Christmas is almost here! There are always so many wonderful people in our lives who deserve gifts, don't you think? It can be a lot of work to shop for all the gifts we want to give. I love making homemade presents, especially when they involve both the kitchen and the kids' helping hands. This year I decided to cover all of our gift-giving bases with homemade treats. Last year, I made a single batch of caramels to give as gifts, and they were so delicious that I wished I had made more (even though they were extremely rich!). So this year, since it is also the first year we are giving teacher presents, I made lots and lots of candies and cookies, purchased candy boxes to pack them in, and thus sorted out Christmas gifts in true old-fashioned style. Here are a few photos of the whole process, and of course, a recipe at the end.
First up were the caramels. I used a recipe from miette, the beautiful bakery in San Francisco from whom I also take recipes for the kids' birthday cakes and frostings every year. I adjusted the recipe slightly this year (see below!), and they turned out just as beautifully.
Making candy might not seem like a great choice for a recipe where kids can help - after all, there is boiling sugar involved, and sometimes long wait times while the temperature rises. With this in mind, I tried to think of the best ways for the kids to be part of the process, and there are still many! I made the caramels in the evening after they were in bed, and the mixture set up on the countertop overnight. In the morning, they helped me lift the cooled caramels out of the pan (one big square!), cut them into smaller squares, and (this was the biggest job) wrap each one in parchment paper. In total there were 128 caramels and the three of us wrapped them all. Polly liked cutting the parchment and placing a caramel on a piece of parchment, and then I would wrap them. Both kids helped wrap, too - I gave many gentle warnings about not squishing the soft candies too much.
I've made candied orange peels a couple of times before, but with limited success. This year I tried an Alice Waters recipe, and it worked very well. I couldn't find organic oranges, so I ended up with six beautiful organic grapefruits. (Because we eat the skins, I wanted to make sure to get organic citrus.) There were lots of fun tasks for the kids. We juiced the grapefruits, passed the juice through a sieve, and drank some of it (the rest I froze into popsicles and ice cubes to add to holiday drinks). Then I simmered the halves to remove some of the bitterness, sliced them into strips, combined them with a sugar syrup, and continued to cook them until they reached the desired temperature. After drying out on a cooling rack overnight, they were ready to be tossed in some sugar - also a fun job for kids to help with.
It is certainly true that making your own candy does involve a large (heart-stopping!) amount of refined sugar. In our house that's an ingredient typically reserved for birthday cakes - and Christmas sweets. Candymaking is something we only do at Christmas, and it's a real joy to see kids giving their homemade sweets to friends, family and teachers. And homemade confections always contain simple ingredients, and are free of preservatives; plus, we know what went in them. So once a year, I (try to) relax about the sugar.
I tried one completely new-to-us recipe this year: English Toffee, also from the miette cookbook. In this recipe, you boil the mixture until a much higher temperature than when making the caramels, turning it into a very crunchy confection. I covered both sides of the cooled toffee with semi-sweet chocolate, and toasted almonds. Then we broke it into big pieces. It's quite spectacular visually, and tastes like the best Skor bar you've ever tried.
Our final project was pepparkakor, or Swedish gingersnaps. The dough is quite spicy, and you roll it out quite thinly so that the finished cookies end up dark, flavourful and crunchy. They're wonderful as is, and of course, even better with icing and sprinkles. The cookie cutters in the photos have been in use since I was a child; I remember making cookies with the big reindeer cutter to give to teachers when I was in school.
Packing up these boxes is very special. Last night we went to the Christmas concert at my son's school, and gave a box each to his classroom teacher and his music teacher. As we gave the box to his music teacher, Cash whispered in my ear, "Did you put in the cookies shaped like violins?" (I forgot!) When his teacher said he would eat the treats as soon as he got home, Cash exclaimed, "But you shouldn't eat so close to bedtime!"
Whenever you decide to eat these treats, make lots of them, because everyone will want a few. Merry Christmas, from the Bite-Sized Kitchen to yours!
Adapted from miette
These are soft, chewy and very, very decadent. The trick to controlling the texture is in the temperature, so you must use a candy thermometer and watch it very carefully. If you let the temperature rise above 246 degrees F, the candy will be too hard. If it doesn’t reach that temperature, the caramel will be gooey and pale.
Be sure to cook it in a medium or large saucepan, as the bubbling mixture will double in volume as the mixture reaches 230 degrees and up.
Makes sixty-four 1-inch square caramels.
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 ¼ cup whole milk
2 cups (14 ounces) granulated sugar
1 ¼ cups (8 ounces) brown sugar (light or dark)
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 tablespoons butter (unsalted or salted)
1/2 cup corn syrup (white or golden)
3 tablespoons water
coarse sea salt for sprinkling
Butter the bottom and sides of an 8-inch square baking dish or casserole. Line the bottom with a piece of parchment paper long enough to extend over two opposite sides by about 3 inches, to use later as a handle, if needed.
In a medium saucepan, combine the cream, milk, granulated and brown sugars, salt, butter, corn syrup, and water. Clip a candy thermometer to the side of the pan. Place over medium-low heat and cook, whisking frequently, until the mixtures reaches 246 degrees F. This takes quite a while - between two and two-and-a-half hours. I have found that it isn't necessary to stir constantly. Particularly as the mixture gets close to the desired temperature, whisking seems to inhibit the rising temperature. Have patience - it WILL get there!
When the caramel reaches the correct temperature, remove it from the heat and pour the hot caramel into the buttered pan, scraping out any caramel clinging to the sides of the pot. Take care, because the caramel is very hot. Let the caramel cool for 15 minutes and sprinkle with coarse salt, then let the caramel cool completely to room temperature. Slip the baking dish into a large plastic ziploc bag (or wrap the pan in plastic wrap). Leave the pan at room temperature overnight, and they will set beautifully. Alternatively, if you want to finish the job the same day you make the caramels, refrigerate the whole pan for at least 30 minutes and up to 1 1/2 hours to help it set up and make cutting the caramels easier.
To remove the caramel from the pan, loosen the sides by running the tip of a knife or a thin spatula around the edges. Lift the caramel out using the parchment paper “handles.” If it resists, help it along with the spatula. Turn the caramel out onto a cutting board. Measure 1-inch intervals along the sides, and then cut the caramel into 1-inch squares. This is easier if you have a piece of paper towel handy, moistened with canola oil. Rub it on the knife blade (don't cut yourself!) and the knife will glide through the caramels more easily. Peel the caramel squares from the parchment paper.
Wrap each caramel in a square of fresh parchment paper and twist both ends. Store the caramels in an airtight container for up to 10 days. Also give away liberally to friends, family, neighbours and teachers.