Autumn always brings with it nature’s goodies from the harvest—apple cider, bright pumpkins, and traditional treats like cranberries, nuts, and baked pies. As I get cozy for the season, I look forward to caramel as a sauce for dipping my apples or pouring over homemade ice cream and apple pie, and as a candy to share with the nieces and nephews during the holiday season. These candies will likely make an appearance in this Christmas’ cookie tins!
I make both confections using half-and-half or cream, butter and blond sugar. I add a little bit of brown sugar to the caramel sauce, which helps to make a deeper flavor and darker color. I added a little bit of homemade vanilla extract and sometimes a dash of “sea” salt.
A Victorian treat
We’re not quite sure when caramel sauce or candy first appeared on the scene, but it seems to be an American invention. Families were making hard candies over their fires before the American Revolution, combining expensive refined sugar with local water that had been steeped in herbs, such as peppermint or horehound. Sometime between 1800-1850 a talented cook combined this cooked water-sugar mix with butter and cream, setting off a tantalizing chemical reaction. The sugars react with the milk and the fats in the butter and cream keep the sugars soft and stretching, rather than turning into a hard, rock candy.
By the 1880s, candy makers had introduced this treat to the public and a few became household names: Hershey, Goetze, and Brocks all started making caramels and continue through today.
This caramel sauce is a tried-and-true one that I have been making for a couple of years. I took it to my brother’s house recently to be drizzled over some fresh apple pie. The nephews loved it! We even caught the oldest niece attempting to secretly spoon some directly from the jar to her mouth.
It’s good with freshly sliced apples or used a dip with crunchy pretzels. It melts nicely in coffee, but you will have a buttery film on the top of your drink. You can also drizzle it hot or cold over ice cream or blend into a milkshake.
- 1 ½ cups of blond sugar
- 1-2 Tblsp brown sugar (to your taste, I’ve done both)
- ¼ cup water
- ½ cup butter, cut into teaspoon-sized pieces
- ¾ cup half-and-half
- ¼ tsp vanilla extract
Get it out of the way first—make sure your butter is cut into little pieces. It will make the blending much easier!
Use a heavy-bottomed pot with lots of room for expansion. I use a 2.5 quart enameled cast-iron pot (like this one). I like how the cast iron helps the sugar to melt and holds its heat as I’m working.
Combine the sugars and the water and put the heat on medium, stirring occasionally until the sugars are melted. Once melted, turn to medium high (but not on high!) and stop stirring. If the sugar starts to climb up the sides of your pot, use a silicon pastry brush dipped in water to gently brush the crystals back down into the liquid. Keep a watchful eye and let it cook for about 10 minutes – a minute or two longer will give you a deeper caramel color and a little ricked or a flavor. But, too much more and you can scorch the sugar.
Turn the heat down to medium or medium low and add the half-and-half all at once. Keep whisking until combined and heat for another 2-3 minutes, whisking as needed. Watch carefully to prevent scorching.
Add your vanilla at this point and remove from the heat. If you want salted caramel, now is the time to add a ½ teaspoon of sea salt or pink salt. While hot, the sauce is thin but will set up and thicken as it cools.
This caramel sauce will keep in your icebox or refrigerator for about two weeks. I did once have a small layer of syrup separate from the sauce on the bottom of the jar after a day or two but found that could easily be stirred back into the sauce.
Like this? There's more: caramel candies!