Mom’s Caramels: a labor of love.

With this post we welcome first-time King Arthur Flour blogger Barb Alpern, a dedicated bread-baker, caramel-maker, and member of our bakers’ support team.

My mom wasn’t a great cook or baker. She grew up on a farm in Ohio during the Depression, and as an adult her heart was never indoors long enough to want to dwell in the kitchen, except when the bounty of her garden demanded canned tomatoes and pickles, abundant salads, and fried zucchini and green tomatoes.

She told us stories of growing up on the farm, how little money they had when she was a young child, and how an orange in her stocking at Christmas was a wonderful gift. If you’re of my generation of Baby Boomers, you likely have these Depression-era parents, raised in a time of hardship and deprivation. They learned to do without and to make do. And when times changed and they had enough or more than enough, they still scrimped and saved and guarded against another period of want. In my parents’ house no waste was allowed and eating out was a very rare occurrence. So, whether my mom liked to cook or not, she cooked every night and tried to do her best.

There was one recipe that my mother made each year during the holidays that was truly great.  Caramels, in the ethos of my mother’s farm upbringing, were a handmade gift, a special indulgence, and a test of culinary prowess. While her mother didn’t make this particular caramel recipe, candies were made on the farm for Christmas and other special occasions. They were passed out as gifts and served at family celebrations. Back then the candy of choice was usually fondant, which didn’t require expensive ingredients.

My grandmother also passed down her fudge recipe to my mother.  In our house this recipe was usually referred to as “Magic Potion.” There was more to candy than mere science could explain, and my mother (fortified with memories of her own mother’s candy-making) was brave enough to attempt magic in the kitchen, particularly on a cold wintry day when her garden was buried in snow.

I’ve refined my mother’s recipe a bit over the years. The original recipe, which wasn’t my mother’s invention, was called “Can’t Fail Caramels.” It was written as a single batch poured into an 8” x 8” pan.

But if you decide to go to the trouble of making candy, you’re going to want to make enough to wrap and give to all of your friends and relations, right? Might as well make a double batch! The stirring time for this recipe is about 2 hours, and requires a 5- to 6-quart heavy-bottomed metal pot with tall, straight sides.

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My mom wasn’t particularly attuned to the quality of ingredients, and went with what was inexpensive and on hand. I’m quite sure she originally used margarine or “oleo” in this recipe, since the handwritten copy of the recipe she sent to my aunt (who then included it in her church’s cookbook) listed it as an option.

And though I’m much more of a purist when it comes to ingredient choices, I know my mother’s caramels were not only edible, but delicious. Perhaps this is part of the magic of these caramels, that they perform spectacularly even with less than spectacular ingredients. And when you use the best ingredients? Well, they only get better.

Vanilla is an ingredient worth splurging on, because it’s such an important flavor. I love either the Madagascar Bourbon vanilla from Neilsen-Massey, or our King Arthur pure vanilla extract in this recipe. After my brother urged me to make salted caramels, I added large-flake Maldon sea salt as a topping. This wasn’t something my mom ever did, and you can leave off the salt if it doesn’t appeal to you.

A note about corn syrup: it really is necessary for this recipe. I know it’s not a favored ingredient for some these days, but I don’t know of an alternative that works.

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First, assemble your ingredients and equipment.

My mom always said to have the pans you’re going to pour the caramels into all buttered ahead of time, because you won’t have time or hands while you’re stirring. You’ll need two pans (either 8’’ x 8” square or 10 1/2” X 6 1/2” work great. You can also use two 9″ round cake pans). Rub butter into the bottom and up the sides of the pans.

It’s helpful to measure the vanilla ahead of time and place it in a small container, so you don’t have to think about measuring at the end – when things get very exciting, and perhaps even a little scary.

Achieving the correct temperature is critical to candy making, so I recommend calibrating your thermometer before you begin. Here’s how: Fill the pan you’re going to use 2/3 full with water, and clip your candy thermometer on the pan. Bring the water to a full boil; after 10 minutes, check to see if the thermometer reads 212°F. If your thermometer’s a degree or two off from 212°F, subtract or add the difference to your final cooking temperature. For example: If your thermometer reads 210°F in boiling water, you’ll want to cook the candy to 246°F, not 248°F.

For those making candy at high altitude: It’s important to note that water boils at a lower temperature and you’ll need to calibrate your thermometer in the way described above, and then adjust your final temperature accordingly. This can make a huge difference in candy consistency, so it’s very important to check what temperature your thermometer reads in boiling water, and then subtract that temperature from 212°F. This will give you the number of degrees you need to reduce your final cooking temperature from 248°F.

It’s also really helpful to use both a clip-on or paddle candy thermometer, and a digital thermometer, so that you can double-check your final temperature. Sometimes the paddle thermometer becomes difficult to read when the candy is steamy, and if the liquid in your pot is too low, you won’t get as accurate a reading from a clip-on. A thermometer touching the bottom of the pan will also tend to give you an inaccurate reading. A second opinion always helps!

