For the last few days I’ve had a song stuck in my head and it wasn’t until now that I realized why. Normally you’d think “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” is all about the Christmas season. But when you are a devout sweet tooth it takes on a different meaning in October. Halloween is my most wonderful time and I can’t wait to steal from my nieces’ trick or treat haul.
By Labor Day jumbo sacks filled with autumn shades of Fun Size treats sat tauntingly on Duane Reade’s shelves. I was so tempted to start the holiday off early but kept to my rule—I’m not allowed to buy any celebratory candy until the month of the day being celebrated. So although bags of jelly beans are on display the day after Valentine’s, I have to wait until March or April 1st (depending on when Easter falls) to fill up my candy dish. But on October 1st I was allowed to buy a bag of Candy Corn. I normally like my chewier confections—Sour Patches, Kookaburra black licorice, Gummi Bears—on the stale side, but not candy corn. I like my corn fresh. I suffer from a sort of Ground Hog Day/candy corn amnesia: every year I forget just how cloyingly sweet it is and every year I buy it again. After the first handful I get the sugar jitters and then I need five pretzels to help me come down. Then I want another piece of corn, then another pretzel and so it goes until I give up, exhausted, surrounded by a ripped, half-eaten bag of candy corn and pretzel crumbs. It’s a good thing I live alone.
This year I did something different. After my October 1st binge I tossed the mangled bag of candy corn into the trash. I was really proud of myself—getting rid of the temptation helped me purge my shame. I was taking control. I made sure to immediately put the garbage bag down the chute since I don’t trust myself not to eat out of my own trash.
The next afternoon I was filled with regret. I wanted more corn so badly. Why had I thrown it out? Just three of the white/orange/yellow kernels would have been perfect. So I went to the deli on the corner to self medicate with an alternative. (Even I am not pathetic enough to buy a second bag.) I’ve often asked myself: when is it age inappropriate to stand in front of the candy display beneath the cash register staring at the selection while considering your sugary options? I’ll tell you when: when your neighbor walks in and catches you. While I was scanning the shelves debating between a Mounds bar (something I always crave around Halloween for some reason) and a 100 Grand bar (another old Halloween favorite and I wish it was still called $100,000 Bar) the neighbor walked in, observed what I was doing and said, quizzically, “Hi...?” I panicked and went into hyper mode, “Hey! Oh, my nieces are coming for a visit—gotta get them some treats! The older one loves coconut!” (What? Where did I come up with that?!) and with that I threw both chocolate bars on the counter, paid quickly and ran all the way home. In my defense, I only nibbled on each bar a little and then tossed them too.
My relationship with candy started at an early age and there wasn’t a day after school when I didn’t somehow find enough change for a Nestle’s Crunch or a Three Musketeers or a Milky Way. Ironically, back in those days it felt like I was at the orthodontist weekly. But that didn’t stop me from buying three mini Peppermint Patties to enjoy on the Madison Avenue bus home. Even with a sore mouth I needed my fix. And I don’t just think about myself when it comes to my sweet memories. I remember my little sister nibbling on mini Reese's Peanut Butter Cups while sitting on a bench with my mother during my swimming lessons, or picking up my brother from a play-date and sharing a Heath bar on our way home. My father, ever the good boy, used to enjoy a Clark bar and a glass of water, as per the suggestion on the side of the wrapper, and my mother used to grab fistfuls of M&M’s from her mother’s candy dish when she wasn’t looking.
My recent humiliating deli candy purchases to one side, my go-to favorite is the Junior Mint. I always keep a box in my freezer and would never think of going to the movies without them. That’s another big thing, movies. I hate people who sit in the theater simply staring at the screen. Candy and popcorn are part of the experience! I’m lucky my friends agree and I can always count on Nick to have Milk Duds, Lisa to share her Twizzlers and Rich to switch back and forth between his bags of Sour Patch Kids and Dark Chocolate M&M’s.
Last week when I had dinner with Margot, another sweet-toothed friend, she told me about an exciting discovery she had recently made, a fabulous caramel from a small candy maker in the Pacific Northwest. Her description of the chewy, creamy, buttery and salty yumminess shoved candy corn out of my head and got me thinking, obsessively, about caramels. So I braved the corner deli once more, looking both ways before I went in, and grabbed a few Kraft caramels by the cash register.
One word: Yuck. I’d forgotten how lame they are. They don’t even have any caramel flavor. The fake vanilla aftertaste is hideous and the texture is so creepy. Clearly, I was on my own here. I’d seen Ina Garten make Fleur de Sel Caramels on the Barefoot Contessa and they looked incredible. Funnily, but not surprisingly, her recipe and the one I found on epicurious were identical except she seemed to think hers yielded 16 pieces while epicurious said to cut their batch into 40 squares. If you listened to Ina you would literally have an entire mouthful of caramel that would take a half hour to get through, and you’d resemble a cow chewing her cud. Not pretty.
This recipe is incredibly easy and you really can’t let yourself be intimidated by words like “candy thermometer.” The thermometer is your friend and only helps you achieve a fantastic result. These caramels are exactly what I was imagining when Margot described her new-found treats. I can’t believe there was a time when I didn’t know about the beautiful marriage of salt and caramel. After just one I vowed never to buy cheap candy again, at least until December 1st when my dish will be filled with pretty red and green Hershey’s Kisses. Until then, Happy Halloween!
Most Wonderful Time Sea Salt Caramels
Adapted from Barefoot Contessa, How Easy is That?, Ina Garten 2010
Printer friendly version
1½ cups sugar
¼ cup light corn syrup
1 cup heavy cream
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon fleur de sel or Maldon sea salt, plus extra for sprinkling
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Line an 8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper, then brush the paper lightly with oil, allowing the paper to drape over 2 sides.
In a 3-4 quart, heavy saucepan, combine ¼ cup water, the sugar and corn syrup and bring them to a boil over medium-high heat. Boil until the mixture is a warm golden brown. Don’t stir – just swirl the pan to mix. Watch carefully, once it turns golden it will burn really fast!
In the meantime, in a small pan, bring the cream, butter, and 1 teaspoon of fleur de sel to a simmer over medium heat. Turn off the heat and set aside.
When the sugar mixture is a warm golden color, turn off the heat and slowly add the cream mixture to the sugar mixture. Be careful - it will bubble up violently. Stir in the vanilla with a wooden spoon and cook over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes, until the mixture reaches 248 degrees (firm ball) on a candy thermometer. Very carefully pour the caramel into the prepared pan and let sit undisturbed for several hours or over-night until completely cool.
Once cool, lift the sheet of caramel out of the pan onto a cutting board. Cut the sheet in half. Starting with a long side, roll one piece of the caramel up tightly into an 8-inch-long log. Repeat with the second piece. Sprinkle both logs with fleur de sel, trim the ends, and cut each log in 20 pieces.
Cut wax, glassine or parchment papers into 3 1/2 x 4-inch pieces and wrap each caramel individually, twisting the ends.For longer shelf life, keep in the fridge but allow to come to room temperature to really enjoy them.
Yield: 40 pieces