These caramels are to.die.for. I got the recipe from Mel's Kitchen Cafe a couple years ago, and I've made them quite a few times. I tried modifying them once as chocolate caramels, and they were just ok. I felt like they lost a lot of their sweetness and complexity by adding chocolate.
My best advice? Make these. Don't be scared by the fact that you need a candy thermometer. They're not scary, and they actually help ensure your candy turns out just right!
Mel's Mom's Famous Caramels
makes one 9x13 or 10x10 pan of caramels
Recipe from Mel at Mel's Kitchen Cafe
*Note: I prefer to use a nonstick pot. If you use a stainless steel pot, be prepared to have a burned layer on the bottom. The rest of your caramel will taste fine, but be careful not to scrape the bottom of the pot when you mix in the vanilla (and nuts, if using). I HIGHLY recommend using nonstick, but if you don't have any, just beware that you will have a mess to clean up, but your caramels will be fine. Using nonstick may not completely prevent a burned layer, I've had it go both ways. This time, no burned layer at all, but I've made them before in nonstick and they still burned on the bottom but the burned layer just slid right out of the pan. So...my word of advice? Use a nonstick pot. You will thank yourself for it when it's all said and done.
2 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups light corn syrup
1 (14 oz.) can sweetened condensed milk, divided
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup butter
2 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 cups chopped, toasted nuts (if desired)
Line pan with parchment and butter parchment. Set aside. If you don't have parchment, just make sure to butter your pan really well.
Step 1 - Dump your sugar, corn syrup, *half* the sweetened condensed milk (just eyeball it, it doesn't need to be exact), salt, and butter into a pot. Attach your candy thermometer to the side of the pot and turn heat to medium-low or medium. I find that I can get away with "medium" on my stove, especially since I've made these numerous times, but if you're new to this, stick with medium-low until you get the hang of making these. Stir the mixture the entire time to ensure that all the sugar is melted, or you'll end up with grainy caramels, and no one wants that.
Once all your sugar is melted, you can let the mixture come to a full, rolling boil and add the rest of the sweetened condensed milk. Stir until your sugary mixture returns to a boil and then STOP stirring. You can cause recrystalization if you continue stirring at this point (which also results in grainy caramels).
Second boil after the rest of the sweetened condensed milk is added.
You can see the color deepening...this is good!
Let the mixture boil until it reaches a temperature between 234F and 248F. Keep in mind that the lower the temperature, the softer they'll be. I personally prefer mine to be around 245F. They're still soft enough to cut through once they're cool, but they keep their shape. If you cook them closer to 234F, they will be VERY soft...kind of like saltwater taffy that has been left in the heat. Too soft for me, but do as you please!
The butter is separating from the solids...don't worry, they'll come back together
Once your caramels reach the desired temperature, remove them from the heat, stir in the vanilla (and nuts if you're using them). Pour the mixture into your pan (and, if you're me, sprinkle coarse sea salt over the top...yummm) and let cool completely. I always leave mine overnight to be safe.
You'll have some "rough" edges, but just cut them off and snack on them while you're wrapping up the rest ;)
Cut them to your desired size and wrap in waxed paper squares. Gift them or keep them for yourself...your call!