OK, let’s get started. Gather the following ingredients:

4 cups (1 quart) half & half
2 cups light corn syrup (16 fluid ounces, 1 pint jar)
4 cups granulated sugar
2 cups light brown sugar
2 cups (1 pound) unsalted butter
2 teaspoons salt
8 teaspoons vanilla extract (to add at the end)

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Chop the butter into smaller chunks, so that it’ll melt more quickly.

Combine the half & half, corn syrup, granulated sugar, brown sugar, butter, and salt in a large, heavy-bottom, tall-sided saucepan.

Heat over medium-low heat until all the ingredients are melted, stirring constantly. Clamp a candy thermometer onto the side of the pan. Heat slowly, stirring constantly, until the thermometer reads 248°F.

The heating process should be slow, and the stirring constant. I know 2 hours sounds like a long time to be chained to the stove, but in the midst of holiday craziness, this time can become a gift.

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Pull up a stool. Grab that book or magazine you’ve been longing to read!

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The first time the liquid boils it will be thin and frothy and threaten to boil over the top of your pan if you aren’t careful. This is often a sign that you have the heat a little too high and should boil more slowly.

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As the mixture continues to boil it will become thicker and thicker and the frothy bubbles will give way to a more blurpy bubble that resembles thick lava.

This happens gradually, but you’ll notice it around 230°F and higher. This is when my mom said you really have to pay attention and watch the temperature carefully, as it tends to move more quickly from 230°F up.

This is also when you can start thinking about testing the candy, if you want to check the old-fashioned way to see how it’s progressing.

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At 230°F the candy should form a coarse “thread” when dropped into cold water.

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At 234°F you’ll begin to see a “soft ball” when the candy is dropped into cold water. This means it comes together, but flattens out.

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At 244°F to 248°F, the candy holds its shape in a “firm ball” when dropped into cold water.

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At 248°F, the ball will hold its shape, and will also become stringy as soon as it hits the water. The candy makes a plunk, plunk sound when tapped against the side of the glass.  This is a firm ball that is just shy of the hard ball stage, which starts at 250°F.  The finished candy will be quite firm, but not brittle.

My mom taught me how to make these caramels when I was in middle school and I’ve made them at least 50 times since then. I always aim for 248°F, but sometimes I end up a little shy or a little over. If you go too far, the candy will be brittle and harder to cut; my mother called those the filling-pullers, and would joke that the dentists in the area should give us kickbacks. If you go shy of this mark, the candy will be soft at room temperature and stickier to deal with when you cut it.

It’s a tricky little window, but don’t despair. The candy will still be good in either direction, as long as you don’t stray too far. It’s more about how difficult it is to cut than about the taste or quality of the caramels. If you desire a softer caramel you could aim for 246°F or 247°F, but for best results I recommend shooting for 248°F.

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Once you reach the magical 248°F, hover there for a moment and double-check your reading with your digital thermometer.

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Once you’ve verified the candy has reached its desired temperature of 248°F, remove it from the heat and stir in the vanilla extract. The caramel mixture will sizzle and crackle and react quite excitedly.

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Once the vanilla is thoroughly mixed in, you’re ready to pour the caramels into the prepared pans.  Be careful to suit yourself up with two oven mitts, and have a helper if possible. There is nothing quite so painful as hot caramel stuck to your skin!

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Scrape the caramel that doesn’t pour readily from the pan into a buttered “scrap” pan. This is for sampling.

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After 30 minutes, dust the candy with salt flakes, if desired. You need to wait for this step so that the salt doesn’t completely melt into the candy.

Allow the caramels to cool at room temperature, then cover them tightly. Technically caramels don’t need to be refrigerated; but for ease of cutting and longest shelf life I always refrigerate. You’ll get a bit of sweating when you take them in and out of the refrigerator, but that’s OK.

I like to place a layer of waxed paper, and then a layer of foil over the caramels before refrigerating.  It’s important to protect them from moisture and odors during cold storage.

When you’re ready to cut the caramels, remove them from the fridge and loosen the edges with a butter knife or offset spatula. Invert the pan over a cutting board, and bang it forcefully. If the candy feels very hard, you should allow it to warm up for 30 minutes before attempting this step, as it may shatter on impact.

Once you’ve removed the slab of candy from the pan, it can be stored in the refrigerator and removed when needed for cutting. Again, wrapping the slab in waxed paper and then enclosing in a plastic bag will add extra protection. Most caramels will need a little time at room temperature in order to cut more easily.

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Cut in squares and wrap in waxed paper or parchment paper. Wrapped caramels can also be frozen.

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My mom always said a little goes a long way with caramels, so I love to look for tiny boxes and containers for gift giving.  My favorites are holiday coffee mugs or other reusable containers.

My mother used to gather us around the stove when she was making caramels and read Little Women out loud while she stirred. Next to her garden, a good book was one of my mom’s favorite places, so it’s not surprising that a book was always by her side when it came time to stir. And I imagine her mother read the same book to her and her sister while stirring fondant all those years ago.

When I think about my mom and why she enjoyed this long process, I realize that I love it for the same reasons she did. It was a way for her to feel connected to her mother (whom she admired above all others). It was a way of giving that was simpler, and harkened back to her farm days. She loved sweets. And she hated shopping more than anything, so it was a way of celebrating the holidays that kept her away from the mall, peacefully at home.

