After a holiday dinner is over, it is nice to send guests home with a little treat that’s not leftover turkey or a mason jar of mushroom gravy. Homemade pumpkin caramels make great bite-sized party favors — or gifts to take to friends over the holiday — that truly shine with the flavors of fall. They may sound like a lot of work, but these miniature candies are not terribly difficult once you get the hang of boiling sugar. Plus their layers of rich pumpkin and sweet maple flavor means that a little treat goes a long way.
The first thing to do before even stepping near the stove is to prepare your pan. Once your caramel mixture has reached the optimal temperature, you’ll want to dump it straight into the pan, so you need to be ready. Line an 8-inch square baking pan with two overlapping piece of parchment paper (or aluminum foil). Make sure the paper sticks up over the top of the pan; you’ll use the excess as handles for pulling out the set caramels. Lightly grease the parchment with softened butter for extra non-stick insurance.
Next, prepare the pumpkin mixture. Caramels get their soft texture from a substantial amount of cream and butter. In these caramels, I’ve cut back a bit on the cream and replaced it with canned pumpkin puree. (You can use puree made from fresh pumpkins, but you’ll need to cook it down to evaporate much of its water content.) Along with the cream, butter, and pumpkin, I add fall flavor with a homemade pumpkin spice mix: cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice, clove, and a hefty pinch of flaked sea salt. Combine all of these ingredients in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer to melt the butter. Stir gently to combine the cream and pumpkin. Once the butter is melted, remove the saucepan from the heat and cover it to keep the mixture warm.
Now it’s sugar time. Traditionally, caramels are made with a mixture of corn syrup and granulated sugar. Here, I’ve replaced the corn syrup with earthy maple syrup, which complements the pumpkin. The biggest trick when melting the sugar is to keep it from crystallizing on the sides of the pot. To help prevent crystals from forming, pour the sugar into a tall mound in the middle of the liquid syrup. As the sugar melts, it will fall into the maple syrup, but once its dissolved, it will cause fewer problems. Heat the sugars over medium high heat and let the mixture come to a boil. Don’t stir yet! If it seems like the sugar needs a little encouragement in order to dissolve, swirl the pot gently to mix.
As you cook off the water from the sugars, you’ll notice the bubbles changing. At first they will be small and vigorous; over time, they will grow in width, but will appear stickier. Keep a watchful eye on the pot as the mixture will expand rapidly and may overflow out of the saucepan. Use the tallest pot you’ve got to prevent it. If the mixture still looks like it will boil over, carefully remove the pot from the heat and gently swirl the mixture until the bubbles subside.
While the sugar mixture is boiling, keep an eye on its temperature. Once it reaches 248 degrees (a digital thermometer is very helpful), reduce the heat to medium low. Very, very carefully pour the cream mixture into the sugar mixture. Use a clean rubber spatula to stir as you pour in the cream. The sugar mixture may sputter and increase in volume; monitor the heat and turn it off if it looks like it will over flow. Continue to stir the caramel mixture as it boils over medium low heat. Once the caramel gets back to 240 degrees, it is done.
Pour the caramel into the prepared pan and gently tap the pan on the counter to remove any air bubbles. Now it’s waiting time. You’ll need to make sure that the caramels are completely cool before cutting or even touching them. Remember, 240-degree sugar is super hot. I actually prefer to chill the caramels before slicing them, but I let the caramels come to room temperature before placing them in the fridge. (Rapid chilling can lead to crystallization.)
Once they’re cooled, slice the caramels into small squares, about 1 inch all around, and wrap each in its own piece of parchment paper. You can get fancy and twist the paper together, or you can simply fold the paper around the candy. Either way, you’ve got a tasty treat on your hands, ready for any guests who walk through the door.
Recipe: Pumpkin Caramels
Makes about 50 caramels
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1/2 cup canned pumpkin puree (not pumpkin pie filling)
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into large pieces, plus extra for greasing pan
- 3/4 teaspoon flaky sea salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
- 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/2 cup maple syrup
- 1/4 cup water
- 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
- Line an 8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper or aluminum foil so that the edges hang over the sides of the pan to form a sling. Grease parchment paper with butter. Set aside.
- Combine cream, pumpkin, butter, sea salt, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice, and cloves in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium low heat and simmer until butter melts. Stir to incorporate pumpkin. Remove from heat and cover to keep warm.
- Meanwhile, combine water and maple syrup in a large, high-sided saucepan. Carefully pour sugar into the center of the saucepan so that it doesn’t touch the sides of the saucepan.
- Without stirring, bring sugar and syrup to a rapid boil over medium high heat. Let mixture boil, occasionally swirling the pan to melt the sugar, until it reads 248 degrees on an instant read thermometer. Reduce the heat to medium low.
- Very carefully, pour the cream mixture into the boiling sugar. It will sputter and may look as though it will overflow out of the pan. If it is about to overflow, remove the pot from the heat to cool for 30 seconds. Using a clean rubber spatula, carefully stir the cream mixture into the sugar until it is well incorporated. Continue to cook the mixture over medium low heat until it returns to 240 degrees. Stir frequently to prevent the sugar mixture from burning.
- Carefully pour the mixture into the prepared pan. Let cool to room temperature.
- It is easiest to cut and wrap the caramels if they have been chilled in the refrigerator, so once the pan reaches room temperature, place in the fridge for at least 2 hours to chill. Using the parchment sling, remove the caramels from the pan and transfer to a cutting board. Slice into 1-inch squares. Wrap each square in its own piece of parchment paper and transfer to a storage container. The caramels will keep for up to 2 weeks in the refrigerator.
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