Food and Recipes

Homemade Salted Butter Caramels: Pure Holiday Decadence

Photo by Amber Carlson

Salted butter caramels have officially replaced cookies as my holiday treat of choice. They are equal parts sweet and savory — and when done right, the end result is chewy, gooey, and utterly delectable.

The first caramels I experienced were the cheapo, store-bought kind that come in little plastic wrappers. I remember them being dried-out, crunchy, and basically flavorless, and in my kid brain I couldn’t work out why anyone liked these. For years, this was my conception of “what caramels were like”. 

My mind wasn’t changed until years later, when I tried handmade caramel for the first time. The difference was like night and day. These ones were bursting with flavor, much more complex and delicious than the ones I had tried so many years before. If only I had known!

In good caramel, the sweet, smoky flavor of toasted sugar is complimented by the richness of heavy cream. And butter — lots and lots of butter. Salt is essential for balancing the sweetness and making the candy feel less like a pure sugar bomb and more like the rich, scrumptious treat that it ought to be.

About This Recipe

The recipe I’ll share with you today is my own personal twist on a recipe by David Lebovitz. Years ago, when I first started making caramels, I followed his directions exactly and liked the flavor of the candies I got, but wanted them to be softer and chewier. So, over the years, I started making little tweaks and adjustments to perfect the texture and taste.

To make the most perfect, decadent, chewy caramels, I use extra cream and extra butter, and I don’t skimp on the salt. All of these are key ingredients for that rich, yummy flavor. And while many traditional caramel recipes will tell you to use corn syrup, I make mine with agave nectar. I think it keeps the candies a bit softer, and it also has a lower glycemic index than corn syrup, so I like to think it makes a “healthier” dessert. (How’s that for marketing?!)

If you’re new to the world of candy making, one thing you will want to invest in is a candy thermometer. Candy is a little finicky in that you need to cook it to just the right temperature in order to get the desired texture and firmness (I’ve got more info on this process below). A specialized thermometer can be fit onto the side of your pan and will tell you when your syrup is done cooking.

Apart from that, these caramels only require a few simple ingredients, and they’re super quick and easy to make — you can prep and cook the syrup in about 30 minutes — but remember that it’ll need an hour or so to cool down before you can cut it into pieces and eat it.

A Quick Primer on Candy Making

There are different “stages” that candy syrup will go through as it heats. 235-245°F is known as the “soft ball stage” because the syrup forms a soft “ball” when dropped into a glass of cold water. In my experience, the perfect temperature for caramel is about 240-245°F. So when the temperature reaches this range, I start drizzling my syrup into cold water and taste-testing it (which I’ll explain how to do in the recipe) to catch it right when the texture is perfect. 

I find that once the caramel heats up, the temperature starts to rise quickly, and just a minute or two can make the difference between a perfectly-cooked batch and hard, brittle candy. Again, personally, I’m not a fan of crunchy caramel. If you like yours that way, you could cook it until the “hard ball” stage (250-265°F). I like mine to stay nice and soft, though, so I don’t let it get over 245°F before pulling it off the stove. 

The point is that the longer you cook your candy, the less water content it will have and the more crunchy and brittle it will become. If anything, I would err on the side of cooking your candy a little softer than you think you should. That’s why I do the cold-water test instead of solely relying on temperature to tell me when the candy is finished. Remember, too, that your candy will firm up a bit more once it’s fully cooled and set.

Ingredients

Prep time: 5 mins
Cook time: 25-30 mins (but needs an hour to cool before cutting and wrapping)

Makes about 40-50 candies

  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 stick (8 TBs) butter, preferably salted
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 ½ tsp. coarse salt, plus extra for finishing
  • ½ cup agave nectar
  • 1 cup granulated or cane sugar
  • Candy thermometer
  • Small baking dish or loaf pan (I use a 9” x 5” pan)
  • Foil for wrapping

How To Make

1. Lightly grease the baking dish or loaf pan, preferably with butter or ghee. Set aside for now.

Photo by Amber Carlson

2. In a small saucepan, combine the cream, butter, vanilla and salt over medium heat, stirring occasionally until the butter is melted and the mixture just begins to boil. Remove from heat and cover to keep warm.

Photo by Amber Carlson

3. In a heavy, 4-quart (or larger) pot, combine the sugar and agave nectar. Warm over medium heat and stir to help the sugar melt evenly until all of it has dissolved.

Photo by Amber Carlson

4. Slowly pour the hot cream mixture into the molten sugar blend; stir just until combined. The mixture will bubble and foam up at first (which is why you’ll need a big pot!), but it should settle down again after a minute or two.