Sometimes I save up long-distance calls to friends and family for caramel-making day. I miss the days when I could call and chat with my mom while I stirred. She died this past February after a long battle with Alzheimer’s.  Making caramels always makes me feel close to her.

I see Mom bending over the stove with Little Women propped up in front of her. I hear her whisper in my ear to watch the temperature carefully after it reaches 230°F. I feel a gentle tap on my hand when I’m wrapping caramels and consume a few too many.  “Watch the profits,” she would tell my brothers and sister and I, as we helped her wrap candy at the kitchen table.

In the end, I think this is why these family traditions and recipes become so important to us. They’re not only part of the framework of our past – they’re inextricably entwined with the ones we love.

Please read, rate, and review our recipe for Mom’s Caramels.

Print just the recipe.

Barbara Alpern
About

Long time professional artisan bread baker, caramel maker and member of our Baker Specialist team, Barb grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan and has four grown sons. She has baked in Michigan, Maine, Vermont, and Texas (if you count baking cookies for her son's wedding!).

comments

  1. Carole Forster

    Your post combined a lovely recipe and a beautiful message. The kitchen can really be the heart of a family. Thank you.

    Reply
  2. gailmcgaffigan

    Welcome, Barbara! That was such an enjoyable post. Thank you for the caramel-making tips. I think extra vanilla and more temp. accuracy would make a delicious difference in my own caramel recipe. I especially like how you show the candy in its various stages.
    Ironically, after all that painstaking work to get the texture just right, my favorite thing to do with a caramel is melt it in the microwave and drizzle it over a sliced apple.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      I used to have caramel-making parties and gather friends around to help stir. Of course, sliced apples and caramels-in-the-making were served as treats. Definitely one of my favorite ways to eat caramel. Thanks for your comments and happy holidays! Barb@KAF

  3. Nanciew

    Wonderful post. I love how the food we make during the holidays brings us together. It draws in friends and family still with us to share a meal or a treat, but also gives us a way to remember and honor those who have passed.

    Reply
  4. Amy S

    Barbara: What a touching remembrance of your mother, and a tempting recipe as well! Thank you for sharing a bit of your heritage. I’ll be sure to try this recipe this holiday season! As I learned several years ago after my mother died, all the firsts are tough without her — I wish you peace and joyful memories this season.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Thank you so much, Amy! I know my mom would be happy and proud to share her caramels with so many. Barb@KAF

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      You might want to experiment using honey instead. The taste and texture won’t be quite the same but it will still be tasty and healthier. Happy baking! Laurie@KAF

    2. The Baker's Hotline

      And if you try this recipe with honey, let us know how it turns out! We’d love to know. Barb@KAF

  5. Nancy Johnson

    Thank you, Barb, and welcome to this blog! Your writing is wonderful, and with it you’ve touched so very many of us who remember and honor our mothers when we bake. At Christmas time, I picture daughters all over the world baking family traditions and passing them on, along with favorite memories and stories. The love just continues and grows, as it will for you and Ann.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Thanks so much, Nancy! I’m imagining sons and grandsons too, since I have four boys! Barb@KAF

  6. Tom Garbacik

    i made caramels for the first time last week (using a different recipe). They were excellent, and this recipe looks better. The recipe I used was all white sugar. I bet I’d like the butterscotchy flavor from the brown sugar in this recipe. For me, the wrapping was the most tedious part. I kept thinking that if I ate more of the caramels, wrapping would go faster! 😉

    Reply
  7. Savannagal

    I noticed that the pans you used in your post are rectangular, and not the 8×8 inch pans recommended in the recipe. Did you double or triple the recipe, thereby needing larger pans? Just wondering. The carmels looks delicious and I really loved your remembrances of your mom. They reminded me so much of my grandmother.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Barb mentions she doubled the recipe, and she also refers to a variety of pans that will work, including a 10 1/2x 6 1/2 rectangle. Happy baking! Laurie @ KAF

    2. The Baker's Hotline

      The recipe and the blog are both double the original recipe. The rectangular pans pictured are approximately equal to the area of two 8″ X 8″ square pans. They measure 10 1/2” X 6 1/2”. Barb@KAF

  8. Petie S.

    can you tell me how long these stay good, both if you refrigerate them or you just wrap and place in a sealed storage container? Thank you.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      They’ll be fine for at least a week at room temperature in a sealed container, and probably longer, if you don’t eat them all first! Laurie @ KAF

    2. The Baker's Hotline

      They keep well at room temperature, but eventually the texture changes. I would recommend freezing or refrigerating for longest shelf life. They will last several months this way. Barb@KAF

  9. Linda

    What a great post! I love that you included a photo of the recipe card. Reminds me of my Grandma’s box of recipes, all handwritten on index cards. Your caramels look delicious!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Thanks, Linda! Those old handwritten recipes and letters become so precious, don’t they? Barb@KAF

  10. Ashley

    Loved the post, please write more!

