Candy canes have always been one of my favorite Christmas treats, and their bright, peppermint flavor puts me right in the holiday mood. But in recent years, I’ve noticed that the red and white-striped goodies I slip into stockings or hang from the tree stay right where I put them, mostly uneaten and unloved. Maybe the problem is that most of my friends and I are now over 40; perhaps sucking on a stick of candy all afternoon just doesn’t seem like a grownup kind of thing to do.
In recent years, I’ve turned to a different form to convey my favorite holiday flavor: soft, buttery caramels. They’re really just a mix of cooked sugar, cream, and butter. And while their sweet flavor is lovely on its own, caramels also convey other flavors really well. All you need is a small spoonful of extract. In fact, the buttery sweetness of the caramels actually enhances the bright flavor of the mint. Combined, they’re pure holiday magic.
Now that I’ve been making these for a few years, it takes no time to cook up a batch to set out at a holiday party or pile into gift bags for neighbors, friends, and my kid’s teachers. Once they’re cool, I cut them into squares and roll them in some crushed candy cane for a little extra flavor.
Caramels: Easier to Make Than You Think
Caramels are really, at their base, just two ingredients: sugar and dairy. Most recipes call for some corn syrup with the sugar (because it helps keep the sugar from crystallizing and gives the candy a smoother texture) and butter with the cream (for added body), plus some kind of flavoring.
But all you’re really doing is cooking sugar until it is hot enough that it will hold a shape when it cools, then mixing it with dairy and cooking them together until they have a nice toasty flavor.
The Importance of a Candy Thermometer
It’s challenging to make any kind of sugar-based candy without a good thermometer, and caramels are no exception. Cooking the sugar to the correct temperature is what gives your treats their texture and ensures they hold together and don’t end up goopy or rock hard. The good news is that candy thermometers are easy to get and very easy to use. There are essentially 2 kinds of thermometers you can consider: Analog and digital.
Analog thermometers use a temperature chart printed onto the thermometer and have a red or blue alcohol solution that climbs up the chart as it heats up. These include glass tube thermometers as well as tall, flat metal thermometers, which have a much smaller tube with liquid inside them.
Analog thermometers are readily available and pretty accurate. The downside is that they can be hard to read because you have to look at the temperature probe straight on to get an accurate reading. I find that they can also get condensation on them from the steam from cooking sugar, and this can make them hard to read quickly and accurately.
Digital thermometers are generally probes with a digital reader on the end. These are convenient because most of them let you set your desired temperature and then they beep when you reach it. Even if your model doesn’t have an alarm, the screen sits above the pot, so it won’t get covered with condensation, and the numbers are easy to read.
I generally prefer digital thermometers, because they’re basically “instant read,” meaning that you can stick them in the pot and get a reading right away. In fact, I actually go one step further—I have a Thermoworks thermometer that has a digital display and a probe on a long cable, so I can set the display on a counter and stick the probe into the pot a couple of feet away. These thermometers are marketed as meat thermometers (because you can stick the probe into meat) but they also work really well for making candy.
Whichever kind of thermometer you get, make sure to get an attachment that allows the probe to sit pretty low in the pot without accidentally touching the side. It also shouldn’t be too wobbly; once you put your thermometer in, it shouldn’t move around when things boil or if you have to shake or tip the pot.
- The pot: When making candy, you’ll want a pot that is deep enough to keep the mixture from bubbling over when you add liquid, but you also need to ensure that your thermometer will reach all the way down into the pot (about an inch above the bottom). Test it out with the attachment you’ll use to hold the thermometer to the pot before you start cooking the sugar so you won’t have any surprises.
- A pastry brush helps remove any burning sugar that sticks to the side of the pot, so make sure the one you have is temperature resistant. I prefer silicon brushes because the painter-style brushes’ bristles can sometimes fall out and get stuck in the cooking sugar.
- A metal baking pan to pour the cooked caramel into is better than a ceramic casserole dish because metal cools quickly. That said, be careful after you pour the caramel in; the metal will get hot. Don’t use glass or Pyrex for this, as quick shifts in temperature (like adding very hot caramel) can cause these materials to crack.
How Not to Ruin Caramel
The fastest way to ruin caramel is to let your sugar turn grainy (crystallize) or burn—either before or after you add the cream. There are a few ways to keep this from happening:
- Keep a cup of water and a pastry brush nearby. If sugar crystals stick to the inside of the pan as the syrup bubbles, brush them away with water so they dissolve and don’t crystalize or brown.
- Don’t stir your sugar or your caramel! Sticking a spoon into the pot will give the sugar something to cling to and can cause it to crystallize. Also, once you’re cooking the caramel (after you add the dairy), you’ll probably get some hot spots on the bottom of the pot, where the mixture will brown too quickly. If this happens, you want to leave those where they are, because if you stir a burnt bit into the caramel, you’ll ruin the whole batch.
- Instead of stirring, you can gently swirl and tilt the pot a bit every couple of minutes as you cook the caramel. This will move the mixture around a bit and limit how much caramel cooks on the hot spots on the bottom of the pot.
- Lastly, don’t scrape the pot down when you pour the caramel into the prepared pan. There will almost certainly be some burnt or crystallized sugar on the bottom of the pot, but it won’t ruin the rest of the batch unless you add it!
The one thing you really want to keep in mind with this recipe is that cooked sugar is very, very (very!) hot. Water boils at 212°F, while in this recipe, we’re cooking sugar up to 270°F. You want to make sure you never get any part of your body close to the cooking sugar—always use a pastry brush to wipe down the sides of the pot and adjust the thermometer from the top, farthest away from the liquid.
