Where I grew up, snow never stirred the near-catastrophic pitch that it seems to here in Portland. I feel like a curmudgeon whenever I talk about New England winters, but we still had to go to school on days when there were 5 inches of snow on the ground. It didn't help that our bus stop was directly on the break wall of our beach, and when it snowed my sister and I got stuck waiting for our ride while our faces were whipped raw by gale force winds.
How distant that all seems now. Because snow is somewhat of a freak occurrence in Portland, there is no salt or sand for the roads. Even an inch or two of the fluffy white stuff sends everyone with a car into a panic, resulting in a sort of a city-wide quarantine. On Saturday, the grocery store was teeming with people trying frantically to secure last-minute necessities—because it’d be a pity to be stranded at home without toasted marcona almonds or cans of crushed san marzano tomatoes. Walking home, most of the business on my normally bustling street had signs out front saying “closed until Tuesday due to the weather.” I felt like everyone else had received some sort of city ordinance that I hadn’t—the snow outside was gently falling and barely sticking to the ground. “Oh, those silly west-coasters,” spoke the curmudgeon in me, “always looking for an opportunity to take off from work.”
Turns out I spoke to soon. It snowed another 2 inches over the weekend, and when the snow melted the thermometer dipped well down to 15 degrees and turned my street into a skating rink. This has been the pattern now for nearly a week. Anywhere else, with a little sand and some salt, this would be your average winter weather. In Portland, it means staying off the roads completely and going a little bit out of your mind with cabin fever. Maybe the weather is lashing back at me for my snarky asides about the west coast work ethic.
I’ve had a lot of work to do at home, anyway. At least it’s been nice to work while watching the snow stick to the birches out back. The only thing getting me through all of this work and snow is this gingerbread caramel I made over the weekend. I can’t stop eating it. It’s a good thing I’m giving most of it away, or else my teeth would be rattling out of my gums by New Year’s Eve.
The caramel I make comes from a standard Martha Stewart recipe. That lady knows her sweets! When I decided to make the caramel, I was faced with three obstacles: I had no heavy cream nor corn syrup, as called for in the recipe. It had also begun to snow quite heavily by the time I realized that I would need these two ingredients. No matter. I rolled up my sleeves and came up with some solutions. First, I made my own heavy cream**, using some whole milk I had already in my fridge. Next, I resolved the corn syrup problem when I found some brown rice syrup hiding in the back of my cupboard. When baking or making candy, I very rarely deviate from the path for when I do, so often it results in total disaster. There’s a lot going on with the chemistry of pastry that just can’t be tempered with. But in this case, due to my cabin fever and the blustery weather outside, I held my breath and forged ahead. How bad could it be? At the very least, it would be a tiny improvement in the nutrition department—which might cancel out all of the sugar, cream, and butter, right?
Thankfully, I fretted for no reason. The caramels came out just as buttery and delicious as ever. Maybe it’s my cabin fever speaking, but I would even go so far as to say that the resulting confection is an improvement on Martha’s recipe. The nuttiness of the brown rice syrup marries perfectly with the butter and molasses and lends the caramel a truly gorgeous mahogany color. To further enhance the molasses, I stirred in some mulling spices I had laying around, chopped candied ginger, and on a last-minute whim, some coarse grey sea salt that I picked up when we were in Paris during October. I promise one of these days to include a recipe without candied ginger, but hopefully once you’ve tried these caramels you’ll agree that it is absolutely essential here.
The only downside to making caramel is that it’s a bit time consuming to make and does require a little bit of planning ahead—but it’s the sort of activity perfect on a day of inclement weather, when you’d rather be (or have been forced to stay) inside anyway. The first part is the easiest—once the caramel reaches its boiling point, you spread it in a pan and allow it to rest for 24 hours. Then comes the repetitive part: chopping it and wrapping it into small pieces of parchment paper. But it’s not all doom and gloom: simply pour yourself a cup of hot cider or a glass of wine, maybe enlist the help of a few friends, and it will be done in no time. Just make sure you give some away, otherwise you might be tempted to eat them all in one sitting, which wouldn’t be very pretty.
GINGERBREAD CARAMELSAdapted from a Martha Stewart Recipe
4 cups (2 pints) heavy cream
2 cups brown rice syrup
4 cups granulated sugar
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1/2 cup molasses
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
4 tablespoons chopped crystallized ginger
1 tablespoon coarse fleur de sel (optional)
Coat an 18 X 13 inch rimmed baking pan or sheet with the vegetable oil using a pastry brush. Line with parchment, leaving a 2 inch overhand so you can pull the caramel out of the pan when it comes time for cutting. Brush the parchment paper with vegetable oil.
In a thick bottomed pot, bring cream, brown rice syrup, granulated sugar, butter, and molasses to a boil, stirring constantly to dissolve the sugar. Clip a candy thermometer to the side of the pan, and keeping the caramel on medium-high heat, stir until the caramel reaches 248 degrees (sometimes it can be labeled firm-ball stage on the thermometer). This takes about 20 minutes.
Remove the pot from heat, stir in the vanilla, sea salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and 2 tablespoons of the crystallized ginger. Pour immediately into the baking pan, sprinkle on top the remaining crystallized ginger and fleur de sel. Let stand at room temperature, uncovered, for 24 hours.
Now comes the fun part. Generously brush a large cutting board with vegetable oil. Pull up the parchment to unmold the caramel, then invert it on the cutting board. Remove the parchement. Using your sharpest knife, cut the caramel into 1/4 inch squares, and wrap each caramel in wax or parchment paper.
The caramels will keep for a month in an airtight container, but it's doubtful there will be any left after a few days or so.
MAKES 12-13 dozen.
**Heavy Cream can be made quite easily in a pinch.
Take 3/4 cup of whole milk (you will have to add more butter if you use skim or 1% milk) and 1/3 cup of butter, and place in a saucepan over medium heat just until the butter has melted. Put the creamy mixture in a blender and mix for at least 2-3 minutes. The cream should be very frothy. Let the cream cool completely before using.