12 June 2011

adventures in candyland

With father's day coming up, my broke ass has been thinking up some brilliant ideas for my worthy daddy-o.  But he's a picky kind of guy and, again, I'm broke so my options are quite limited.  Well, if a homemade gift worked when I was 7, why wouldn't it work at 27?  Cut to me racking my brain for things my dad likes that could be made and given as a gift.  Lemon meringue pie is probably his favorite baked thing, but I'll need some help from one of my pie pro gal pals for that and since I won't be seeing him for a week or so, a pie would never last.  So I got to thinking 'what does my dad really like?'  After racking my brain for awhile I came up with a combination of three of his favorite things - those soft Kraft caramels, crunchy pretzels, and beer.  Mix them together into beer flavored caramel covered pretzels and tell me that's not the manliest sounding candy you've ever heard of... it's candy mandy totally worthy of an awesome dad!  

A quick search online gave me an overwhelming number of recipes and a few tips for cooking with beer.  Now all I needed to do was decide which beer to use.  He usually goes for German wheat beers, but I felt the reduction wouldn't have a strong enough taste.  Instead, I turned to my trusty borough and picked up the delicious Brooklyn Brewery Local 2, a brew with notes of citrus and honey that I felt would complement the creamy caramel perfectly.  Since I chose to go local with the booze, I decided to keep it all in the theme of NYC and picked up some of the famous Martin's Pretzels from the greenmarket.

I had to make a quick trip to the Brooklyn Kitchen for a candy thermometer since this was my first endeavor into non-baked sweets.  I also grabbed a silicon sheet because almost every recipe I looked at recommended some sort of silicon surface for easy removal once the candies were ready for cutting.  The recipe seemed easy enough with only a few simple ingredients, all of which I have in the cupboards (minus the corn syrup which I picked up for a couple of bucks.  I always wondered what people used that for.)  Once everything was mixed in the pot, all I had to do was let it bubble and thicken until it reached the right temp on the thermometer... I almost didn't pick up the candy thermometer thinking I could just use the oven thermometer I had, but thank goodness it was cheap enough for me not to question the frivolity of the purchase.  It turned out to be super necessary and I have a feeling it will get some heavy duty use over the next few years.

While the mix was bubbling, I reduced the beer into syrupy booziness, watched a mini-marathon of Twin Peaks, and stared at the rising blue bar.  They say that when you stare at a pot of water it takes longer to boil.  I say that staring at a candy thermometer makes five degrees feel like forever and it gets goofy disco songs stuck in your head.  Once the blue line hit 200, I started singing 'temperature's rising' to myself which led to a full out 'It's Raining Men' dance party.  I suppose it's only appropriate when making man candy.

Once it hit the right temp, I poured the gooey goodness into my silicon lined pan making sure to be extra careful since hot caramel = molten lava.  Resist the temptation to lick the spatula or dip your finger in for a taste.  You will totally regret it and you'll burn off all your taste buds and you won't be able to enjoy the sweet sweet squares you've made!  As I was very carefully pouring my mind flashed forward to the inevitable clean-up and my entire body drooped thinking about what a nightmare this sticky mess would be.  Well, that was yet to come.  As the caramel started to set, I carefully placed perfectly broken pretzel pieces on top before I decided messy was better and just tossed a bunch of pretzel chunks on top willy-nilly.

While the caramel set for a few hours, (covered in the only cool spot in the apartment - in front of the AC,) I dove deeper into the Laura Palmer mystery while cutting up small squares of wax paper for the wrapping and dreaded cleaning up.  After letting the pot soak for about twenty minutes, I got up the nerve to attempt the scrubbing process only to be overjoyed in finding the sticky goopy residue wiped up with barely a swipe of a soapy sponge!  This candy making business was getting better by the minute!

When the caramel was sufficiently set about three hours later, I began the only really tough part of the recipe - cutting the big block into pieces and wrapping them individually in the little wax paper squares so they wouldn't lose their shape.  I developed a pretty easy process of cutting strips of caramel with a sharp knife and then using kitchen shears to cut the strips into squares making sure to get a little bit of pretzel in every one.

Cutting and wrapping complete, I was now set with 101 individually wrapped sweets, and that was even after trying out a few to make sure they were as yummy as they looked.  And they are.  I gave my Sunday visitors, Tricia and Lauren, goodie bags to take home but we had to come back to the apartment for refills since we had snacked on quite a few throughout our day of flea marketing and craft fairing (more on that to come.)  We even swung back to the Brooklyn Kitchen to browse and stumbled upon a few employees who happened to be discussing homemade caramels.  Of course I had to share my bounty.  They gave me their seal of approval by biting into them right there and cheering the sweet and savory deliciousness... this may have been one of my greatest culinary moments second to the KitchenAid victory!  I'll drop the rest off to my pops on Thursday for the ultimate test of their tastiness.  Until he gives the thumbs up, I'll say we have a preliminary winner with these simple and sweet morsels.  Make them yourself with your favorite brew and let me know what you think!

brooklyn brew caramel pretzels
12 oz beer, divided (I used Brooklyn Brewery Local 2, but I think it would work well with any ale)
2 c granulated sugar
1 c packed light brown sugar
1 c unsalted butter (although it might be good with salted too for even more of a sweet/savory combo, I think I'll try that next time)
1 c heavy cream
1 c light corn syrup
1 bag hard pretzel pieces (you could probably use rods or sticks too)
1. In a small pan, bring 1 c of beer to a rolling simmer and continue simmering for about 20 minutes until it reduces into a syrupy sauce yielding a little more than a tablespoon.  Set this concentrate aside.
2. Combine all other ingredients (extra beer, sugars, cream, corn syrup, butter) into a large pot and heat on a medium flame stirring every so often.  The mix will begin to boil and reduce so use a spatula to keep the sides of the pan clean and all of the liquid boiling together.  
3. Keep cooking until the candy thermometer reaches 244 degrees.  Sing disco songs while waiting.  When the mix reaches the right temp, turn off the heat and stir in the beer concentrate that you set aside.  Pour the gooey goodness into a 9" x 13" silicon pan (or use a silicon sheet to line the pan like I did.)  Top with pretzel pieces and let set for a few hours in a cool place (you can use the fridge if you want faster results, but then you should let it warm back up a little before trying to cut into it because it will get super hard.)
4. While the caramel is cooling and setting, cut sheets of wax paper into squares about 4" x 4" for wrapping each caramel piece.  If you don't wrap each piece individually they could lose their shape, especially in this hot June weather.
5. When the caramel is set and solid, cut into long strips with a sharp knife and then cut the strips into 1" squares using kitchen shears.  Wrap each piece and store in a cool dry place.  If you don't eat them all immediately, they should keep for awhile and since this recipe makes about 100 pieces, you probably shouldn't eat too many at once because you'll get cavities.  Pop open a cold brew, unwrap a candy and enjoy!

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