Because the sugar is so hot, it will also bubble up and steam when you add the cream (or any liquid). We heat the cream to keep this bubbling down a bit, but you still need to add the liquid only a little at a time, standing back from the pot as you do it so that you’re not too close when hot steam shoots up. A tall-sided pot will help keep any mixture from boiling over.
A Candy Cane Garnish
Caramels will stick together if left side-by-side, so I always wrap them up as soon as I cut them into squares.
If you want your candies to look even more fun (and add a bit of texture) you can also roll them in some crushed candy cane right before wrapping them. The key is to use mini candy canes (those 2-inch-tall versions you might have grabbed from bank tellers’ counters and office desks as a kid) because they’re thin and relatively easy to crush. I recommend using a mortar and pestle to smash them; the candy will stick to the inside of a food processor, and the heat of the machine might melt the sugar and make it sticky before it turns to powder.
Pre-cut squares of paper for the candies; you can do this while the caramel is cooling. The measurement below allows for enough paper to roll the entire candy once, with the edges overlapping, and enough overhang on the sides to twist them closed. Once you have all of your candy wrapped, you can put a handful into a cute candy box or a cellophane bag and tie it up with red and white striped string or ribbon.
Tips for Cleanup
It’s hard to get cooked sugar off the inside of the pot, especially after it cools and solidifies. The solution is to heat it back up so that it melts away. To do this without burning the sugar, fill the sticky pot with water (leaving a little headroom), put it back on the stove, and bring the water to a boil. After a couple of minutes, the sugar will dislodge from the bottom and side of the pot.
You can even dip your thermometer, rubber spatula, and other tools into the boiling water to get them clean, too. And if you have a little sugar stuck higher up the side of the pot (where you poured the caramel out), just make sure the hot water runs over that edge of the pot when you pour the scalding water into the sink.
Recipes for Holiday Candy Making
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon peppermint extract
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/4 cup water
20 mini candy canes, for dusting (optional)
- Candy thermometer
- 1 (8x8-inch) metal or ceramic pan
- Wax or parchment paper
Prep the dish:
Line an 8 x 8-inch metal or ceramic (not glass) baking dish with parchment paper, making sure the paper comes up the sides of the pan; fold the parchment paper in on itself in the corners, so they lie as flat as possible against the pan. Spray the parchment with cooking spray.
Warm the cream and butter:
In a small saucepan, heat the cream and butter until the cream is steaming. Remove the saucepan from the heat, add the peppermint and vanilla extracts and the salt, and cover the pot to keep the ingredients warm. Set it aside on the back of the stove. (If the butter hasn’t fully melted, it will continue to melt as the cream sits.)
Warming the cream and butter will help keep the caramel from seizing when you add them to the hot caramel later on.
Make the caramel:
Combine the sugar, corn syrup, and water in a large saucepan with high sides and stir to mix everything well. Use a pastry brush to wash down the inside of the pot, dissolving any sugar crystals clinging to the side. (Keep the pastry brush and a cup of water nearby.)
You’ll want to use a high-sided saucepan, but give it a test before you add the ingredients. Add the thermometer and make sure it will sit properly in the pot, with the tip only 1/2 to 1 inch above the bottom of the pot.
Attach a candy thermometer to the side of the pot, making sure that the tip sticks into the mixture and doesn’t hit the bottom or side of the pot.
Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat, without stirring. Cook the sugar until it reaches a temperature of 270°F, about 15 minutes. (If any sugar sticks to the sides of the pot as the mixture bubbles, use the wet pastry brush to wipe it away so that it doesn’t burn, but try not to add too much water to the pot.)
Add the warm cream and butter mixture:
When the mixture has reached 270°F, add the warm cream-butter mixture little by little, standing back from the pot to avoid the steam that will erupt with each addition. Stir the mixture gently with a rubber spatula, scraping up any sugar stuck to the bottom or the corners, so it gets incorporated into the caramel.
Cook the mixture over medium-high heat, with the thermometer immersed, until the caramel has a deep, rich golden or light brown color and the thermometer registers somewhere between 245°F and 250°F; this usually takes around 10 to 15 minutes. Do not stir; instead, tilt and swirl the pot every couple of minutes so you don’t develop burned bits on the bottom.
If your thermometer reads 245°F but the caramel doesn’t have a rich, dark color, check to see if the tip of the thermometer is accidentally touching the pan.
Pour the caramel into the pan, then rest:
Remove the pan from the heat and immediately pour the caramel into the prepared pan—but do not scrape the pot (some of the sugar on the bottom may have crystallized or burnt, and you don’t want to add that to the rest). Let the caramel cool for 10 minutes. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about 1 hour.
As the caramel cools, cut your wax paper or parchment squares for wrapping the candies.
Cut and wrap the caramels:
When the caramel has cooled, use a sharp knife to cut it into 1-inch strips, and then cut each strip into 1-inch squares, setting the strips and squares on parchment paper as you go. (If any parts of the caramel are stuck up onto the side of the parchment, you may have some hard, crunchy “wings;” trim them off if they will affect your texture too much.)
If you want to add a coating of candy cane to your caramels, crush the mini candy canes in a mortar and pestle (or place in a ziplock bag and crush with a rolling pin) until you have a very fine powder. Roll each piece of caramel lightly in the powder (it helps to slightly warm the caramels with your hands so the peppermint will stick).
Wrap each caramel in a 1 1/2x3-inch piece of parchment or wax paper, twisting the ends to seal them.
Store the caramels at room temperature in an airtight container for up to 3 weeks.
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|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 2g||3%|
|Saturated Fat 1g||7%|
|Total Carbohydrate 6g||2%|
|Dietary Fiber 0g||0%|
|Total Sugars 6g|
|Vitamin C 0mg||0%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|