If you have not read the Pulitzer Prize winning book, you really ought to do so. Donna Tartt’s novel is not a recent read for me, as I read it over a year ago, but it was a book that stayed with me. It is not a plot heavy novel, but the rich language negates that need. I was fully swept up in the life of the main character and happy to linger over the pages.
Food is more or less used to show home and comfort. The meal he shares with his mother right before her death becomes a kind of emblem of what home means. His meals are more or less meaningless throughout the book unless he’s with Hobie, one of the only places he ever really feels at home. The one exception to this rule is a orgiastic meal he has with his friend and father–but it serves to bring out the sense of his father’s greed more than any sense of well being.
These caramels are one of Hobie’s creations. I love jasmine and any tea infused treat, and I was intrigued with the image of these being passed around as metaphysical questions are discussed (caramels are an interesting choice because their texture hampers discussion, but maybe that’s Hobie’s genius, everyone has to “chew” their words before they speak).
This passage comes toward the end of the book at Hobie’s house in New York when the host asks his guests to seriously consider their last meal, if they could choose it:
“for him it was a metaphysical question, best considered on a full stomach after all the desserts were cleared and a final plate of jasmine caramels was being passed, because–really looking at the end of it, at the end of the night, closing your eyes and waving goodbye to Earth–what would you actually choose? Some comforting reminder of the past? Plain chicken dinner from some lost Sunday in boyhood? Or–last grasp at luxury, the far end of the horizon–pheasant and cloudberries, white truffles from Alba?”
This question is interesting not only for its interaction with the sweet we’ll be making, but in the context of considering your last meal after your last (most recent) meal. We have an amazing way of surrounding ourselves with food. Intrinsically we understand its significance as extending beyond sustenance into the realms of symbol and meaning. And in a story where everything seems to point toward larger meaning and understood or misunderstood or misinterpreted symbols, this passage takes on even more gravity.
But enough serious stuff. On to the candy!
I couldn’t find a recipe for infused caramels, but I’ve infused cream and milk for ice cream, so I just found a tasty looking caramel recipe and ran with it. This recipe is adapted from The Kitchn, developed by Emma Christensen.
We’ve recently moved in with some roommates as Paul finishes his degree, so I only brought a few trusty pieces of cooking equipment with me. Please don’t be surprised if I advise you to use equipment that I don’t have with me right now. It’s for your own piece of mind–trust me.
The most important thing about making candy is having everything ready to go right when you need it and to have read the recipe all the way through once or twice so you know what you’re doing. In addition to the ingredients, you should also have these things ready:
- two saucepans, one two-quart and one four-quart (with steep sides if you have it, or a small pot)
- candy thermometer
- wax and parchment paper (although just wax paper will do in a pinch)
- damp pastry brush or damp paper towel
- 8×8 pan or something like that. (This is a new kitchen for me and I couldn’t find a brownie pan so I used a casserole dish instead)
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 4 tablespoons butter (you can use salted or unsalted for this recipe. If you use salted, like I did, just omit the salt
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 3 bags jasmine tea (or approx. 1 tablespoon loose leaf)
- 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
- 1/4 cup light corn syrup (this is not the same thing as high fructose corn syrup, which is super bad for you. While no sugar is awesome–this is candy. We’re not going for healthy necessarily. Using the corn syrup will help keep everything happy and stop the sugar from crystalizing and doing all sorts of weird unattractive things)
- 1/4 cup water
- 1/4 teaspoon vanilla or less (a little vanilla in this recipe goes a long way, too much overpowers the jasmine’s delicate fragrance. If you’re making this later and decide you don’t want to infuse the cream, feel free to add more vanilla. And more salt. Make salted caramels. The world is your wax paper wrapped confection so to speak.)
Put parchment paper in your 8×8 dish so it overhangs on the sides* (this way you can pull it out and cut it up into delicious bite sized pieces). Put it in a place that’s simultaneously easy to reach and out of the way. If you don’t have parchment paper, you can spray a baking dish with cooking spray.
Boil some water. Pour 1/4 cup boiling water into a liquid measure (so you only have to get one thing dirty) and add the three tea bags. Steep tea for two-three minutes.
While tea is steeping, prepare the cream and butter by combining the two in a medium sauce pan and turning to medium low heat. When tea has steeped, add the tea bags to the cream mixture (Don’t discard the liquid!) and leave on the heat until the butter has melted.
In a larger saucepan or smallish pot, add the sugar, corn syrup, and the tea you’ve just brewed. Stir until you get all the sugar wet and goopy. If there are sugar crystals on the side of the pan, get them off with either a damp paper towel or a damp pastry brush (not the silicone kind).
Put your candy thermometer into the mixture and boil over medium high heat. Find your patience–do not stir it, agitate it, or disturb it by whisking. Boil your sugar until the thermometer reads 300F**
Turn off the burner briefly while you add the cream mixture, whisking just until combined. (I also like to remove my candy thermometer as it is not instant read and needs time to readjust). The mixture will bubble up at this point, basically tripling in size.
Add your candy thermometer back in, and let it boil again without stirring until it reaches 245-250F. In this time the color will gradually shift from a pale, yellowy color to a darker, more caramel like color.
Immediately take it off the heat, add your dash of vanilla, whisking it into the mixture and pour all that goodness into the prepared pan.
Let set at room temperature (this may take only an hour or several. If you have more willpower than I do, you can let them sit all night).
When you’re ready to cut them, either remove the caramels in the parchment paper or cut them in the pan if it’s been coated with cooking spray. I typically cut strips slightly smaller than 1/2 inch and then cut those strips into thirds, but you can cut them however you like. Wrap the little pieces in wax paper and they’re ready to eat while lounging in a bath, or while at a fancy dinner party, or as a gift to one of your lucky friends or relations.
In my first batch of these, the jasmine flavor didn’t shine through, but with a little tweaking the jasmine flavor became detectable and delectable. I really encourage you to give it a try (perhaps even trying different teas. I bet orange spice or earl grey would be lovely). The jasmine adds a floral, fragrant note to the rich, creamy caramel.
If you’ve never made caramels before, go forth and make some! These are one of the easiest candies you can make and they impress everyone. Make some with a friend or a sibling. Then you can read this book together and start a new little book club.
Ever made candies before? Worried about trying? Share your thoughts in the comments.
* I did two batches of these particular caramels because of problems I had with the first patch. Do not put wax paper down instead of parchment paper. The wax paper will fuse to the molten caramel and then your life will be over.
**There is a large range of temperatures that you can make caramel at (anywhere from 250F to 325F), but I found 300F gave a nice firm texture to the caramels without making them too chewy.