I absolutely love Christmas. It’s my favorite time of year. As an Australian who’s used to southern-hemisphere summer Christmases, you cannot imagine how enchanting it is to me that it’s snowy right now. I’ve literally been “dreaming of a White Christmas” my whole life, and it might come true this year! How utterly entrancing; I’m just so delighted. But the giving season does come with its share of stress, doesn’t it? In December, apart from Christmas itself, we have the birthdays of my father, my sister, both my husband’s parents, and our son. Five immediate family birthdays! Needless to say, the budget gets a little blown out, especially with shipping to my family back in Australia. Phew! So, I like to save a little money if I can, and one of the ways I try to do that is by hand-making rather than buying some gifts.
This year I’ve gotten into crocheting, which has been incredibly fulfilling for me and actually surprisingly meditative. But this isn’t a crochet column, is it? No, you’re here for the food. We both know it. So, on with the show!
I always try to give edible gifts to the people in my life who I don’t know very well, but who are nevertheless crucial to my very existence. Our lovely mail carrier, for example, who is an absolute legend, as we say in the homeland, and the amazing Casella workers who empty our trash every week, rain, snow or shine. What would we do without them? One of the traditions I’ve brought over here from Australia is always giving the trash collectors (or “garbos” as they’re called back home) something at Christmas. In true Aussie fashion, it’s usually a six-pack. My dad has done that every single year as long as I can remember. They are superstars.
I have a few tips for making edible gifts that I have learned over the years. The first is about safety: label your food with ingredients (little gift tags work for this!), ensure your utensils are squeaky clean, and keep your kitchen hygiene even more on point than usual. You don’t want to make anyone sick, or set off any unintentional allergic reactions.
The next is to buy some little boxes, jars, or tins, cute gift tags, and festive twine. It really makes a difference, and when the contents are consumed, the giftee has a container for reuse and isn’t contributing to the landfill. Hooray!
Lastly, for small items in jars like today’s treats, cut up some wax paper into appropriately sized squares and make cute little twists around your treats. This looks great and also stops them from sticking together.
For this week’s edible gift, I decided to make chocolate salted caramels. I found the recipe on the Land o’ Lakes website of all places, and it sounded like the kind of thing that I could whip up in an afternoon and have ready for the next day.
I learned some hard lessons today, folks. Well, actually, it’s only one lesson, but it took me two batches to learn it adequately, apparently. The lesson is this: under no circumstances are you to turn the heat up to more than medium, or leave the kitchen. Do not do these things. TWICE I burned the mixture and had lumpy brown scummy bits in my caramel. Devastating stuff. Take your time, be present, and stir constantly, or at least very frequently. I also thought the first batch was WAY too oily so I reduced the butter in the second (and third) batches just by ¼ and I think it is better).
Chocolate salted caramels
(adapted from Land o’Lakes, who of course recommend you use their lovely butter)
- 1 ½ sticks salted butter
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 cups firmly packed brown sugar
- ¾ cup light corn syrup
- 1 can (14 oz.) sweetened condensed milk
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 cup chocolate chips, dark or semi-sweet depending on your preference
- ¼ cup heavy cream
- 1 teaspoon flaky sea salt
Line a brownie pan or other 9”x 9” pan with foil and grease the foil with butter. You can also use candy molds for festive shapes, and I recommend using the flexible silicone ones, as they shouldn’t need greasing and are easy to remove. Set pan and/or candy molds aside.
In a heavy saucepan, melt together butter, salt, brown sugar, corn syrup, and condensed milk over medium heat. Bring the mixture to a slow boil, which should take about 10 minutes. Stir very frequently.
Continue to cook at a slow boil, stirring all the time, until a candy thermometer reads 240-242F or a drop of the mixture into cold water forms a small, pliable ball (but honestly, a thermometer is best). Remove from heat, pour into pan and/or molds. For molds, I poured the caramel into a liquid measuring cup to be more precise, and filled the molds about ¾ of the way. Any excess I scraped off with a bench scraper; a large knife would do the job, too. Set poured caramel aside to cool for 2 hours.
Melt the chocolate and cream together in 15-second bursts in the microwave, mixing in between each burst until smooth. Pour mixture evenly over the caramels; again I used a measuring cup and scraped the top so they’d be lovely and flat for the molds, and for the brownie tin I used an offset spatula to smooth the top. Wait 5 mins, then sprinkle with a little salt. Set in fridge until completely cool, then portion and wrap in wax paper twists.
Loosely pack wrapped caramels into gift boxes, jars, or tins, pop some twine around the lid with a gift tag, and you are good to go!