One of my favorite memories as a child was arriving at Nanny’s house and first running to see what was cooking (usually fried chicken and mashed potatoes with lemon and chocolate pies for dessert!) and then to the candy dish to see what goodies Nanny had stocked up on. It was always overflowing with Brach’s candy – you know the kind where you could bag up any kinds you liked and buy them by the pound. There was always a variety, but all us kids loved the caramels the best! I can remember sometimes going to the candy dish and picking out several of the caramels to stash away in my drawer so that my little brother wouldn’t get them. Yes, my reputation as the mean big sister was sometimes deserved.
Recently I ran across a recipe in my mountains of “things I want to try someday” notebooks (the old school version of Pinterest) for homemade sweetened condensed milk. Then I found a recipe for homemade caramels. It was meant to be!
The sweetened condensed milk was easy and so much cheaper than buying it (did you know it’s over $2 a can now?). It does take some time, but you don’t have to babysit it too much.
Here’s all you have to do…
Put 1 1/2 cups milk and 2/3 cup sugar in a heavy pan. Put it on medium-low heat and stir until you see steam starting to come off the milk and the sugar is dissolved. Reduce heat to the lowest setting and let it sit while you do other things. I came back and stirred mine every 15-30 minutes just to check on its progress. Your goal is to reduce this by about half (to just a smidge over a cup – a smidge is half an ounce give or take – for those who don’t understand Becky-ese). Depending on your stove this could take between 2-3 hours. You can turn the heat up a tad to speed up the process, but you will need to check it more often. I kept a large measuring cup (2 cup) next to the pot and just periodically poured the milk in to see how close I was getting. When you have it down to that 1 (and a smidge) cup, add 3 Tablespoons butter and 1 teaspoon vanilla and whisk. Depending on what you are doing with it, you may want to let it cool to room temperature or put it in the fridge. (This is not shelf-stable as a can of Eagle Brand would be) I refrigerated mine overnight and the next morning the butter had caused it to solidify somewhat. But I just stirred it and let it come to room temperature, then shook it well before using it in my recipe and everything turned out perfect.
Now we are getting to the good part. The recipe for homemade caramels.
Here’s what you need:
- 1 cup butter
- 16 oz pkg of brown sugar
- dash of salt
- 1 cup Karo syrup
- 1 can sweetened condensed milk (or 1 recipe as prepared above)
- 1 tsp vanilla
Butter a 9×9 pan. Melt butter over medium heat in a large heavy saucepan. Mine was a 2 quart pan and it was really too small. The caramel bubbled right up to the edge.
Add brown sugar and salt and stir until no lumps remain (it can look gritty, but not lumpy). Stir in the corn syrup. Gradually stir in sweetened condensed milk. Allow to cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, to firm ball stage (245 degrees). It will take 20-30 minutes of having the candy at a good boil to get to this temperature. Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla. Pour into your prepared pan. Try not to burn your tongue when you lick the spoon (and we all KNOW you’re gonna lick the spoon!).
Allow to cool almost completely. I let mine sit for almost two hours. I ran a paring knife around the edge and dumped out the slightly warm candy. At any point in this process if your candy sticks a little to the pan, or to the knife when you are cutting, just wet your fingers with a little warm water and smooth over the rough area.
I used a ruler to score straight lines. This time I made traditional caramel cubes, but I think it might also be fun (and easier to wrap) to make caramel sticks like Tootsie Rolls. I used a large knife dipped in hot water to cut the cubes along the score lines. This isn’t easy – I really had to lean into it – but it was worth it in the end.
You can wrap these in waxed paper and keep them at room temperature for about a week, or in the fridge for about a month. I’ve heard you can also freeze them to keep them for several months.