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Homemade fleur de sel caramels
Early in our relationship, Dave practiced what he believed to be a Danish tradition where on your birthday, you received candy in your shoes. I loved this idea and reciprocated on his birthday. Dave believed this was part of his Danish heritage, a vague memory from his youth, but we later learned from his mom that no such practice existed. In actuality, Danes just eat a lot of chocolate, and his memory was of his German neighbor's family receiving whole nuts (not chocolates) which were rolled down the hallway by, I think, Santa on Christmas eve. No shoes in sight. This multicultural mash-up has become a wonderful and totally unique-to-our family custom where you receive candy in your shoes on the morning of your birthday. The night before, you place your shoes (or fuzzy slippers) near your bedside, and after you fall asleep, your family fills them with candy. When you wake up, before presents or breakfast, you dive in and eat decadent and fancily packaged chocolates, old standby's like See's Candies, and drugstore favorites like Smarties or Swedish Fish. More recently, the tradition also includes salted caramels. Each year we try new artisanal interpretations, but I always come back to my favorites: the dark chocolate, gray salt caramels from Fran's Chocolates, based in Seattle, WA. 

On my last Free Friday, Franny and I gave Barefoot Contessa's Fleur de Sel Caramels a try. These were easier to make than I expected. My attempt a couple of month's ago to make caramel sauce was a total flop so I was unsure how these would go. These are delicious—maybe a bit too sweet for me, but next time, I think I can remedy that by browning the caramel longer before adding the cream. Also, these are considerably less sticky sweet when eaten straight from the refrigerator. 

How do these homemade caramels compare to Fran's Chocolates? They aren't quite as good—I enjoy the addition of the dark chocolate and the smoother consistency of Fran's—but they are really quite delicious, and I think if I keep practicing, these sea salt caramels will make a great holiday gift.
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Line an 8" x 8" pan with parchment paper that drapes over the edge of two sides to aid in the removal of the cooled caramel. Brush paper with a thin coating of vegetable oil, which helps too.
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Franny uses the mortar & pestle to break the salt into finer crystals.
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Combine water, light corn syrup and sugar. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat.
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Keep swirling (not stirring) the sugar mixture.
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After about five minutes, the sugar mixture is turning light brown. It's important to watch the sugar carefully, as it can go from perfect to burnt easily.
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This gorgeous tawny color was achieved after about 10 minutes. I added the cream at this point, but next time, I'm waiting longer for a darker caramel color resulting in, hopefully, even more depth of flavor.
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Add the cream mixture slowly to avoid the sugar mixture from bubbling out of the pot.
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Stir with a wooden spoon and insert a candy thermometer. Remove from heat when the temperature reaches 248 degrees. The mixture will continue to get darker.
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Poor into prepared pan and chill for about an hour in the refrigerator.
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Franny after a successful removal of the slab of caramel from the pan.
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Cut the square in half, then roll each half length-wise.
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Sprinkle generously with fleur de sel. For same size pieces, cut log in half, then by repeated halves to desired size. Brush the blade of your knife with vegetable oil to prevent the caramel from sticking.
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Pre-cut parchment paper and wrap individual pieces. Twist the ends in opposite directions to form an old-fashioned wrapper. Store in an air-tight container and refrigerate. I think they taste best when served cold.
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These pieces are each 1/8 of a log. I think they could easily be cut smaller as the caramels are very rich.
Fleur de Sel Caramels, from Barefoot Contessa: How Easy is That?
Yield:  About 16 large, or 32 bite-size caramels

Equipment
8" square baking pan
heavy & deep saucepan (I used my 2-1/2 quart, 6" wide by 4" deep Calphalon saucepan)*
small saucepan
parchment paper
pastry brush
wooden spoon
kitchen knife
candy thermometer
cutting board
*sauce pan size is important. Using too big of a pot will cause the sugar to cook too quickly and makes the consistency gritty.