    Also, I’d love some insight into those cute polka-dot wrappers and how you folded the squares so neatly.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Just imagine the caramels are little presents. The key is cutting the right size waxed paper rectangles to fit the size caramel you have cut. This takes a little practice. Every year I have to re-learn this, but a nice toddy and a good holiday movie or music will definitely help! Barb@KAF

  11. Bonnie

    This post almost brought me to tears, and was SUCH a good reminder to slow down/calm down during the frenetic holiday season. My mom never really liked to cook, she was a single mom with four kids and getting dinner on the table every night was just something she had to do. With the exception of goulash and beef stew – which are fantastic. My sister and I got the cooking and baking genes from my grandmother, and I’m lucky enough to have several of her old hand-written recipes as well as a few treasured kitchen utensils. When I reach for the over-ripe bananas and make banana bread, I can hear my grandmother whispering “good job, don’t let them go to waste!”
    I am so very lucky to still have my mom – she is 80 and in good health, sharp as ever – and I treasure our mother-daughter relationship. In the kitchen, though, it’s my grandmother who speaks to me 🙂 On Saturday, we’ll have the annual family cookie day that my grandmother began, we even have some of her cookie cutters. So thank you, Barbara, for reminding us to cherish our memories of mothers and grandmothers, and to pass them on.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Thanks for your kind words, Bonnie! And thank you for sharing your memories of your mother and grandmother. Barb@KAF

  12. Leslie

    Barbara, I’ve been missing my mom during these holidays and it was comforting to read of someone else who feels her mother’s presence in the kitchen making special treats during Christmas. I’ve never made caramels but have wanted to for several years. And doing something that “makes” me read for two hours? SOLD!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Thanks, Leslie. And I totally agree–two hours to sit and read during the holidays! Now that’s a gift. Barb@KAF

  13. waikikirie

    Welcome Barbara!….I so loved this posted for several reasons….the recipe, the step by step pictures/instructions, but especially the beautiful memories that you shared. Lovely! Hope you will post more. Happy Holidays….

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Thanks so much for you kind words! I do hope to do more posts in the future. And Happy Holidays to you and yours! Barb@KAF

  14. Chris

    What a great post! I’ve already made two batches of caramel this year. Each batch makes five pounds of caramel and the wrapping takes forever, but I bribe the kids (ages 14-6) into helping me. Like your mom, I always read while stirring, but I tend to do it on my kindle now a days because I don’t have to worry about propping the book open (or bribing a kid to help hold it ;)). I usually end up making one more batch in January and instead of wrapping in wee pieces, I wrap in big slabs. They’re probably about 4-6 ounces each, but they are great for pulling out of the freezer and making turtles or melting over apple slices. I’ve never read Little Women, but in honor of your mom, when I make that next batch, I will start it 🙂

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Thanks for sharing your caramel making methods, Chris. I like the idea of saving slabs in the freezer! And I hope you like Little Women! Barb@KAF

  15. Linda Hitchcock

    I’ve made a similar version to this slow cooking and wickedly delicious caramels for many years with someone else’s family recipe that has heavy cream instead of the half-and-half. If you cook the caramel to the lower, stickier temperature, a portion can be used to spread on a layer of homemade shortbread, then topped with chocolate. It’s a favorite Canadian cookie called “Millionaire’s Bars”. You can also ease up on cooking time for an incredible ice cream topper. I definitely prefer the caramel without the salt topping but that is true for me with any confection. Thanks for encouraging others to have one great candy recipe in their recipe box. It is really worth the effort.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Linda, the original recipe called for half milk and half heavy cream, but over the years my mom shifted to half & half. Both ways work. And thanks for sharing your variations! Barb@KAF

  16. Martha

    You made a comment about corn syrup not being a popluar ingredient these days. You may be confusing “pure corn syrup,” which is pure glucose, with “high fructose corn syrup,” which has had some of the glucose converted to fructose. And it is the “high fructose corn syrup” or “hfcs” that is controversial. I have no qualms about using Karo Syrup – which is “pure corn syrup” and contains no “high fuctose corn syrup,” in any recipe! Happy Baking!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Thanks for the information, Martha. I think corn syrup also concerns some people because it can be a GMO product. Barb@KAF

  17. Christina

    What a wonderful story! And the recipe looks delicious, as always.

    I’m curious – I was always taught to stir hard candies (brittle, toffee) and to never stir soft candies (caramel, taffy). The idea was that stirring leads to a greater chance of crystallization, which you definitely want in hard candy but not in soft. So I was surprised to see a caramel recipe calling for hours of stirring. Is there something about the long, slow cooking process that prevents crystallization?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Christina, I’ve never had any trouble with these caramels becoming grainy from over-stirring, like fudge sometimes does. And mom always told me to stir constantly, so that is what I do. One time I tried one of those automatic stirring machines and the caramels just didn’t turn out as nice. I thought it was because the stirring was all on the bottom, and the overall mixture did not get as evenly cooked. I have a feeling the corn syrup helps prevent crystallization, but I need to check into more of the chemistry behind all this. Barb@KAF