Photo by Amber Carlson

5. Fit your candy thermometer onto the side of the pot and submerge the tip into your caramel syrup. Turn up the heat to medium and let it bubble and cook, stirring only as needed to keep the mixture from burning (over-stirring liquid sugar can cause it to crystallize, which is not what you want!).

Photo by Amber Carlson

6. Once the syrup reaches 240-245°F, drizzle a spoonful of it into a glass of cold water. Let cool for a few seconds, then do a taste test to check the texture. You want your syrup to hold its shape in the water, but still be quite soft and chewy when you bite into it. If it disintegrates as soon as it hits the water, it’s going to come out more like a caramel sauce that you’d put on a sundae.

Photo by Amber Carlson

7. As soon as you’re happy with the texture of your syrup, turn off your heat immediately and pour the molten caramel into your baking dish or pan. Leave the candy uncovered and allow it to cool to room temperature.

Photo by Amber Carlson

8. Once it’s cool enough to handle, pop the caramel out of its mold and onto a cutting board (you may need a spatula or knife to pry it out of the pan). You can see that mine is still soft and a little squishy — that means it’s perfect for eating!

Photo by Amber Carlson

Then, using a sharp knife, cut candy into small, bite-sized squares. Finish the caramels with a sprinkling of salt over the top.

Photo by Amber Carlson

9. Grab a pair of scissors and cut your foil into small squares (approximately 4”x4”). Use one square to wrap each piece of candy, twisting the ends to secure in place. Keep caramels in a mason jar or other sealed container to retain freshness and they should last for at least a couple of weeks — if you can keep them around that long!

Photo by Amber Carlson
Photo by Amber Carlson

10. Savor every bite of salty, buttery deliciousness. Share with friends and family (if they’re nice and you’re feeling generous). 


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Want to make something other than cookies for the holidays this year? Try these easy, delicious salted butter caramels. #holidaytreats #recipes #comfortfood #desserts

Food and Recipes

Slow Cooker Meals: Southwestern Green Chile

Have you ever wanted to make Southwestern green chile at home? It's easy -- learn how with this slow cooker recipe. #easydinners #recipes #comfortfood #southwestern #stews #slowcooker
Photo by Amber Carlson

Green chile (chile verde) is one of my all-time favorite comfort foods, especially in the fall and winter months. It’s a food that is near and dear to my heart as a native Colorado girl; my dad used to make pots of the stuff when we were growing up. To this day, I still love a bowl of chile to warm myself up on a cold day.

One thing I adore about green chile is how versatile it is. You can eat it on its own like a soup, perhaps with some fresh tortillas on the side for dipping. I used to like to smother it on top of fried eggs for a simple breakfast. It makes an excellent topping for burritos, enchiladas, and fries. At Thanksgiving, my aunt usually makes a batch of her signature, rip-your-lips-off chile — and we pour it over our turkey and mashed potatoes like gravy. There are a thousand ways to eat green chile, and they’re all delicious.

About This Recipe

The recipe I’m going to share with you is based on the green chile that my dad used to make with a few of my own modifications. It is savory, tangy, and can be made as spicy (or not) as you’d like.

By far the most important ingredient is the chiles. While you can use canned green chiles, I’ve always made my chile using fresh, whole roasted peppers. Canned chiles are a huge time saver, without a doubt, but the flavor and aroma of the fresh peppers is incomparable and adds a complex richness to the stew.

Photo by Amber Carlson

I should warn you that prepping fresh chiles is a tad labor intensive. If you buy whole peppers to use — which I strongly suggest you do — you’ll need to go through the process of roasting, peeling, seeding and chopping them, which does take some time. I have a whole separate article where I explain how and where to find the best peppers and walk you through how to prep them. Whether you’re using fresh or canned chiles, you’ll want to have them ready to go before you start this recipe.

Apart from that, you don’t need anything too fancy. Pork butt or shoulder should do well for the meat, but you can omit the meat or substitute tofu for a vegetarian chile (veggie stock can also be used instead of chicken broth). The recipe is naturally dairy-free, and although flour is traditionally used to thicken the stew and brown the pork, you can easily do this with a gluten-free starch instead.

This hearty stew is easy to make in a slow cooker. After just a bit of prep work, you can leave it to simmer all day long until you’re ready to eat. You can make it on a stove, too, if you don’t have a slow cooker; it’ll just take a bit more watching.

Ready to try it? Let’s go!

