Mr. Bear is frowning at the grocery list. He’s trying to understand why “caramels” is on there. You know the ones. Square, pale, wrapped in cellophane, and about as much bother to unwrap a bag as if you’d made the batch yourself. It’s not the caramels themselves that Mr. Bear objects to. He’s remarkably amenable when it comes to food, willing to eat pretty much anything that doesn’t come attached to a set of tentacles or antennae. It’s the why that’s confounding him, since he spent most of yesterday morning watching me make a batch of caramels from scratch. I can see him looking surreptitiously from the list to the table, where the offending candies are heaped in their perky waxed wrappers.
He’s pretty sure he’s missing something - some briefing that would make this all clear to him. It can’t be that the recipe was a dud, since he’s been listening to me crow about it for 24 hours now. Because (1) It worked, a quality that is unreliably present in my candymaking, (2) They taste amazing, and (3) I feel like I should get some sort of extra-credit points for winning at Foodie Bingo: not only are they salted caramels, I’ve dipped into my stash of random gourmet gifts and managed to cram into them both Appalachian Sourwood Honey and Tahitian Vanilla Sea Salt, which I’m pretty sure means that the sacred foodie doors will be opened to me and someone will probably send me a copy of The French Laundry Cookbook.
The fact is, I just want those waxy caramels. I’ve been craving them. I’m thrilled with the homemade ones, but the two are such vastly different eating experiences that they may as well be parsley and cilantro: both green, yes. But there the similarities end, and substituting one for the other is going to result in a very disappointing salsa. Mr. Bear, to my occasional dismay, is completely blind to this distinction. That’s not to say that he doesn’t enjoy food, but he doesn’t seem to discern much between any two iterations of the same dish.
The man likes lasagna. If the thing you’re feeding to him is lasagna, and it’s neither burned nor rancid, he’s going to be happy. Any attempt on my part to show him the difference between a cardboard school cafeteria lasagna and an artisan-pasta lasagna with seven Tuscan cheeses, white truffle oil and a finishing spritz of unicorn tears is going to end in frustration. I, on the other hand, am always comparing dishes, looking for the best iteration, and often bellowing across the dinner table such classy and triumphant phrases as: “This is the best lasagna I have ever eaten! All other lasagnas must bow their noodley heads in shame!”
Mr. Bear doesn’t get it. But you know what? He bought the caramels. With almost no eye-rolling whatsoever. And when I offered him one later, he popped it right into his mouth. And despite my occasional frustrations, I have to appreciate that. I haven’t always been so lucky. There was a dark time in my youth, a time worthy of unicorn tears if there ever was one, when I dated a non-eater. Although perfectly healthy, he subsisted almost entirely on a diet of hot dogs, chicken fingers, and pizza – his palate having stopped developing, apparently, at the age of five. Any attempt to get him to taste something new would end in histrionics about how he was going to gag, and when his best friend joined the Navy, the location of the going-away dinner had to be chosen based on the presence of chicken fingers on the menu.
Not so Mr. Bear, who ate his entire portion of foie gras during a prix fixe meal on New Year’s and politely withheld comment until we were safely in the car. He may not have a discerning palate, but he is adventurous and unceasingly supportive as I enter into a venture in the food world, a place that he finds confusing and occasionally downright silly. Plus, he does the grocery shopping. I’ve got nothing to complain about.
Sourwood Honey Salted Caramels
Adapted from Two Tarts
by Dulcie and Sarah
If you’ve never heard of sourwood honey, don’t be surprised – apparently it’s quite rare, limited to a tiny production area and dependent on perfect weather conditions. It’s dumb luck that I happened to stumble across a jar. Don’t fret if you only have access to supermarket clover honey – that’s what the original recipe was written for, anyway. But if you can find the sourwood, it’s worth the experience. To me, clover honey tastes clear, sweet, and sort of sharp. The sourwood, on the other hand, has a deeper flavor – ever so slightly bitter, vaguely herbal, more rounded and dark. The depth that it adds to these caramels is wonderful. No Tahitian vanilla sea salt sitting around the house? The regular will work just fine, but the floral hit from the vanilla paste sure is nice.
Sugar [ 1 ½ cups ]
Sourwood Honey [ ½ cup ]
Vanilla Extract [ 1 tablespoon ]
Heavy Cream [ 1 cup ]
Salted Butter [ ½ cup ]
Tahitian Vanilla Sea Salt [ for sprinkling ]
1. Line a flat surface , such as a cookie sheet or 9x13 pan, with parchment paper.
2. In a deep pot, mix Sugar, Honey, and Vanilla Extract.
3. Cook over Medium-Low heat. First the sugar will melt, and then the mixture will slowly become golden, and then the color of dark honey. Do not stir, but you can swirl the pan a bit to ensure that it’s heating evenly.
4. Meanwhile, in a small pot, bring Heavy Cream to a simmer over Very Low heat. Immediately take it off the heat and keep warm.
5. When sugar mixture has reached a dark honey color, reduce the heat to Low and whisk in Butter, 1 tablespoon at a time.
6. Add in the warmed Heavy Cream and whisk to combine.
7. Clip a candy thermometer to the side of the pot, and cook over Medium-Low until mixture reaches 260 degrees.
8. Immediately pour the caramel onto the prepared parchment. Let it cool for 5-10 minutes, and then sprinkle with Sea Salt. Note: if you wait too long to sprinkle, the salt won’t stick to the caramels.
9. Let cool completely.
10. Cut into pieces of the desired size, then wrap. I used rectangles of waxed paper, folded tootsie-roll-style.