Ingredients
vegetable oil
1-1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1 cup heavy cream
5T unsalted butter
1 tsp fleur de sel (French sea salt), plus extra for sprinkling
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract

Procedure
1. Line the square baking pan with parchment paper, leaving the paper longer on two sides so it drapes over the edge. This aids in the removal of the sticky caramel from the pan.
2. Brush the paper lightly with vegetable oil
3. In the deep saucepan, combine 1/4 cup water, sugar & corn syrup and bring to boil over medium-high heat. Do not stir, but instead swirl the pan. Keep an eye on the mixture as it can burn easily.
4. In the small saucepan, bring the cream, butter and 1 tsp of fleur de sel to a simmer over medium heat. Once combined, set aside.
5. When the sugar mixture has a dark amber color (see photos above, approx. 10-12 minutes), remove from heat and slowly add the cream mixture to the sugar mixture. It will bubble up (violently if you pour the cream mixture too fast) so be careful not to burn yourself, but it is fun potion-making-like to see it froth up.
6. Add vanilla and stir with a wooden spoon over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes. Insert the candy thermometer and monitor regularly. It will continue to darken.
7. When the mixture reaches 248 degrees (candy thermometers call this "firm ball"), very gently pour this VERY hot mixture into the prepared pan.
8. Refrigerate for about an hour or until firm.
9. Cut parchment paper into 4" x 5" squares to use for individual caramel wrappers. Set aside.
10. Once caramel is cold (it will be easier to remove from pan in one piece), use the parchment paper handles to lift the caramel (you might need to pry a little) onto the cutting board.
11. Cut the square of caramel in half with a sharp knife.
12. Start with one of the sheets of caramel and roll lengthwise into a tight 8-inch-long log. If the caramel is not malleable enough, wait a minute for it to soften at room temperature. 
13. Repeat with second piece.
14. Sprinkle both logs with fleur de sel.
15. Trim the ends (and sample!). If it's too sticky, brush vegetable oil on the knife for easier cutting.
16. Cut each log into 8 pieces. The easiest way to do this is to cut the log in half, then in half again, then each smaller segment in half once more. Repeat with second log. If you want smaller pieces, cut log once in half, and then approximate smaller, equal slices.
17. To wrap each caramel, place in a piece of parchment, fold to cover, and twist the ends.
18. Store in the refrigerator in an air-tight container and serve the caramels chilled.

After refrigerating, the fleur de sel crystals may dissolve or become transparent, but they still taste great. You can always re-sprinkle with a bit more fleur de sel after plating on a serving dish. Serve chilled for best flavor.
 
 
There is something extremely satisfying about yard work. The sense of accomplishment is so straight-forward. There were weeds; now there aren't (at least no more visible ones). I spent a couple of hours cutting back overgrown ivy along the side of our house. Its tentacles threading their way under landscaping fabric and popping up on the other side of the path. Tendrils of sticky, fuzzy vines gripping and choking nearby decorative olive trees. My arm aches from all the yanking, but it was impossible to stop. How could I discontinue the frenzied cutting, pulling and digging when my adversary was obviously not abiding by the length of wood trim that demarcates no man's land from pathway? Chaos reigns. Nature overrides all attempts to create control. 

Satisfaction from seeing my pile of discarded ivy cheered me forward. One tree free of the strangulating ivy, now two, only two more to go. I know my body will pay for this tomorrow. I know, that as in everything, I should set boundaries, but compulsion prevails. And why not? Where else in life do you see the proof of your hard work in such tangible evidence? 

There is also the meditative, quiet space of yard work. There's time to analyze, to daydream, to ruminate, and all occur under the protective spell of physical labor that reminds me that I am not wasting my time. At the end of the hour, there will be visible transformation. My labors will be evident. I will feel vindicated that I have done something. I will have earned my extra long shower, I will have earned my slovenly behavior on the couch. 

I wish that my mind weren't such a whirling dervish of activity. I wish that it were easier for me to just sit and watch t.v. or read my book. Why do I have to "earn" my relaxation time, in order to shut off the self-judgement? Isn't the five days at work enough to garner an actual weekend? This task master behavior has been a long-time companion but has improved over the past year. I have allowed myself more creativity and down time. There is a certain ease to my day that I had never experienced before, or at least had not experienced since I was pregnant. It's hard to remember what it was like pre-babies. I struggled with a post back in June—about pregnancy, lonesomeness and loss—that I just couldn't publish. It caused a drought of writing these past many weeks and consequently I missed my goal of three posts a month. In fact, there was not a single post in June. I guess the feelings weren't ready to be out there. I think writing and re-writing the entry did help me to process some lingering pain, though I wonder if actually sharing via a post may have been even more cathartic. For now, I will leave it as a private journal entry and may try again later. For today, I will sit with my achy shoulder and be glad that I conquered some ivy and then wrote.