bean and 1 tbsp vanilla extract)
3 tbsps unsalted butter, cut into chunks, softened

Line the bottom and sides of the baking pan with aluminum foil and grease the foil. Combine the golden syrup, sugar, and salt in a heavy 3-quart saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring with a silicone spatula or wooden spoon, until the mixture begins to simmer around the edges. Wash the sugar and syrup from the sides of the pan with a pastry brush dipped in water. Cover and cook for about 3 minutes. (Meanwhile, rinse the spatula or spoon before using it again later.) Uncover the pan and wash down the sides once more. Attach the candy thermometer to the pan, without letting it touch the bottom of the pan, and cook, uncovered (without stirring) until the mixture reaches 305°F (288°F at 8500 feet). Meanwhile, combine the cream and ground vanilla beans (I split my vanilla bean lengthwise, scraped out the seeds, and dumped both seeds and pod into the cream) in a small saucepan and heat until tiny bubbles form around the edges of the pan. Turn off the heat and cover the pan to keep the cream hot. Remove the vanilla pod right before using the cream (rinse off the pod and use it for other things).

When the sugar mixture reaches 305°F (nominally 288°F at 8500 feet, but be sure the sugar turns amber), turn off the heat and stir in the butter chunks. Gradually stir in the hot cream; it will bubble up and steam dramatically, so be careful. Turn the burner back on and adjust it so that the mixture boils energetically but not violently. Stir until any thickened syrup at the bottom of the pan is dissolved and the mixture is smooth. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, to about 245°F (228°F at 8500 feet). Then cook, stirring constantly, to 260°F (I say 230°F at my elevation) for soft, chewy caramels or 265°F (240°F at 8500 feet); for firmer chewy caramels.

Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the vanilla extract, if using it (yes, I stirred in 1 tbsp of vanilla extract). Pour the caramel into the lined pan. Let set for 4 to 5 hours, or overnight until firm. If you are making hard caramels, I suggest chopping the caramels when they are still warm, but solid (maybe wait an hour).

Lift the pan liner from the pan and invert the sheet of caramel onto a sheet of parchment paper. Peel off the liner. Cut the caramels with an oiled knife. Wrap each caramel individually in wax paper or cellophane. Makes about 81 1-inch caramels.


Fleur de Sel Caramels: Extra salt, in the form of fleur de sel or another coarse flaked salt, brings out the flavor of the caramel and offers a little ying to the yang. Add an extra scant 1/4 teaspoon of coarse sea salt to the recipe. Or, to keep the salt crunchy, let the caramel cool and firm. Then sprinkle with two pinches of flaky salt and press it in. Invert, remove the pan liner, sprinkle with more salt. Then cut and wrap the caramels in wax paper or cellophane.

Nutmeg and Vanilla Bean Caramels: Add 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg to the cream before you heat it.

Cardamom Caramels: Omit the vanilla. Add 1/2 teaspoon slightly crushed cardamom seeds (from about 15 cardamom pods) to the cream before heating it. Strain the cream when you add it to the caramel; discard the seeds.

40 nibbles at “mastering disasters”

  1. Maja says:

    Oooh, yes, i definitely need sweets recipes for gifts, thank you! :) I think i’ll try this soft caramel thing, the only thing i have ever achieved with caramel were hard candy caramels, which were good, but soft is more challenging. :)

  2. Passionate Eater says:

    Candy making may be a “bitch,” but that candy just got bitch-slapped by a pro that Uses Real Butter! The caramels and candied orange peels look heavenly!

  3. Rosa says:

    Those caramels look perfect! A wonderful gift idea! I LOVE garlic fries!



  4. Happy Cook says:

    Wow wish i had few of those caramels. Looks so yumm.

  5. Culinarywannabe says:

    Caramels look amazing, especially with the little bit of salt on top. What a great picture of your friend!

  6. Holly says:

    I’ve been wanting to get to the optional caramels as well but haven’t had the chance yet. I even bought the golden syrup and ordered vanilla beans online! I’ll be making them soon so thanks for the tips!

  7. Debbie Green says:

    The caramels look great. I have never made them. Maybe someday!!!!

  8. Amy says:

    Mmm, the caramels look wonderful, as do those garlic fries from The Kitchen. :)

  9. Margie says:

    “You go girl!” Dang, I’m impressed, and then some….First off, those orange slices. Okay, okay, I’m feeling the pressure. Times a wasting and I’m on the road in two days. Gotta, gotta, gotta just go for it.

