Don't Be Scared Salted Chocolate Caramels

Last week I started thinking a lot about fear. I noticed an obituary (don’t worry, I’m not going to talk about death) for Jerilyn Ross, a therapist and “Advocate for the Anxious.” She had become an advocate after becoming a sufferer. While visiting Salzburg (home of my previously mentioned favorite tourist attraction—“The Sound of Music” tour,) she was overcome by an overwhelming fear of heights. Not very convenient when vacationing in the Alps, I’d imagine. She later became known as the “phobia lady” and founded an organization that raised the public profile (and funds) for everything from social anxiety to O.C.D. to post-traumatic stress. These are conditions we are all familiar with now. It seems so odd that 30 years ago these disorders were still being figured out and the sufferers suffered shamefully and alone. Oh dear, I’m not talking about death, but this is a little sad.I’ve had various fears over the course of my life, but what is so strange to me is just how fluid the fears are. For example, when I was a kid I loved to swim. Pool, ocean, pond—I had no issues. Now when I’m at the beach I wouldn’t consider diving in. Okay, ruining my blow-out factors into my resistance, but I think fear is what turns the hesitation into refusal. What happened between eight years old and twenty years old to turn me from a fish to a landlubber? My niece put the question perfectly, “you like to drink water so why don’t you like to go in the water?” I really don’t know.I used to suffer from fear of heights, or acrophobia as the professionals call it. Years ago I was taken to Windows on the World for dinner and insisted on sitting with my back to the Windows. Now, when I’m on a high perch I don’t really think about it. Granted, I wouldn’t relish the idea of being on a rooftop 80 stories above the ground but my heart wouldn’t race. What happened there? I never did any cognitive behavioral therapy to overcome my phobia. It just kind of drifted away by itself to be replaced by….

Claustrophobia. I now cannot be in close, crowded places without my pulse quickening. The biggest offenders are elevators and subways, but a new twist is theaters. If I’m not sitting on an aisle I need to be sitting next to people I know who are sitting on the aisle. Make sense? I’d guess not if you don’t have this specific issue. I can’t be in the middle of a row surrounded by strangers because what if there is an emergency and I have to get out? Like what if all of a sudden I have to go to the bathroom or feel like I’m going to be sick or just need to get some air so “pardon me, ‘scuse me” please let me out of here!
Just writing that made me anxious. Speaking of anxious let’s talk about flying. Air travel combines the best of all the phobias—you have the closed in of claustrophobia, the 35,000 feet above sea level of acrophobia and the lack of control of, well, lack of control says it all. Again, my fear of flying comes in waves and then goes away for years. There was one Christmas vacation in the late 80’s when a flight to Key West involved two connections and two perfectly timed Xanax. Until one flight was delayed so another Xanax was necessary and then the flight was completely cancelled and there I was in the Memphis airport on Christmas day unable to walk a straight line. I slept at the Radisson for 13 hours straight while my family enjoyed the meal vouchers without me. Yet a few years later I flew round-trip to LA alone with no problem at all. Where’d the fear go? The fact is, the fear may be back but I never go anywhere so I have no way of testing my theory. Although, maybe that’s actually why I don’t go anywhere—for fear the fear has returned. I’m afraid this will remain a mystery until I win an all-expenses-paid vacation to Honolulu on a game show.The presence of the above mentioned phobias doesn't really affect my day-to-day life. But when a certain anxiety threatened my sweet tooth I had to take action. I can live without air travel and pool diving and I can always find an aisle seat (even if I have to sit in the first or last row of the theater) but I cannot live without caramel. My fear started when I attempted a recipe I’d already made a handful of drama-free times and found myself so skittish and paralyzed around the boiling hot sugar that I let the mixture soar to the soft crack stage (270-290 degrees) ruining both the caramel and the pot I was cooking it in. I’m not sure why this happened. It might have been the pressure I was under. My mother, a wonderful PR woman for her daughter, had done such an effective sales pitch that one of her friends had commissioned a batch. It’s one thing when I decide on my own to take on a project involving a candy thermometer and 100% of my attention, it’s another when I know there is an expectant mouth and $10 worth of Callebaut chocolate at stake.
This resistance to candy making has really been cramping my style. I have a pile of confectionery recipes that I’ve been dying to try but have shied away from for fear of ruining another pot and acknowledging that my sweet tooth skill-set is missing a skill. I figured the best way to conquer my fear was to take a baby-step, sort of my own cognitive behavioral therapy. Why not try making the thing that caused me the anxiety in the first place but also the thing I know I really can make successfully? So, to that end, I took out the thermometer, used my Le Creuset pot (the best for caramel making I’ve found) and overcame my molten sucrose phobia. I’d like to thank the late Jerilyn Ross for helping to change society’s thinking and for creating an environment in which I need not suffer in silence. If only getting over every fear tasted this good.

Note: These are sweet, salty, chewy and chocolate-y and not for denture wearers. If you scorch your pot do not worry. Get as much off with hot water as you can then fill the pot with a little dish soap and water, about half way, and bring to a boil. All of the burnt sugar and chocolate will come right off. See my before and after below.
Don't Be Scared Salted Chocolate Caramels
Gourmet, December 2006
2 cups heavy cream
10 1/2 oz fine-quality dark chocolate (no more than 60% cacao if marked), finely chopped
1 3/4 cups sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/4 cup water
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon pieces
2 teaspoons flaky sea salt such as Maldon
Vegetable oil for greasing

Line bottom and sides of an 8-inch straight-sided square metal baking pan with 2 long sheets of crisscrossed parchment.
Bring cream just to a boil in a 1- to 1 1/2-quart heavy saucepan over moderately high heat, then reduce heat to low and add chocolate. Let stand 1 minute, then stir until chocolate is completely melted. Remove from heat.
Bring sugar, corn syrup, water, and salt to a boil in a 5- to 6-quart heavy pot over moderate heat, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Boil, uncovered, without stirring but gently swirling pan occasionally, until sugar is deep golden, about 10 minutes.
Tilt pan and carefully pour in chocolate mixture (mixture will bubble and steam vigorously). Continue to boil over moderate heat, stirring frequently, until mixture registers 255°F on thermometer, about 15 minutes.
Add butter, stirring until completely melted, then immediately pour into lined baking pan (do not scrape any caramel clinging to bottom or side of saucepan).

Let caramel stand 10 minutes, then sprinkle evenly with sea salt. Cool completely in pan on a rack, about 2 hours.
Carefully invert caramel onto a clean, dry cutting board, then peel off parchment. Turn caramel salt side up.
Lightly oil blade of a large heavy knife and cut into 1-inch squares.
Yield: 64 caramels
More notes: Additional sea salt can be pressed onto caramels after cutting.
Caramels keep, layered between sheets of parchment or wax paper, in an airtight container at cool room temperature 2 weeks or they can be wrapped in 4-inch squares of wax paper; twist ends to close.

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