Ingredients

Prep time: 25-30 minutes
Cook time: 6-8 hours
Makes about 12 cups of chile

  • 1 lb pork butt or shoulder, diced (or tofu)
  • ¼ cup all-purpose flour (gluten-free if desired)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • Fresh ground pepper
  • Cooking oil
  • 1 medium onion, peeled and diced
  • 3-4 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 14.5-oz can of diced tomatoes
  • 1 14.5-oz can of green enchilada sauce
  • 3 cups of chicken broth (or vegetable stock)
  • 4 cups of roasted green chile peppers, peeled, seeded and diced (canned or fresh)
  • 1 TB ground cumin
  • ⅛ tsp cinnamon
  • A handful of fresh cilantro, chopped

Optional sides/garnishes:

  • Flour or corn tortillas
  • Cheese
  • Sour cream
  • Hot sauce

How to Make

  1. Coat and brown the pork.

Combine the flour, salt, and a touch of fresh-ground pepper in a small bowl. Whisk the ingredients together with a fork until blended.

Photo by Amber Carlson

Next, place your diced pork into a large bowl and add the flour mixture. Using a spoon or spatula, stir and toss the pork with the flour mixture until all of the meat is coated. The starch will help thicken up the stew.

Photo by Amber Carlson

To brown the pork, heat a couple of tablespoons of your preferred cooking oil over a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat. Add the meat and stir until the pieces are lightly browned on all sides, but not cooked through. Once it’s done, remove from the heat and set aside. Leave the browned bits and flour residue in the pan.

Photo by Amber Carlson

Technically, browning the meat is optional — you can skip it if you’re in a hurry. But I highly recommend doing it because it caramelizes the surface of the meat, which adds flavor and deliciousness to your stew. 

  1. Saute the onion and garlic.

Re-heat the same pan you used in Step 1 on medium heat with a little more cooking oil. Add cumin and cinnamon; stir to spread throughout the pan. Toast spices for 30 seconds, just until fragrant. In one of my previous recipes I talked about the benefits of “blooming” spices — it’s just a way to release more of the aromatic oils for a fuller flavor.

Photo by Amber Carlson

Turn the heat up to medium-high; add the onions and garlic to the pan. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 2-3 minutes, just until the onions turn slightly tender and translucent. Don’t worry if you still have toasted flour and spices stuck to the bottom of the pan; we’ll address that in the next step.

Photo by Amber Carlson
  1. Add the tomatoes and green chiles.

Now, it’s time to add your tomatoes and green chiles to the pan. Stir the tomatoes and green chiles into the onions and garlic. Allow the vegetable mixture to heat to a boil, then simmer for 5-10 minutes.

As the tomatoes and green chiles simmer, their water and juices should help to loosen anything stuck on the bottom of the pan. Stir occasionally, using your spoon or spatula to scrape any leftover flour or spices from the pan and fold them into the veggies.

  1. Put everything into the slow cooker and let it cook.

Finally, add your pork and veggie mixture to the slow cooker. Turn the cooker on at its low heat setting; add chicken broth and enchilada sauce, stirring to combine all ingredients.

Photo by Amber Carlson

Close the lid and cook on low for 6-8 hours, until pork is cooked all the way through and the chile has thickened a bit. Turn the cooker down to its warm setting until you’re ready to eat.

At this point, do a taste test; if the chile could use a little more spice, add a few dashes of your favorite hot sauce. Now’s also a good time to add more salt and pepper if needed.

5. Garnish and serve.

Spoon chile into bowls. Garnish with fresh cilantro and serve it while it’s hot! Eat your chile on its own or with tortillas, cheese or sour cream — dairy does a great job of mellowing the spice if your chile is too hot for your liking.

Photo by Amber Carlson

And most importantly, enjoy!


Did you like this recipe? Do you have any comments or suggestions? Let me know in the comments below!

Food and Recipes

All About Chiles: How to Roast, Prep and Cook With Chile Peppers

Ever wanted to know how to prep chile peppers for use in your favorite recipes? Find out here. #food #recipes #veggies #kitchenbasics #cookingtips
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Photo by Amber Carlson

Chile peppers are a staple of Southwestern cooking. Their tangy, zesty flavor adds personality and a spicy kick to dishes. You can cook and eat chiles, use them as a spice, or consume them for their medicinal properties — capsaicin, the main bioactive ingredient that gives peppers their heat, may relieve pain and help promote weight loss. They are also rich in nutrients such as vitamins A, C, potassium, and antioxidants.

If you’ve ever been curious to know more about these fiery fruits (and yes, they are technically fruits!), read on to learn about where chile peppers come from, where and when to find them, and how to prepare fresh chiles for cooking.

A Bit of History

The chile pepper plant (capsicum annuum) is not native to the US; according to Amy Behm of the Pueblo Bonito Inn in Santa Fe, chiles originally come from the Caribbean islands but were brought back to Spain by Christopher Columbus, who called the spicy fruits “peppers” because the zippy flavor reminded him of peppercorns. 

