Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Hungry Games

Long road trips.  They call for inventive ways to stay engaged.  Some people play car games, others eat an endless array of snacks and squeeze-y juice boxes dyed unnatural colors, and even more are actually able to sleep during the long journey.  How do you sleep in a car??  Just the thought of shutting my eyes while we hurtle towards, oh I don't know... the back of the semi in front of us or off the cliff we're driving along is enough to keep my eyes wide open for ten hours straight.  What is your secret, you crazy car sleepers?

Cori and I listen to audio books and podcasts.  Just this past weekend we listened to the entire first Hunger Games book.  Normally I like to read books, but there was something nostalgic about being read to...  it kept me going all the way to South Carolina and back.  In addition to a great story, it was easy for me to imagine Katniss Everdeen trekking through the surrounding woods as we wound through the terrain that made up the Appalachian mountains.

While we had our own array of snacks and beverages to keep us awake and nourished, we had tucked away two very special morsels left of the caramels I'd made the day before.  I'm one of those people who always goes for peanut M&M's or Twix at rest stop vending machines. There's something of a Pavlov's Dog situation that comes over me when I travel on the road, and the insatiable need for chocolate, caramel, and crunch overcomes me.  Sweet lord, I'm salivating just typing this...

These aren't your typical Werther's Originals (no offense to any grandma out there reading this) - they are better.  Different.  Special.  Caramel blends with chocolate and Earl Grey.  Bitterness and beautiful buttery sweetness become elevated by Earl Grey tea, ground up and whisked in.  The way it all melts together over your tongue makes you feel like you could be eating an indulgent fudge instead of a chewy caramel.  And then?  CRUNCH.  Deeply rich, smoky and chipper cocoa nibs give your mouth something new to get excited about.  It satisfies everything you'd want in a candy (except maybe peanut butter - one thing at a time).  Which is why one is never enough.

Let me just say, if you go to make caramels, know that it takes time.  You'll have time to get in a crossword puzzle, and Kitchen Nightmares, or even part of an audio book.  How do you have this time, you ask?  It's in the gradual heating of the sugar.  Heating too quickly results in underdone, or worse, scorched, sugar.  You need to sloooow your roll, guys.  Slooooooooooooooooow.

Also, the cutting of the caramels.  Heating up the blade of the knife with hot hot hot water, quickly drying it, making a cut.  Each and every time, this action must be taken, otherwise the caramels will stick to the knife and you'll risk slicing off a finger trying to get it loose.  But it's easy and extremely satisfying once you get those clean, sharp edges.  So just set the faucet on a dribble, have your towel at the ready, and just heat, dry, and slice away.

Earl Grey Chocolate Caramels
Adapted ever so slightly from Vanilla Garlic

Non-stick cooking spray
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons light corn syrup
1 teaspoon of salt
9 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
1 tablespoon of Earl Grey tea, ground to a powder
2 tablespoons cocoa nibs, crushed

Line a 9"x9" square pan with foil and spray with the non-stick cooking spray.  Set aside.

Place a large, high-sided stock pot on the stove over a medium flame.  Combine the cream, sugar, corn syrup and salt in the pot, stirring well.  Stir occasionally until the mixture begins to bubble and the sugar has dissolved (this may take 15 minutes or so).

Once the bubbling begins, place a candy thermometer on the side of the pot, taking care to not let it touch the bottom.  Bring the temperature up to medium-high until the thermometer reads 25 degree F.  During this process, you do not want to stir the mixture at all.  Resist!  When the candy reaches 250 degrees, remove it from the burner.  Let sit for 5 minutes.  

Whisk in the chocolate and Earl Grey powder until smooth and all of the chocolate has melted.  Pour into the prepared pan and top with an even sprinkling of cocoa nibs.  Let cool at room temperature for up to 2 hours.

To cut the caramel, use a long, sharp Chef's knife that has been heated by hot tap water for several minutes.  Dry off the knife, and make even slices into the caramel.  You'll need to heat with the water and dry the knife each time you go to cut, otherwise you'll end up with a lot of stickiness on your knife and you won't be able to extract it from the caramel.  Wrap individual pieces in squares of waxed paper.  Caramels can sit, at room temperature in an air-tight container, for up to a week.