When I was growing up in eastern Washington State in a family with six children, the holidays held many traditions for our large family, and as many family traditions center around food, one of our traditions has always been homemade candies. Mom always made fudge and divinity, using recipes that her mother had passed down through the generations, and Dad always made caramels.
When we were young, each of us took turns with stirring the pot and wrapping each cube of melt-in-your-mouth goodness.
As we moved away from home, Dad continued to make his caramels with less assistance in the stirring and wrapping department. (A true labor of love without the extra six pair of hands to help.) When we started our own families, Dad became Grandad to the next generation of children, and quickly the caramels were known as "Grandad's Caramels."
The winter following Grandad's 70th birthday, he showed up at my house with his cast-iron caramel pan and announced that it was my turn to take over the caramel-making tradition. The passing of the caramel pan was a symbolic and memorable experience that I cherish to this day.
My brother lives close by, and our two families, including our combined six children and of course Grandad, providing oversight and assistance, continue making caramels each year.
The recipe is very simple.
Recipe: Grandad's Caramels
This recipe makes an 8 ½- by 11-inch block of caramel.
• 1/2 cup butter
• 4 cups sugar
• 2 cups corn syrup
• 4 cups milk
• 1 cup cream
• 1/2 cup water
• 4 teaspoons vanilla
Specialized equipment: Candy thermometer and waxed paper.
Choose the largest, heaviest, deepest pan you have. An old canning kettle works very well. If you don't have this large of a pan, you can make a half recipe or smaller portion.
Turn your stove on medium high, and start melting the butter. As the butter melts, add the all the liquids, syrup, and sugar, and start stirring. The butter will fully melt as the liquid heats up. As the mixture comes to a full rolling boil, it increases in volume by more than three times, so make sure your pan is large enough to handle this volume.
Keep stirring! You will want to scrape the sides of the pan frequently.
Each batch takes about two hours for the mixture to boil and reduce to the caramel consistency, and to reach the proper temperature of 238 degrees. This time will depend on the temperature of your stove, and the pan you use. Leave yourself enough time for the project.
While stirring the sugar mixture, make sure it does not boil over. When the mixture begins to turn a golden brown, insert the candy thermometer. Keep stirring until the temperature reaches 238 degrees. The cooled caramels will be soft and chewy at this temperature. Quickly remove from the heat, and stir in the vanilla. Once the vanilla is incorporated in the hot mixture, pour into a well-buttered 8 ½- by 11-inch baking dish.
Now you can take a break and let the caramels cool. This is a good time to cut your waxed paper into squares so you are ready to wrap your caramels.
I use any brand of waxed paper. Cut it into five-inch strips and then cut each strip into thirds. This should give you a wrapper that is about four inches by five inches.
When you can place your hand on the bottom of the pan and it's only slightly warm, then it's time to remove the block of caramel and cut it into pieces. I use a large spatula to work under the corners of the caramel and lift the entire block out at one time.
On a cutting board, using a large knife, cut the block into one inch strips of caramel. Then you can cut the caramel strip into bite size pieces, one half to one inch each. Using the waxed paper you already cut, place each caramel square at one corner of the wrapper, and wrap diagonally to the opposite corner. Twist both ends to form a tight wrap. You can also place a caramel square in the middle of the wrapper. Fold one side over the caramel, then fold the opposite side. Twist the ends to secure the wrapping.
We use a family assembly line for cutting and wrapping of our caramels. Someone removes the block of caramel from the pan and passes it to down to have someone begin cutting the strips of caramel. The strips are passed to someone who cuts them into the bite size pieces and then delivers them to a separate table where many hands are waiting to wrap each caramel.
On a personal note, Grandad is now 87 years old, and continues to take his turn stirring and wrapping the holiday tradition that he started 40 years ago.