  18. vicki

    Thank you so much for such an educational post. I appreciate the photos of the different stages of candy making – now I have a much clearer idea of what I should be looking for when trying to get the the soft ball stage. But even more importantly, what a lovely tribute to your mother. Every mom wants to create those wonderful memories for their kids. Your mother obviously did a great job.
    Merry Christmas!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Thanks so much for your kind words, Vicki. She was a great mom. I’m lucky to have so many wonderful memories. Barb@KAF

  19. Laura Richardson

    What a sweet– in all senses– blog! I especially liked the inclusion of the recipe card with its blunt comment on the name: “Can’t-Fail Caramels (it’s a lie though).” My grandmother always blessed us with a batch of pecan-studded divinity at Christmastime. When I set up housekeeping as a teenager, Memaw gave me the recipe, “Reliance Divinity,” with the comment, “Don’t rely on it.” Thank you for recalling this memory. Laura

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      That was so my mom, Laura–exactly her sense of humor. I love that comment too. Maybe it’s part of that generation of women–a toughness in their humor. Thank you for sharing your memories of your Memaw. Barb@KAF

  20. Lee Dunning

    This has to be the best written, most detailed explanation of caramel making I’ve ever seen. Thank you very much for sharing this along with all the sample pictures. I’m going to try to make these this year.

    Reply
  21. Karen McJunkin

    I love this story. My family has an over 50 year history of making caramels for friends and family. Although our recipe is different many of the steps and the resulting smiles are the same. However, I have never seen the wax paper folded around them like a box. How do you accomplish this neat look. We have always used the twist method. I also am curious about the firmness of the finished caramel. We have always stopped our process a few degrees cooler and have never lost a tooth filling to them. How about yours?

    I enjoyed your post and will definitely add salt to part of my next batch.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Karen, I have to admit that the times I have accidentally gone over 248 degrees, there have been some dental consequences. Once my boss had to get a new crown as a result of my caramels! By all means go a little lower if that is what you like. I just find when they are cooked to 248 (not higher) they are firm at room temperature and easy to cut and wrap, but also melt-in-your-mouth delicious! As far as the wrapping goes, this is the way my mom taught me. It’s just like wrapping a package and the trick is getting the rectangle of wax paper the right size for the square piece of caramel. I love setting myself up in front of the TV and watching holiday movies while wrapping. A nice warm drink also helps the process! Barb@KAF

  22. Kathleen

    I loved your description of the cooking process and the pictures. I have made caramels for years and they always are good, in spite of my guessing at their final temperature. Now they might be even better.
    I always “guild the lily” by putting toasted almonds in the pan after buttering it, so the caramel mixture goes on top of the nuts. Then I take a Cadbury chocolate almond bar and put it on top of the hot caramel mixture to melt. We never have enough to wrap up and give as gifts as we eat everything ourselves. However, it is a fun holiday baking time.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Thanks, Kathleen! I love how you “guild the lily” with toasted almonds and Cadbury bars. Sounds incredibly delicious! I will have to try your version. Thank you for sharing. Barb@KAF

  23. Robin

    I have never made caramel, but after reading your wonderful post, this may be the year I try. I have had toffee become grainy when using an instant read thermometer and taking it in and out of the pan. Will that be a worry with the caramel, or should the thermometer stay in the pan continuously to avoid the grainy texture?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      I haven’t had a problem with graininess with this recipe, Robin. I used both a paddle thermometer (clamped to the side of the pot) and an instant read thermometer. I was just careful to clean and dry the thermometer after each use. Barb@KAF

  24. Dorothy

    Barbara …reading your great article and recipe with misty eyes. Couldn’t help but have flashbacks to the many times with my Mom in the kitchen…..there was Divinity with chopped pecans at. Christmas …she tinted the Divinity in pastels( just a slight tint)….or rolling Hot Tamales in a corn shuck.that was a job too. They would all be packed in this huge pressure that was my Grandmothers. The memories go on and on. Our mothers are and were fantastic. thanks for all your tips and memories and the caramels recipe
    Merry Christmas

    Reply
  25. auntiepatch

    I lost my mom to the same awful disease a few years ago. I think about her the most at the Holidays and I miss her. The Depression kids were a strong bunch!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      They sure were! My mom would always say she was “tough as nails.” And she said this well into her eighties. I try to be as tough as her, but I think my toughness is more like well kneaded bread dough. May your memories of your mom comfort you this time of year and always. Barb@KAF

  26. member-susanprincess

    Foods chemistry is a fascinating subject, and can explain why certain ingredients are useful or necessary. Corn syrup is used in candies like this caramel to prevent crystallization, so substituting honey would made a huge difference in not only taste but texture. Also, honey becomes bitter when boiled, so the long cooking needed here would also contraindicate honey use. That said, I especially love rich tasting, creamy caramel, but am recently diagnosed as diabetic, so will try making a tiny portion of this recipe and give away or freeze most of it so I can enjoy the taste but still maintain a good blood sugar level. Because of the protein provided by the dairy ingredients, caramel is actually a much better choice than divinity or fondant for sugar-sensitive people because it helps maintain a more even blood sugar count.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel

      Thanks so much for all of this info. – lots of good stuff! Enjoy your tiny taste of caramel – 🙂 PJH

    2. The Baker's Hotline

      Thanks for all the helpful information. I always thought it was the corn syrup that helped prevent graininess, but needed to do more research. I didn’t know that about honey either. I’m glad you’ll at least get a little taste of your labors! Barb@KAF

  27. Jen

    What a wonderful post and great photo steps! I might give this a try (if I have the time!).

