Sea Salt Caramels in the Raw

Is there such a thing as caramel season? Can the seasonal eating experts weigh in here, please? Because I just don't know. I suppose fall would most likely be caramel season because of its toasty, warm flavor and apple-friendly demeanor, but I can't be sure. In the meantime, I'll just keep eating my way through early summer, subsisting mainly on these awesome sea salt caramels. Rustle of paper, chew, chew, sigh, chew.

So I know salted caramel has been all up in our area for the better part of three years now and I'm a little late in sharing a recipe in this category with you. But that doesn't mean I haven't been eating as much of it as humanly possible before now. In fact, and I will sort of shield my eyes as I say this, I hold caramel in a higher regard than chocolate. Especially the buttery, salted variety. When done right, it's just smack-the-table good.

Plus, besides the epically awesome flavor here, I think I have something new and pretty flippin' exciting to offer you in the salted caramel candy department. These caramels are made with no corn syrup or white sugar whatsoever. And it was all a happy accident. Kind of like the whole penicillin thing. Except delicious. And not creepy. Come along.

I was all set to make a batch of traditional sea salt caramels, largely due to a very loud, specific and insistent craving for them. But as I started to pull ingredients from the pantry, I realized I was way short on corn syrup, mostly due to a so-crazy-I-had-to-try-it brownie recipe that I'll share with you in the near future. Also, on that particular day I was so spacy I forgot one of the pillars upon which I build my personal character, also known as mise en place, and, duh, I already had a stick of butter for the recipe melting on the stovetop. Seriously, duh. I know better.

But I stood up straight, flicked my head back like Blanche Deveraux (God rest her soul, don't even get me started) and plowed ahead, boldly replacing the corn syrup with agave nectar and while I was at it, swapping out the white sugar for raw, toasty turbinado (also known by the brand name Sugar in the Raw). And then I tried not to think about how it really might not work.

Except it did, people. The caramel bubbled up beautifully (I took it a few degrees hotter just to account for the extra water that agave nectar has that corn syrup doesn't) and it took on an even deeper, richer color and flavor thanks to the raw sugar. It set up firm enough to cut, but still luxuriously soft and pleasantly chewy in the mouth. Buttery, salty, sweet--everything that a great caramel should be. The extra sprinkling of sea salt is the killer here. Dang.

And in the very background, if you really pay attention, you'll taste something else, a sort of quiet earthiness from the natural sweeteners in this recipe, rounded out by a touch of rum that keeps the sweetness from being too one-note. I think these are really something special. And if you're looking for a last-minute Father's Day gift, I seriously can't think of anything better. Unless your dad has had a lot of dental work. Or is diabetic. Then maybe you should just go for a tie in that case.

Sea Salt Caramels in the Raw

If you'd like to make this recipe using white sugar and corn syrup instead, increase the syrup to 1/2 cup. Regular brown sugar has more moisture than white or turbinado sugars and is not recommended.

Try to use the best coarse salt you can get your hands on here--avoid table salt at all costs (in addition to subpar flavor, it doesn't measure the same as coarse salt). In a pinch, you can use kosher, but I really recommend a nice crunchy, crumbly fleur de sel, particulary for sprinkling.

Also, I really like vanilla bean paste here because it does double duty of vanilla extract flavor and gives a nice visual of bean flecks in the caramel, but you can just use 1 1/2 teaspoons of vanilla extract instead.

Makes about 4 dozen caramels, depending on size

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter 1 1/4 cups turbinado sugar 1/2 cup heavy cream 1/3 cup light agave nectar 1 1/2 teaspoons coarse sea salt, plus more for sprinkling (see note) 2 teaspoons dark rum (optional) 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla bean paste or extract (see note)

Line an 8x8 inch baking pan with aluminum foil and spray it generously with nonstick cooking spray.

In a heavy medium saucepan over medium high heat, melt together the butter, sugar, cream and agave nectar. Bring it to a boil, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Clip a candy thermometer to the pot and reduce the heat to low, stirring occassionally, until the caramel reaches 248 degrees (this can take anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes or maybe longer--don't rush it). As you see the temperature creeping towards 248, stir in the salt and the rum. When the caramel hits 248, pull the pot from the heat and stir in the vanilla.

Pour the caramel into the prepared pan set over a wire rack and let it cool, undisturbed, at room temperature overnight, or if you're in a rush, 30 minutes at room temperature and another 30 minutes or so in the refrigerator until the caramel is very firm.

Line a cutting surface with a sheet of parchment paper and turn the caramel slab out onto it. Use a large sharp knife to cut the caramel into neat, even pieces (I like mine to be about 1 x 1 1/2 inches). Lightly sprinkle the caramels with more sea salt and wrap them in squares of parchment or waxed paper. Store at room temperature.

CandyShauna Sever