The Caramel Report

Despite my blog’s evidence to the contrary, the caramels have been on my mind a lot. I’ve boiled up quite a few batches, but it’s also been pretty cerebral/practical. One issue with caramels is that you have to boil an awful lot of sugar and dairy to make enough yield for sales to meet costs…. and then you have to cut… and place… wrap… and twist… every single one… before packaging them altogether into one package. It may be easier than tempering chocolate… but not quite as exciting… and certainly not foolproof (scorching the sugar or cooking it with the dairy even 1 degree too high or low makes for waste and/or wasted time).

Packaging is another issue. I want it to be unique, fun, and attractive, but also eco-friendly and as unfussy as possible. And I want the pieces to be as big as possible while still being pleasurable to eat; partially also to fit in with the “bar” part of the BonBonBar brand. So, the caramels are shaping up to be like little sticks, about 3.5″ long, and 1/2″ wide and tall.

Though I love cellophane b/c it’s clear and biodegradeable, I just can’t get the caramels to look unique and nice in it. Now I’m debating about whether to package them in kraft coffee bags (with glassine or PLA lining — not plastic, as many of them are), in paper tubes, or my kraft gift boxes; all those options are opaque, but I think that’ll be ok if the label is eye-catching, with a dash or color (kind of rare on caramel packaging). They actually look very cool standing upright and slightly sticking out of an opened tubes, but if I don’t get customized printing on the tube itself, I’m not sure that I’ll get a nice exterior look out of it with stickers, and they’ll be pretty pricey, which will drive up the price of the package just for packaging’s sake. So, I’m leaning towards the coffee bags for the smallest quantity (probably 4 oz), and then my gift boxes for larger amounts.

And the flavors! I loved all the suggestions from readers. A major consideration, though, is how to flavor the caramels — infusion or inclusion. Inclusion is relatively simple once you figure out the recipe — you either mix in flavoring ingredients (like nuts or spices) or adjust the recipe to include a new type of ingredient (like honey or malt syrup to replace some sugar/syrup). I’m also trying to be local as much as possible.

many of the suggestions called for infusions… and infusions are a bit tricky because, as I see it, you can either infuse the cream or the sugar… and it will probably take a lot of production time, and require straining. It’s the straining that’s the hardest part, because when you had the cream to the caramelized sugar, it sputters up a lot and requires strategic stirring. To put a strainer on top of the sugar pot would result in the sputterings to stick to the strainer itself… and cause a bit of a mess. You could strain the dairy into a separate vessel first, but when your caramelizing sugar, you don’t want to step away from it for too long b/c you have to strain (after making sure that it’s at the proper strength of flavor , which is a lot b/c it has to get through caramelized sugar) AND make sure that you have the same yield of strained cream every time, or else it won’t turn out the same texture-wise. I think that I could infuse the cream in batches, freeze it, measure it, and reheat it to use, but… that’s a whole project in itself, which requires lots of time and freezer space that I don’t have in my rented kitchen, and I really do like to use fresh dairy. This is especially an issue with citrus. I find that the best flavor and stability comes from infused peel into the cream; juice in the liquid tends to promote a pronounced cooked fruit flavor.

Or maybe I’m just lazy these days… b/c there were inclusion suggestions… I loved Cyndi’s daughters idea of Banana Nut Caramels (PS — hello, child prodigy — well done, you’ve suggested a brilliant match of flavors with caramel — Nina), but I haven’t tried it yet. I’m not sure that pureed bananas (I… can’t.. use extract) can withstand being heated to about 250F… and frankly, there are the issues of fruit flies that come from bananas as they ripen and to be in my rented commercial kitchen at just the right point when they ripen; though I think that I could freeze a large batch of puree ok. But as I write about it, I realize the more that I want to try it… Bananas… Caramel.. Walnuts, I’m thinking… Yum…

I also liked Mandy’s suggestion of adding flour to honey caramels… I think that the slightly more gummy texture from the starch would be very interesting (I LOVE the texture of Turkish Delights), but I haven’t tried it yet.

I also liked Tommy’s idea of stout added to the caramels. The only issue with this is the low alcohol content of beer — meaning that it was a lot of water and would take a long time to boil off — and I remember an Unwrapped episode on the Food Network about a beer confection that took a month for the flavor of the beer to come through properly… A month. I’ve tried Scotch, which comes through strongly right away.

And then there’s the ginger idea… Infusion or adding fresh ginger juice at the end like extract… I’m not sure how to go about it… or if I have a reliable source for ginger… I’ve come across a lot of dry/brown/blue pieces of ginger before, and I’m slightly reluctant to use ground ginger, though I think it’d be the easiest and most consistent.