    The use of corn syrup is essential for a lot of candy making. I think people are confusing corn syrup with High Fructose Corn Syrup–they are two different things. Corn syrup in moderation (like any sugar) is fine, and in candy recipes works to prevent crystallization, if I’m remembering things correctly.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Thanks for the information, Jen! Hope you find time to make these caramels, but they are great for other times of year as well, when time is not quite so precious. Barb@KAF

  28. jllovett

    I made these last night and they are fantastic…I will wrap them today and try my best not to eat the calories burned by all the stirring! The scrap pan sample is a must…you will want a smaller container to cool down quickly for “quality control” sampling. The flavor and texture are superb and are miles beyond the wrapped caramels made by the famous cheese-making company. A keeper recipe…I’m glad it’s a double batch. Thanks for sharing it’s story!
    Jennie

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Thanks so much for your comments, Jennie! Glad you enjoyed the recipe and Happy Holidays to you and yours. Barb@KAF

  29. Rede

    I have an old recipe for cream caramels that differs very little from this one, and it, too, is excellent. Some day when I have a food scientist attack I’ll make both simultaneously and be able to do a comparison. Until then . . . .Thanks for posting this, esp. with the instructions for patience and exactitude!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Please let us know the results of your food scientist attack, Rede! Patience and exactitude are certainly key ingredients when it comes to caramels. Thank you for your comments. Barb@KAF

  30. Lynne

    Here’s a tip for sizing the wrappers:

    If your caramels are square:
    – measure across the top of a piece,
    – measure down the side,
    – add the two measurements together,
    -double it,
    – add about 1/4″ for overlap.

    Cut squares this big each way. If you’re like me and usually end up with a variety of sizes, select your largest piece to be your “fitting model”.

    If you have cut rectangular caramels: you’ll need to do the above twice, once for each measurement of the top. Your two results are the length and width your rectangular wrappers should be cut.

    These caramels look great! It’s too late this year to make them for my goodie bags, but they are going on my short list for next year.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Wow! I am so impressed with how scientifically you approach this project. I will have to give your method a try. I usually just eyeball it until I get a size that works and then make a bunch that size. Thanks for sharing your method with us! Barb@KAF

  31. Jan

    I have only made caramels once, and they turned out way too hard. I, for some crazy reason, want to try making them again. I want a soft caramel. For those of you in the midwest who are lucky enough to have tasted Knudsen’s caramels (made in Red Wiing, MN but shipped to retailers outside of Minnesota) then that is exactly the texture I want.
    I have looked at countless recipes featuring the same list of ingredients, but the final temperature is all over the map. The lowest temperature recipe says to cook to 238F, many say 245F and a few (like yours) say 248F. Would you call these soft caramels if cooked to 248F or are they firmer like Kraft caramels?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Having tested many of these when Barb was working on this blog (read no caramel-self-control here!) – I can tell you from tasting experience that they are a nice soft caramel. Happy Baking (or candy making)! Irene@KAF

    2. The Baker's Hotline

      I’d say these are firm when cooked to 248 degrees. You could definitely aim a little lower if you prefer a softer caramel, but I wouldn’t go too low or they will be sticky to deal with. 246-247 degrees would be a good range for a softer caramel. At 248 degrees they are definitely firm, but do still melt in your mouth. I hope this helps, Jan. Barb@KAF

  32. Lynne

    Hi, again,

    After copying this recipe out by hand (yes, there are those of us that still do that, for various reasons) I have a suggestion:

    A shortened version of the following text from the blog should probably be added at the appropriate place in the directions on the recipe page. I’m sure it would be helpful to inexperienced candymakers to have this additional info.

    “As the mixture continues to boil it will become thicker and thicker and the frothy bubbles will give way to a more blurpy bubble that resembles thick lava.

    This happens gradually, but you’ll notice it around 230°F and higher. This is when my mom said you really have to pay attention and watch the temperature carefully, as it tends to move more quickly from 230°F up.”

    Reply
  33. member-irishgurlj1

    I made these tonight (well, last night technically since it’s after midnight) and they are delicious! I’ve never made caramel before, fearing the molten hot mixture would somehow get on my skin, but decided to suck it up and try it after reading your touching story. They are in the fridge and I will begin wrapping tomorrow. It took every once of self control I could muster not to drag my finger through the cooling candy. I only have one 8×8 pan so I used that and my 13×9, pouring them out to be the same thickness (I wanted nice square caramels so I didn’t want to use round pans). Thank you so much for sharing a treasured family recipe!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      I’m glad you braved the molten caramel and gave it a try! I was wrapping caramels yesterday and enjoyed sitting and watching movies while I wrapped. Even though caramels are time consuming, they do give you these lovely opportunities to sit down and relax, if you let them. Thanks for your comments and Happy Holidays! Barb@KAF