    And then………

    Caramels? Oh, I am so not ready for those. Most of my mouth is dental work and what isn’t, well, it’s aged like the rest of me. And then there is this problem: I LOVE CARAMEL.

    Okay. Off to blast the engine on the car. This days gettting away from me as I cruise my favorite food blogs.

  10. Fran says:

    I’m inspired! and thank you for clearing up that syrup confusion for me (though I was looking at it from the other side of the pond and wondering about corn syrup). Enjoy the snow :-)

  11. Bridget says:

    It always amazes me when you take photos of the caramel at the bubbling-like-crazy stage when liquid is added to the hot sugar. I’m always a little freaked out during that process.

  12. Sandie Lee says:

    What fabulous timing! I owe my dear friend a huge ‘thank you’ for sharing the link to your blog.

    I’m not a foodie. In fact, it’s my husband who is the foodie, and he has invoked very strict rules regarding “his” kitchen. I am allowed to enter only under the guise of cleaning or holiday baking / candy making. I am truly blessed, as his passion for holiday baking / candy making is equivalent, if not surpassing, to my own.

    Orangettes are new to me. I’ll definitely be adding them to my repertoire.

  13. Manggy says:

    Hmm, maybe the hard ones won’t be so bad? Pretend they’re a Werther’s or something? :) That actually sounds pretty good! Also, your candy thermometer looks really nice– I skimped on mine and I got something with a crappy clip that won’t hold the bulb up over the bottom. Yuuuuck. Good luck with the rest of the treat-making, Jen!

  14. Dana says:

    I am so impressed by your perseverance! If something doesn’t turn out for me, I just move on – I don’t have the patience to re-try things. You ultimately win because you got a gorgeous turn out. I LOVE caramel and yours look amazing.

  15. dawn says:

    candy making is a bitch…I have yet to master caramel-yes, even at age 40 I cannot get it down.
    yours came out perfect
    and you know I still cannot master knitting and I soooo want too. I should take a class. I love knitting.

  16. Caitlin says:

    Need I even say it? You’re CRAZY to be doing all of that candy-making! I have a hard enough time putting together bags and boxes of different cookies to ship off to friends, let alone candy. It doesn’t always behave, and I just like things that are a little more trustworthy, ya know? Oh, and you say that you’d need a whole bottle of Grand Marnier like there’s something wrong with that…

  17. Christina says:

    I love this post. All the candy, and the skiing and restaurant pictures are superb. I’ve always wanted to make orangettes, as it’s my favorite, and one day I’ll do it once, just for the heck of it.

  18. Nate says:

    Everything looks so good but the roasted beet salad is the most enticing to me. Hazelnuts is something new. I was thinking walnuts would go great.

  19. Jenny says:

    Garlic fries yummy – everything looks great – especially your treats – but garlic fries….I’m an Irish girl five me potatoes!

  20. White On Rice Couple says:

    You’re the queen of caramel chickie! OMG, these look amazing and difficult. And the opening photo is just BEAUTIFUL!!! Give me some, now! Oh, forgot my manners. Give me some, please?

    I wanna rip like that when I’m 49!! At this rate, I’ll either be tumbling down the hill or escorted by emergency ski patrol down the mountain.

  21. vineela says:

    Hi Jen,
    love your detailed information .
    I like to buy one confectionary thermometer for my kitchen .

    can you suggest me what brand of candy themometer will be good?
    thank you

  22. jennywenny says:

    Mmm, jealous that you went to the kitchen again! That all looks delicious as usual.

  23. Asianmommy says:

    I love your food pictures–the candied orange peels & fries look amazing!

  24. Judy (Judy's Gross Eats) says:

    Those caramels were really delicious. Even though I’ve given many away, I still have a bowl-full to munch on, as much as one can munch a soft caramel. ;)

  25. Stacey Snacks says:

    Hi Jen.
    I made your candied orange peel last night and referenced your blog.
    This was NOT fun!!!!! But the results were yummy!
    Thanks for the detailed instructions.

    Stacey Snacks

  26. Susan at Sticky,Gooey,Creamy,Chewy says:

    I’ve got my golden syrup and ground vanilla beans waiting. I’ve been dying to make those caramels! Hopefully, I’ll get to it this weekend. Yours turned out beautifully!

  27. Cynthia says:

    My experience with candies, is to let someone else make them or by them. But yes, it is an art. I appreciate them so much when I get them as a gift. We did this unit in 12 grade. Our teacher was a grand master confectioner. But honey, that was 28 years ago.

