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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.
 
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It's a gray Sunday afternoon and Franny and Jordan are playing Scategories at the dining room table with their friend, Charlotte, so it must be time for me to bake cookies! 

I'm making my favorite chocolate, chocolate chip cookies which are the same as Barefoot Contessa's Chocolate White Chocolate Chunk Cookies except I substitute chocolate chips for the white chocolate chunks. I do this because I always have chocolate chips in the pantry (unless Dave has eaten them all), and second, because I find white chocolate too sweet.

The contrast of the white on dark brown cookie does make for a more enticing-looking cookie, but I prefer the semi-sweet taste of the chocolate chips.

Ina Garten always scoops her cookies with a spring-loaded ice cream scooper or melon baller to get a uniform size. I don't think that's necessary because they don't have to be perfect. 

She then presses them gently with her finger (finger dipped in water so the dough won't stick) to get an even spread of the cookies as it cooks while still retaining the nooks and valleys that give this cookie a terrific texture. 

These have already been flattened. As you can see, it's a very slight depression.
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On the first batch, I forgot to make the depression with my finger, and this is how they came out. Definitely more jaggedy, but still delicious. The kids voted accordingly: Charlotte liked the first batch better, Jordan and me the second, and Franny didn't care.
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We all agree that the finger-depressed cookies look better so we plan to stick with that!
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Cookies with friends. What could be better?
Chocolate Chocolate Chip Cookies, from Barefoot Contessa's Chocolate White Chocolate Chunk Cookies
Yield:  about 3 dozen cookies

1/2 lb. room temperature butter
1 C sugar
1 C brown sugar
2 Large (or XL) eggs
2 tsp. vanilla
2/3 C cocoa powder, unsweetened

Dry ingredients
2C flour, unbleached
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt

2C semi-sweet chocolate chips

Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees.

Cream butter in a standing mixer. Add both sugars, eggs, and vanilla. After mixing well, add cocoa powder. Careful, it will float up and dust everything! Toss a kitchen towel over the mixer if you want to catch the dust. Mix the cocoa powder in well. 

Gradually add the dry ingredients and be careful not to overbeat. Hand stir in the chocolate chips, scraping the bottom and the sides to mix in any dry ingredients.

Using your wooden spoon or a soup spoon, spoon the batter on to a parchment-lined sheet pan. Don't overcrowd. I usually only put 9 to a half-sheet pan. Wet fingertips and flatten slightly.

Cook for 11 minutes if making 3 dozen cookies. Ina's recipe makes larger cookies and so she cooks hers for 15 minutes. Be sure to not overcook. These are best when they are chewy in the middle but crusty on the edges.

Addendum from May 5, 2013: 
Having just written about salt, I think Ina Garten always uses kosher salt, even when she bakes. I use table salt when I bake, and you really can taste the salt in the above cookies. Personally I like this because it creates a complex umami flavor like eating caramels with sea salt. Next time I bake these cookies, maybe I'll try them with Diamond Crystal kosher salt and see if we can taste the difference.