  34. Sheree Slagle

    We recently made some caramels and tried using Lyle’s Golden Syrup instead of the corn syrup (trying to avoid the gm ingredients here) It worked great!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Thanks for posting this information, Sheree. Great to know! Have a great holiday! Barb@KAF

  35. Linda

    Thank you for sharing you beautiful story with us, and the recipe sounds wonderful. I’ve always made cookies with my kids (now adults), but this year I think we will make your mom’s caramels. Merry Christmas.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      I’m so happy to share my family tradition with your family, Linda! And adult kids can all take turns stirring to make the task easier. Merry Christmas to you and yours. Barb@KAF

  36. Cathy

    Barb

    Someone mentioned that he/she almost cried when they read your post . . . well I DID! I think no matter how long we are gone from our moms, either because of distance or passing on, we all still especially miss them around the holidays.

    You have given us all such a gift.

    I bake and cook lots but have never tried reading as I stir. I think I will have to do so!

    Thanks again so much! Merry Christmas!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Thank you for your very kind words, Cathy! You’re so right about missing our moms during the holidays. Have a wonderful Christmas and enjoy your reading and stirring! Barb@KAF

  37. Brian

    Beautiful post! The pictures are fantastic and your story is wonderful.

    Barbara, we chatted on the bakers hotline about caramel shortly before you posted this and I wanted to thank you because your tips have fixed my brittle caramel issue. Calibrating my thermometer was key as it was almost 5 degrees off. Between that and me being at high altitude I was cooking my caramel to almost 255 degrees. No wonder it was brittle.

    Thanks again for the tips. Merry Christmas!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      I’m so glad I could be of help to you in your caramel-making, Brian! And a very Merry Christmas to you too! Barb@KAF

  38. Richard Taylor

    Fantastic blog. Very personal narrative along with excellent clear explanations. Please we want more blogs and recipes from this talented writer and baker.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel

      Next one’s in the works, Richard – stay tuned. And thanks for your kind comments, I know Barb appreciates them. PJH

  39. Carla65466

    Oh what a lovely story! I’m a Baby Boomer too and my mom told the same kind of depression era tales. Just remember-“And there but for the grace of God, go I”.
    We’re so lucky to have all we do.
    Caramel is my all time fave- I’d eat a stick if there was caramel on it!! And I’ve always wanted to make Caramels. Well, your moms recipe is the best sounding recipe (except for the 2 hours) I’ve ever found. I’ll let you know how it turns out- at Christmas time. Thanks for sharing – the recipe AND the story!
    Carla , from Cobourg, Ontario, Canada

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Carla, I came back from vacation to find your lovely comments and wanted to thank you. I hope you enjoy making and eating these caramels at Christmas time, and I will look forward to your future report.
      Barb

  40. Patty

    I want to make Pumpkin Spice Caramels using this recipe instead of the recipe on your website using store bought caramels. How much Pumpkin pie spice should I use? Thanks for all the great recipes. King Arthur is always the first website I go to when I’m looking for something special to make.

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Patty, I haven’t tried the pumpkin spices with this recipe, but I think it should work fine. I would add double the amount of spices called for in the Pumpkin Spice Caramel recipe, since this recipe makes two 8 X 8 inch pans of caramel. Add the spices with the vanilla at the end of the cooking process. I think the vanilla flavor will provide a good base for the spices, so I would recommend adding the amount of vanilla called for in this recipe. Please let me know how they turn out! Thanks, Barb

    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Michelle, when you double this recipe you need a much bigger pot (it can boil over otherwise) and it takes much longer to cook (more hours at the stove). While I have in my life made very large batches that took all day to stir, it’s not a route I recommend. The resulting caramels are darker in color and have an almost English toffee flavor; still great, but different. For best results I would recommend making two separate batches. If you did decide to double this recipe, it would just about fit in the half-sheet (with perhaps a bit of overflow), but, again, working with smaller pans will make it easier to remove the caramels from the pan and cut them.
      Barb

  41. Julie

    After seeing the recipe last year, decided to make these caramels this year. Absolute perfection! I don’t have metal baking pans so needed to use glass. I didn’t want to break the pan by hitting them too hard to get the caramel slab to come out, so dipped the bottom of the glass dish in hot water to warm it/loosen the butter and they came right out. Making another batch this afternoon!

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Julie, thanks for sharing your tip for getting the caramels out of a glass pan! I’m so glad to hear that this recipe was a success for you. I’m sure your friends and family will really appreciate them! Barb

  42. Jane

    I don’t even have to make the recipe to know I love it. Thank you for sharing such a sweet & heartfelt memory of your mom, which just happens to involve a recipe. So many of us have our mom wrapped up in countless cooking/baking memories. My heart goes out to you for your loss.

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Thanks so much for your kind works, Jane! I hope your holiday baking and cooking are accompanied by wonderful memories.
      Barb

  43. Heather

    As a kid we made caramels every Christmas as well. We often did have with cashews and half without and then rather than wrapping them, we dipped them in chocolate and put them in mini cupcake papers.