  28. Chez Us - Denise says:

    Your orange peel photo is great …jealous you are skiing! No snow in Tahoe! More jealous that you were dining at the Kitchen – LOVE IT there! Great food! We dined there twice during our trip to Boulder a couple summers ago, love their egg benedict!

  29. Chez Us » Santa’s Workshop …. says:

    […] going through the holiday motions and it bummed me out.  Maybe it hit me because I had just read Jen’s blog posting about all the great holiday things she was making and sharing with everyone?  Or maybe it […]

  30. Mrs Ergül says:

    Wow! Lovely work Jen! I like how good your hands are at doing these!

    take care! xxoo

  31. jenyu says:

    Maja – soft is challenging, but definitely easier to eat.

    Passiona Eater – ha ha, thanks :)

    Rosa – mmmm, I love garlic fries too!

    Happy Cook – yes, I have to be careful not to “taste” too many.

    Culinarywannabe – thanks!

    Holly – oh man, where did you get the golden syrup?

    Debbie – thank you.

    Amy – looooove The Kitchen. Next time you’re in Boulder, we’ll go!

    Margie – I have to be careful with caramel too, but since I don’t have to chew them, I’m perfectly content to suck on a piece of candy caramel :)

    Fran – yup, it was Tartelette who knows all! Gotta love a girl who knows her sugar.

    Bridget – Oh, I was freaked out too. I had visions of knocking the camera into the caramel or some horrid thing.

    Sandie – happy to have you here!

    Mark – yeah, they’re actually viscous over time (like rock). Once you put them in your mouth, they soften up within a few seconds. VEEEERY stick though. Perhaps a candy thermometer would be a good bday gift?

    Dana – thanks, and you give me too much credit. I am soooo impatient.

    Dawn – for knitting, it helps to join a stitch-n-bitch group with at least ONE good knitter. So much easier when someone can show you what to do.

    Caitlin – ha ha ha! my husband feels the same way about Grand Marnier. You crack me up.

    Christina – yes, the orangette-making process is cuss-worthy, but people LOVE those things.

    Nate – I hear ya. I love savory over sweet any day. And salads – after my chemo, I headed straight to the produce aisle and made lots and lots of salads at home.

    Jenny – Mmmmmm, those garlic fries were the best!

    WoRC – You cheeky girl. You are so funny. If you guys move out to Colorado, I will be your personal tele instructor.

    Vineela – I have had good luck with Taylor brand thermometers (oven, candy, meat, etc.) They aren’t terribly expensive either. Give that a try.

    Jennywenny – oh, now I feel like a spoiled brat… Just that I always try to let my friends pick where to eat and they loooove The Kitchen (as do I).

    Asianmommy – thanks!

    Judy – I keep the rejects for myself – tee hee!

    Stacey – I don’t think I ever said it was fun. Sorry :( I cuss a lot when I make them. But I’m used to it, so I sort of expect the process to suck.

    Susan – thanks, love!

    Cynthia – the thing about candy making is that it makes me so crazy by the end, I’m giving it ALL away – I don’t want to see a single one. I think if I didn’t make the treats, I might actually eat sweets during the holidays.

    Denise – their food is soooooo fan-freaking-tastic.

    Mrs. E – aww, you’re sweet :)

  32. julia says:

    possibly i am just incompetent at reading a thermometer, but my syrup/sugar/butter mix got super dark well before it hit 305 degrees – not at all like your pictures. the end product i find interestingly bitter but my friends won’t touch. i wonder what the culprit is – my incompetence? being at or perhaps below sea level? do you have any words of wisdom?

  33. jenyu says:

    Julia – oh, I see the problem… you are supposed to bring the sugar mixture to 305°F, NOT the butter. Read the instructions carefully: it’s just the sugar, the syrup, and the salt. When that reaches 305°F, THEN you add the butter and then the cream – and bring that to ONLY 260-265°F in the end. Good luck.

  34. julia says:

    oh, god, how embarrassing. thanks!

  35. Jaslyn says:

    I made this yesterday and it’s lovely : ) Mine turned out much darker though, but it still tastes like Werther’s! Please do check them out, if you want at : )))

  36. jenyu says:

    Jaslyn – I would like to get mine darker, but I think I worry that it will become a brick! Great job :)

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  39. Suhartini Perkins says:

    Love it!! Made it today and just finished wrapping them. I added dark chocolate chips and orange zest and it was delicious!! Thanks again as always for the precise recipes.

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