I am not completely insensible to the appeal of chocolate, but what really tempts me in the dessert department is butter and burnt sugar. Nine days out of ten I’d take apple crisp over warm chocolate cake. Making my own caramel always seemed a scary prospect, right up there with deep frying in terms of potential injury to person and property, but last year I made a few baby steps toward caramel self-sufficiency: I made a very light caramel sauce for sticky buns; when that went off without a hitch, I tentatively made caramel for coffee caramel ice cream; and with that under my belt, I produced a creamy caramel to top the caramel-pecan cheesecake from the holiday Chow. All this meant that when Amanda Hesser and Mark Bittman both published recipes for caramel candies in one week, I was ready to fill a saucepan with sugar and go.
What I was not ready for was the salty caramel’s crack-like addictive properties. Curse you, Amanda Hesser! This substance is easily produced in your home—more easily than you’d ever guess, if you have a candy thermometer—and irresistible. You can taste the butter and the salt (at moments, I thought, even the cream), and their chewiness is indescribably satisfying. Please note that my chocolate-oriented friends pronounced my caramels 1)“disgusting, how can you put that into your body,” and 2)“yeah, those are okay,” so not everyone was as smitten as I was. It must be admitted, too, that after being cut into sharp, glossy ranks of delicious caramel squares, they sloooowly collapsed into formless (but still-delicious) caramel puddles—so you’ll want to cover them in chocolate or wrap them up in neat little packets instead of leaving them to their own devices as I did.
--Line an 9-by-9 inch pan with aluminum foil, making it lap over the sides, and grease with vegetable oil.
--Bring 1 1/3 cups heavy cream to a boil in a medium-sized saucepan. This is not as scary as it sounds. Add 2 cups sugar, 1/2 cup light corn syrup, and 1/3 cup honey; stir constantly with a wooden spoon until it boils again. Cook, stirring occasionally (we stirred only very occasionally and it was fine), until the mixture reaches 257 degrees on a candy thermometer, which will take somewhere between 15 and 30 minutes.
--Remove the pan from the heat and, being careful about splattering, stir in 6 tbs butter in cubes, 1 tsp vanilla and 2 teaspoons fleur de sel or sea salt. Adding these things to the hot sugars will make the sugars hiss and spit, so wear oven mitts and long sleeves if you are nervous. Pour into the prepared pan and let cool.
--When the block of caramel is completely cool, turn it onto an oiled cutting board, oil your knife, and cut it into squares of a pleasing size.