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Heather, your Christmas caramels sound lovely and delicious! Thanks for sharing your caramel-making memories.
      Barb

  44. Kelly

    Two hours is indeed a long time, and these caramels are worth every second. I was patient and waited until my thermometer reached 248 degrees. My patience was rewarded with a rich, dark, fabulous creamy caramel. I poured mine over three cups of roasted almonds spread out over parchment in a half sheet pan. Soon I will cut and dip pieces in tempered chocolate. Mmmm. Thanks for the excellent recipe.

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      You’re very welcome, Kelly! Your version sounds amazing! Thanks for sharing, and happy holidays to you and yours! Barb@KAF
      Barb

  45. Trevor

    I am looking forward to making these again this holiday season as they were a hit last year! This year I have extra whipping cream (36%) and am planning to use that. Can I substitute all the half and half with the whipping cream? Or will that be too much? Any suggestions? Thanks!

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Trevor, I would recommend using half whole milk and half whipping cream, rather than all whipping cream. This will keep the fat content in the same range, and I’ve made them with milk and cream many times, so I know this will work fine! Happy Holidays!
      Barb

  46. Shauneen Hutchinson

    I spent quite a bit of time searching for a caramel recipe on the Internet and I am so happy I chose this one. Because it was from King Arthur Flour it got my attention right away. Always reliable for quality! I decided that because this was my first attempt I would only make a half batch. That was my only mistake. It definitely took 2 hours, start to finish. I watched carefully and stopped at 248 degrees. They are unbelievably delicious and I am only sorry I did not make a full recipe! If you are going to stir for two hours make it worth your while. This is a fabulous recipe, beautifully illustrated and will be a family favorite for years to come.

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Thanks so much for your kind comments, Shauneen! It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who thinks about caramels this time of year. My mom would be so happy to know her caramels are being enjoyed and shared by so many!
      Barb

  47. Jim Richardson

    Hi, I’ve been looking for a good caramel recipe and this one sounds good. I intend to dip finished caramels in tempered chocolate. Any suggestions on how long I should wait to begin dipping?

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Jim, I’m so glad you’re going to try this recipe! I would wait until the caramels are completely cool and easy to cut. Sometimes chilling the caramels in the refrigerator makes for easier cutting, but if the caramels seem on the hard side, allowing them to sit at room temperature for a bit will help prevent the caramels from breaking when you cut them. It all depends on how hard they cook up. My ideal caramel consistency is very firm in the refrigerator, but soft enough to cut easily (without being too sticky) after sitting out at room temperature for about 30 minutes. I hope you have fun and enjoy these delicious caramels!
      Barb

  48. Lindy

    I have had this recipe for a year and finally decided today was the day. I used t=it as a trial run for what I plan to give to co-workers this year. It all went pretty well. The caramels taste amazing but… I had a thin layer of fat or oily stuff on top of the caramels. I scrapped it off once they cooled in the fridge. I am guessing that I had the temperature a little to high for the process. I do not think that I went over 248 because the caramels are not brittle at all. How can I avoid that oily film next time ?

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Lindy, I’m guessing the thin layer of fat may have to do with the butter that you greased the pan with melting and then solidifying when you cool the caramels in the refrigerator. I often notice this film along the edges of my caramels, and scrape the fat off in the way you described. It may be helpful to use a little less butter when preparing the pans. If this isn’t what you’re seeing then it certainly won’t hurt to cook the caramels more slowly. I try to keep the temperature such that the mixture continues to boil, but not too vigorously. If you happened to replace the half & half with heavy cream, or used a variety of higher fat butter, this might also account for the oily film you noticed. Barb

    2. Lindy

      I did use Half and Half that I bought from a local Farm. Maybe I should stick with the half and half from the grocery store.

      Thank you.

  49. Fran P.

    I tried this recipe for our Christmas Bake Sale and for gifts, they were a great hit. I made homemade turtles and also chocolate covered cararmels. I am already getting requests for the Valentines Bake Sale. This is the best caramel recipe I have ever tried.

    Reply
  50. GP

    I know this is really old, but I found this earlier in the year and this will be my 3rd time making them. I consider myself kind of a caramel snob, and these are AWESOME. I actually aim for about 246.5 to get a real soft caramel. I store them in the fridge because they are a little squishy at room temperature but they melt in your mouth! I love the flavor, not burnt or sugary tasting, it has a nice toasty note to it. We have also poured it into a sheet full of pecans and it is so good. I got some Maldon smoked salt that is just perfect on top. Thanks so much for this recipe.

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi GP, we’re so glad to hear you’re enjoying this recipe! Your pecan variation sounds wonderful!
      Barb

  51. Shauneen Hutchinson

    I just made these for the fourth time. They never fail to impress. A few hints. For me, the perfect temperature seems to be 246 degrees. Resulting caramels are easy to work with. Perfect, smooth, silky texture. I use a 9 x 13 pan and make 1/3 plain, 1/3 toasted pecans and 1/3 salted. A perfect addition is King Arthur Flour’s red and white polka dot treat sheets. Just right finishing touch!

    Reply

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