It is a coincidence that I am writing about fact checking in two of my columns today, because I was planning to write the other column for quite awhile. But yesterday I got my copy of the Holiday Edition of Cuisine at Home, and among the questions and answers that the editorial staff decided to deal with was the following, on page 6:
"Q: How is dulce de leche different [from] caramel?
"A: As suggested in its name, dulce de leche differs from standard caramel in one key way--the addition of milk. Dulce de leche loosely translates into "milk candy." While caramel is just sugar that's melted and cooked until it becomes thick and dark, dulce de leche is made by slowly heating sugar and milk until it condenses and caramelizes. While caramel is usually translucent, dulce de leche is more opaque."
The answer goes on to give more information about dulce de leche, such as the various names that it is known by in Latin America. I have no quarrel with that part of the material, but if the person who wrote the information I quote above, s/he is seriously ignorant of food and cooking. Senior Editor Mary Jane Mills definitely needs to speak to her staff about what goes on their pages.
In order to understand what this means, we need to turn our attention to the erroneous answer that I quote. When you melt sugar so that it becomes liquid, there is a name for it and it is not "caramel." It is "melted sugar" and if you remove the melted sugar from the heat and allow it to stand, it will harden into a glassy substance similar to the candy part of peanut brittle. It will not turn into caramel.
In other words, to spell it out, caramel is not another name for melted sugar. Caramel is a candy, or sometimes a sauce, and it is made from ingredients that include sugar but are definitely not limited to just sugar alone. In some ways it is almost a synonym for dulce de leche, but caramel has more sugar in it, in proportion, and forms the harder candy that we are familiar with after it is heated.
So I went to the Internet, of course, looking for information about what constitutes caramel candy, and I came across this awesome recipe from Betty Crocker. This is one of the bedrock sources of American cuisine, and you may want to mess with Betty, but I don’t. This recipe will produce a neat quantity of caramel candies that you can enjoy for the Holidays or give as gifts.
BETTY CROCKER SALTED CARAMEL CANDY
3/4 cup whipping cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon kosher (coarse) salt
4 tablespoons salted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/4 teaspoon coarse sea salt
Line a 9x5-inch loaf pan with foil; spray the foil with cooking spray.
In a 1-quart saucepan, heat the cream, vanilla, salt and 2 tablespoons of the butter over medium heat until the mixture just begins to simmer. Remove it from the heat and cover with the lid. Set the saucepan aside, off the heat.
In a 2-quart heavy saucepan, mix the sugar and corn syrup; insert the candy thermometer. Cook over medium heat, stirring gently, until the sugar is dissolved. If granules of sugar become stuck to the sides of the saucepan, use a wet pastry brush to brush the granules down towards the syrup. Cook the syrup, without stirring, until the thermometer reads 310 degrees. If hot spots or darker areas occur while cooking, gently roll the saucepan around to disperse the syrup evenly.
Remove this saucepan from the heat. Slowly pour the cream mixture into the syrup. The syrup will bubble violently so be careful to add the cream slowly to ensure that the candy does not bubble over edge of saucepan. Stir until smooth.
Return the saucepan to medium heat. Cook the caramel until the thermometer reads 260 degrees.
Remove the saucepan from the heat; remove the thermometer. Stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter until the caramel is smooth.
Pour the caramel into the loaf pan. Cool for 8 to 10 minutes. Sprinkle coarse sea salt evenly over the top. Cool completely in the pan on a wire rack.
When the caramel is cool, remove from the pan by lifting the edges of the foil. Peel the foil from the caramel. Using a sharp long knife, cut into 35 to 40 squares. Wrap each caramel individually with waxed paper or cellophane.
And if you still don't believe me (although I don't know why you wouldn't) simply pick up a package of caramels in the supermarket, turn it over and read the ingredients listed. I suggest you go with the definitive brands such as Kraft and Werther's to settle the issue.