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Beer Caramels

Cooking with Beer by | Oct 2012 | Issue #69

Photos by Sean Z. Paxton

I have fond memories of the Brach’s caramels I’d get in my jack-o’-lantern on Halloween night. I’d eat them the first week and they stayed pretty soft, but over time, they got a little harder and chewier, sticking to my teeth. This caramel recipe takes that candy idea, adds beer, some salt and other sophisticated flavors, while preserving my childhood experience and the excitement of unwrapping those cellophane candies. At your Oktoberfest or Halloween party, pair these caramels with different beers to enhance the beer experience or treat the parents to their own Halloween candy at the door.

Makes: about 64 pieces

Base Caramel Ingredients:
12 oz beer (see note)
4 oz unsalted butter, European style (high butter fat content)
1 cup cream, heavy or whipping
1 cup light brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1 tsp fleur de sel or other flaked salt, plus more for garnish

Base Caramel Directions/Technique:
In a small saucepan over low heat, add 6 ounces of beer and slowly reduce. Watch the evaporation, tilting the pot periodically over 20 minutes, intensifying the flavor of the beer, while not scorching the sugars. The beer should reduce down to about an ounce. Turn the heat off and have the beer ready to add to the caramel when it hits the desired temperature.

While the beer is reducing, in a larger pot/Dutch oven with a thick core, add the remaining 6 ounces of beer (minus any sediment), butter, cream, brown sugar, corn syrup and salt. Place the pot over medium-high heat, and stir the ingredients until the sugar is dissolved and the butter has melted. Do not stir the caramel, as this can form sugar crystals and cause the caramel to become grainy. Instead, tilt the pot from the handles to check the color and temperature. In the beginning, the bubbles of the boiling syrup will be large. As the temperature rises, the bubbles will become smaller and the color of the liquid (when not using a Stout) will become a medium to dark toffee color.

As the caramel is cooking, line a 9-by-9-inch glass or metal pan with parchment or wax paper. If making “beer turtles” or “nuts & chews,” line a sheet tray with a Silpat or parchment paper, and set aside.

The temperature of the caramel determines the candy’s final texture. Using an instant-read or candy thermometer, check the temperature of the caramel. If you enjoy softer caramels, remove from the heat when the caramel registers 240–245°F or a soft-ball stage. If you like a chewier finished product, let the temperature come up to 245–250°F or a firm-ball stage. If a thermometer isn’t available, fill a beer glass with cold water and a few ice cubes. Using a spoon, drip a few drops of the caramel into the water. If the caramel forms a ball, it has reached the desired temperature.

Pull the sample after a few minutes (allowing it to cool) and squeeze it between your fingers. If the texture is soft, it is in the soft-ball stage; if more firm and less forgiving, it is in the hard-ball stage. Remove the pot from the heat, and carefully stir in the beer reduction and any other flavorings. If working with the caramel for a few minutes, turn the heat of the stovetop to low, allowing the caramel to stay warm and more workable.

Pour the hot caramel into the prepared, pre-lined pan, or portion the caramel over nuts/seeds/other extra ingredients. Let the caramel sit for at least two hours in a cool area to set. Once fully cool, flip out the hardened caramel onto a cutting board. Removing the paper and using a ruler, divide the square into eight rows across and eight rows down, making 64 cubes. If the caramel sticks to your knife, lightly oil the blade with a non-flavored vegetable oil for each cut.

Using parchment or wax paper and a pair of scissors, make 64 5-by-5-inch squares and place a cube of caramel into the center of each. Fold the paper over the caramel and tuck it tightly, then continue wrapping the caramel over, twisting the sides to fully enclose the caramel. Store in an airtight container. If you like a softer caramel, store at room temperature; for a firmer texture, store in the refrigerator and serve chilled. These caramels can be made many days in advance or just to have around for a little beery sweet treat.

Beer Caramel Variations

Pumpkin Ale Caramels:
Use your favorite Pumpkin Ale for the beer in this recipe. When the caramel reaches the desired temperature, mix in 1/4 teaspoon of pumpkin pie spice with the beer reduction, stirring into the caramel. Pour the caramel into the prepared pan and lightly dust the surface with more of the pumpkin pie spice. To make more of a “nuts & chew” candy, create a small mound of toasted pumpkin seeds (pepitas) and pour the caramel over them, making a modified “turtle,” and garnish with either more spice or a pinch of cinnamon smoked salt or fleur de sel.

Bacon Brown Ale and Pretzel Caramel:
Use a Brown Ale for the beer selection. Substitute half of the butter for rendered bacon fat and follow the same technique for making the caramels. Take about four to eight strips (depending on how much or little bacon is desired) of cooked smoked bacon and cut into very thin strips. Crush your favorite hard pretzel into small pieces of a uniform size. Mix the broken pretzels with the bacon pieces, place into the prepared pan and pour the hot caramel over the top, letting it pool around the pretzels. Using a lightly oiled spatula, spread the caramel into the corners and level out the surface. Let cool for two hours and cut into cubes.

Chocolate-Dipped Caramels:
Place the cooled, cut caramel cubes in the freezer for about 30 minutes so they firm up. Melt 1/2 pound of dark/milk chocolate over a double boiler. Prepare a sheet tray lined with either a Silpat or parchment paper. Using a fork, drop a caramel cube into the liquid chocolate and turn to coat evenly. Slide the fork under the cube and lightly shake the caramel to remove any extra chocolate and even out the coating. Place onto the sheet tray and let cool, then mark/garnish the top of the still-melted chocolate with cacao nibs, roasted barley, flaked salt, cut bacon or any other ingredient that identifies the caramels finished flavor. Repeat with remaining cubes. Finished caramels can also be placed into paper candy cups for serving.

Nut Brown Ale Pecan and Dark Chocolate Beer Turtles:
Use a Nut Brown Ale for the beer. Toast 1/2 cup of pecan halves in a 350°F oven for 8–10 minutes, or until lightly browned. Let the nuts cool and arrange five of them into a star pattern/cluster. Pour a tablespoon or two of the hot caramel over each cluster, repeating with remaining stars. Melt 1/2 cup of a dark chocolate bar that has been broken into small pieces in a bowl over a pot of simmering water (double boiler). Spoon a generous tablespoon onto the caramel and let cool, or garnish with a pinch of salt (fleur de sel or a flavored salt, like chocolate- or vanilla-infused salt), a few grains of caramel malt or cacao nibs. Let sit for a few hours and transfer them to a sealable container, layering with parchment paper that has been cut to fit the container.

A Note on the Beer
The beer used in these caramels will change the flavor profile and bitterness in the finished caramels. I prefer to use lower-hopped beers, to avoid too much bitterness in the candy-making process. As the beers are reduced in the cooking process, their hop characters are intensified, expressing the bitterness more than the sweetness that balances out heavier-hopped beers (IPAs or Double IPAs). Good, lower-hopped beer styles that are recommended for making excellent caramels are: Milk or Sweet Stout, Nut Brown or Brown Ale, pumpkin beer, Chocolate or Coffee Porter/Stout, Dubbel, Flanders Red Ale, Quadrupel, Baltic Porter, Bock, Winter Warmer, or even a fruit-flavored Lambic. Experiment a little and see what you come up with!

Safety Warning
A burn on the skin from making caramels can be one of the worst burns a chef can get. Temperatures approaching 240°F will make the caramel stick to the skin and harden, prolonging the contact time. Please take the necessary precautions when making any candy.