Creamy, buttery caramels-better than store-bought

There is a large group of foods which most of us associate with the expression "store bought." These include Danish pastry, sausage, smoked fish and meat, pickles, ice cream, and most confections. Of course, as your grandmother could tell you, none of these things were born in a factory and all can be made at home, generally better and always purer.

Sometimes, in fact, the commercial version of a food is something tasting quite different from what it should. Take caramels for example. The little squares you buy in the store are usually somewhat grainy in texture and insipid in flavor -- they are not the sort of thing you would offer as a holiday treat.

But a little research can reveal what a caramel is meant to be -- a creamy, buttery confection of considerable subtlety, welcomed at the table at the end of a wonderful Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, or hand-somely wrapped and given as a holiday gift.

Not only are homemade caramels delicious, they are easy to make. The basic recipe below is adapted from the marvelous ice cream, jam, and candy cookbook by Gaston Lenotre, now available in a very fine translation to English "Lenotre's Ice Creams and Candies" (Woodbury, N.Y: Barron's. $18.95). Basic Vanilla Caramel Mixture 1 cup heavy cream 1 heaped cup sugar 1/4 cup honey 1 teaspoon natural vanilla extract 2 tablespoons unsalted butter 1/4 teaspoon salt

In a heavy-bottom saucepan bring cream to the boil, then add sugar and honey. Stir until mixture comes to the boil again, then boil gently until it reaches 257 degrees F. (125 degrees C.). If you have no candy thermometer, you ought to get one for a variety of purposes. However, you can also keep testing the mixture by dropping a bit of it into a cup of ice-cold water. When it forms a medium-soft ball of a pleasant eating consistency it is ready.

Remove pan from heat and add vanilla, butter, and salt.

Have ready a cake tin of 9 inches diameter or so lined with baker's parchment paper and pour mixture into pan. Let cool for 1 1/2 hours.

Wrapped in plastic wrap, the sheet of caramel should keep in the refrigerator for at least a couple of weeks, very likely longer.

After this mixture has been cooked, but before it has cooled and set, you may add other flavorings. One-third cup of almonds, blanched, roasted, and chopped fairly fine can be mixed in to add an interesting texture. The best method for roasting almonds is also the easiest -- preheat oven to 350 degrees F. and melt 1 tablespoon butter or place 1 tablespoon oil in a skillet with a heat-proof handle or on a cookie sheet. Add almonds, either blanched or not, and bake them in the oven, stirring every now and again, for 10 to 15 minutes.

The simplest thing to do with your cooled sheet of caramel is cut it into squares or bars with an oiled knife and wrap each square or bar in cellophane. In this case using a square or rectangular pan to set the caramel would make things easier. But the mixture is so versatile that it is almost a shame just to cut it and serve it when such interesting candies can be prepared with almost no bother at all.

First of all, if you take a little piece of caramel and roll it between your palms to form a ball, your body heat will bring out a beautiful sheen in the mixture by melting some of the butterfat in the candy. Caramels formed this way look like gems when served or given as gifts in paper petit four cases. You can also fill them. Flatten out a piece of caramel in your hands and place a roasted nut or a little piece of excellent quality bittersweet chocolate inside it, then seal the seam with your fingers and roll the caramel in your palms to shape it into a ball.

When you have a tray or box full of caramels, it is nice to be able to know which are which, for some people will have an aversion to almonds and will only want plain or chocolate-filled ones. Besides using different shapes or letting the filling be seen atop the sweetmeat, you can also roll the nut-filled caramels in finely chopped almonds before placing them in the paper cases. A refinement on this is to make acorn shapes and roll only the tops in chopped nuts.

The only thing you must bear in mind if you opt for these hand-formed caramels is that once you have made them they will not keep as long as a sheet of caramel or caramel square which have been sealed in plastic wrap. What I do is keep some of the basic vanilla mixture wrapped up in the refrigerator and break off pieces as I need them.

Once you have made this simple recipe and enjoyed the results, you have proven once again that store-bought may be quicker, but nowhere near as good.

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