Also, I’m developing the line of caramels because I anticipate my chocolate sales to go down in the summer due to higher shipping costs… but I could be wrong — esp if I get a lot of local sales, either direct or wholesale. So, to include a wide range of caramels may too hasty… If I have to make caramels in addition to large amounts of candy bars and marshmallows, I don’t really have the kitchen time for it… though if I get enough orders, that could mean affording more kitchen time and/or hiring someone to help… have I mentioned that I’m also working on a more ambitious business plan? If I had my own store where I could sell my products fresh from the air-conditioned kitchen in the back, a lot of issues would go away (though, yes, a host of other issues would appear)… but I am aiming for a store and a kitchen….

Anyway, now I’m thinking about maybe 4 caramel flavors to start. I’m going to put a survey for votes soon.

Anyway… as far as recipe development goes… Caramels are made of only a few ingredients, which are generally either fats (cream, butter) or sugar (granulated, liquid). Only some salt and possibly some flavoring round them out… It’s kind of fun working on these recipes within these ingredients; it’s like working within a haiku and being amazed by the endless possibilities.

One thing that is constant is in my recipes, though, is that the sugar is always caramelized because that’s the main flavor that I like in caramels. Caramels are often made without caramelizing the sugar first, and those usually rely more on the flavors of the dairy (butter browns around the final cooking temp of caramels); sometimes brown sugar is used in those to deepen the flavor.

So notes far…

Malted Chocolate – I think I have the flavor of this just worked out to be like a chocolate milkshake, but it’s been turning out a bit chewy, which may not be a surprise given the presence of organic malt syrup. To soften the texture, I’m adding more cream and cooking to a lower temp. I’m not adding more butter b/c I don’t want that flavor to be too strong.

Honey – Made with Wildflower honey from Bill’s Bee’s. I’d vaguely thought that the honey caramels would be pretty mellow, but these are quite pungent, which I think works best.

Salted Chocolate Nut w/ Cacao Nibs – I conceived this as a melty version of my caramel nut bar since it has the same ingredients, but the Caramel Nut Bar has a much stronger caramel flavor that I don’t think is possible with a chocolate caramel. Once chocolate is added, it takes off the edge of the caramel and butter. The texture of the caramel itself is like a rather moister tootsie roll, which is very nice… I’m not completely sure that it needs the nuts and cacao nibs.

Earl Grey – I tried this twice by infusing earl grey tea into the cream, and just couldn’t really get the flavor to come through strongly.

Apricot – This was pretty interesting. I added some apricot preserves that I’d made last summer out of just peeled apricots, sugar, and lemon juice to the boiling caramel; I’d also decreased the amount of sugar in the recipe proportional the amount of sugar in the preserves. The final texture was like a pate de fruit crossed with caramel — really great. The flavor doesn’t really come through until the end of the bite, though. I’m also not sure about the shelf-life of these at all — technically, there are still bits of apricot in the caramel; they might be sugared enough to be stable, but I’ll see how it ages.

Spicy- I added a spice mix that I made myself out of primarily ancho and chipotle pepper, but it didn’t meld well with the caramel flavor.

Scotch — Surprisingly very floral and unique.

6 Responses to “The Caramel Report”

  1. Mandy Says:

    The cookbook with the odd honey caramel recipe lives with my mom (so I can’t tell you immediately what was in it), but it is available cheaply on Amazon.

    If straining your cream infusions is a problem, do you think you could infuse separately (e.g. make your own extract with vodka, which would obviously cook off pretty rapidly in a caramel)? I have no experience with this, beyond an entertaining little experiment involving a large bottle of Danish vodka, a handful of little bottles, and things like tangerine peels and rosemary, rose petals and lemon, cardamom and “true cinnamon” sticks, and cocoa nibs–which all steeped quite nicely! I was going to try tea vodka next (as recommended by Joy of Cooking), perhaps with lapsang souchong.

    The apricot caramels sound lovely. If you’ve heated to the same temp as the other caramels, they should have the same sugar/water content, and be similarly preserved (I haven’t tried it, but my chemistry and lab nerd experience suggest it).

  2. Bek Says:

    Hi Nina!

    The only success I have had with an earl grey caramel, is to do a cold infusion overnight. I put the tea leaves in the cold cream, and left it in the refridgerator overnight (sometimes two nights), I then heated the cream for the caramel, and proceeded as normal. The carmels really reminded me of the flavour of fruit loops (which I did not really even eat as a child), it must have something to do with the bergamont!

  3. fattypr Says:

    Hi! Thanks for trying the earl grey. I’m sorry it doesn’t work well.


  4. Aaron Says:

    Lavender is really nice…just steep in the cream you’ll be using.
    Another fun one, though I know this will never happen for you in a commercial setting, is noyaux.

  5. amy Says:

    Quality ginger is cheaply available at any Chinese market or in Chinatown- Japanese markets will have it too, but more expensive. I look for fat heavy roots without too much branching for maximum volume to surface area ratio and use the blunt edge of a teaspoon to peel them.

  6. Nina Says:

    Thanks, Amy! I like the spoon trick, too. 🙂 I’ve been making ginger syrup like an addict for a couple months now, for homeade ginger ale/dark & stormies. I’ll look into ginger caramels more…

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