Although doctors on board Columbus’ ships were initially interested in peppers’ medicinal properties, Spanish monks began using ground, dried chile peppers in cooking as a substitute for peppercorns, and peppers gained popularity around Europe, eventually spreading to Asia via trade. In the late 16th century, Spaniards colonized what is now New Mexico, bringing their chile peppers with them and establishing the plants as part of the region’s agriculture. 

A few hundred years later, Dr. Fabián Garcia developed the Hatch strain of chile pepper that went on to become a sensation — it’s the main ingredient in pork green chile stew. You can now find green chile (and chile peppers) throughout the Southwestern US, but the peppers have the strongest ties with New Mexico and Colorado.

Where and When to Find Chiles

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The best time to buy chile peppers is in the late summer and early fall, when they are ripe and in season. August and September tend to be the peak months for harvesting, and the time of year when chile stands start to open up. Although these stands aren’t open year-round, they typically have the best, freshest peppers to choose from, plus a variety of spiciness options. Chile stands also tend to be small, family-owned businesses that I enjoy supporting.

I’m not sure how common chile stands are outside of Colorado and New Mexico; you could try doing a Google search to see if there are any near you. If you happen to live in the Denver area, here’s a list of some local stands that should be open through October or November.

My favorite thing to do — which I learned from my dad — is to visit a chile stand in September or October, buy an entire bushel (basically a large basket) of peppers, and prep and freeze them for the winter. All you have to do is fill your basket with whatever mix of peppers you like — mild, medium, hot or Dynamite! — and the folks at the chile stand will roast them for you over an open flame.

If you don’t happen to live near any chile stands, you can also find the fresh peppers at some grocery stores. They’re also known as Hatch, Pueblo, or Anaheim peppers, and they may be red or green in color (depending on when they’re picked). Choose ones with smooth, shiny skin that are firm to the touch and free of dents or spots.

A Quick Guide to Roasting and Prepping Chile Peppers

As I mention in my green chile recipe, prepping chile peppers is a bit of a process. First, make sure that the peppers are roasted — it deepens the flavor of the peppers and makes the skins easier to peel off. Again, if you pick yours up at a chile stand, this step will likely be done for you. If you bought peppers from your local grocery store, you can oven-roast them to get the same effect (I’ll explain how to do this).

After roasting, you want to “sweat” the peppers in an airtight bag to loosen the skins. Next, you pull the skins off of the peppers, remove the seeds, and dice the flesh. The chiles are then ready to use in green chile or any other recipe that calls for them. 

That’s the process in a nutshell. Although it’s fairly easy, the work can be a little time-consuming. Depending on how many peppers you need to prep, it can take 1-2 hours. Here are the steps you’ll need to follow.

1. Roast and sweat the peppers.

If your peppers are not already roasted, preheat your oven to 400°F. Place whole peppers on a lightly-oiled baking sheet and roast for 20-30 minutes, turning the peppers occasionally until the skins have turned black. You can also toss the peppers on your grill or over the flame of your gas stovetop; they’ll blacken a lot quicker this way (usually about 2-3 minutes per side).

Regardless of how you cook them, what you’re looking for is a good char on the skins. You’re going to be peeling off these burnt parts, anyway, and the charring tells you that the flesh underneath is thoroughly cooked.

Photo by Amber Carlson

Once the peppers are roasted, seal them in an airtight plastic bag and set aside. Allow them to sweat at room temperature for 15-20 minutes.

2. Remove the skins and seeds.

Photo by Amber Carlson

Before you begin this step, a word of advice: if you’re using peppers that have a little bit of spice, you may want to put on some gloves before handling them. The last time I tried peeling and seeding spicy peppers without gloves, my hands burned for the rest of the day afterwards. Go bare-skinned at your own risk.

As soon as the peppers are cool enough to handle, pull the peppers from the bag and lay them on a cutting board. Peel or gently massage the skins off of the chiles with your fingers and remove the stems.

Photo by Amber Carlson

Then, using a small knife, cut open the pepper so that you have a flat layer of flesh. Rinse the flesh under warm running water to remove any seeds, stringy material, or skin debris.

3. Dice the flesh.

Finally, chop your peppers into approximately ½-inch squares and place in a bowl. 

And voilà — your peppers are now ready to use! If you prepped an entire batch of chiles in one go, you can save whatever’s left over after you use what you need. Simply portion the peppers out into Ziploc bags and pop them in the freezer. I like to do 4 cups of chiles per bag because that will yield one batch of green chile — so anytime I feel like making some, I can just thaw out one portion.

Happy cooking!


Questions? Comments? Concerns? Let me know in the comments below!