People love to make jokes about “grandma candy,” as if they are somehow too good for crinkly cellophane-wrapped strawberry candies or those little fruit-flavored sugar balls that come in tiny metal tins that nobody knows the name of. Is this a laughing matter? I think not. How are sweet old ladies who liberally dole out candy to all manner of visitors from a cut-glass bowl worthy of mockery? We do not live in a society where free candy gets handed out very often, and when it does, we ought to be grateful for what we get.
What makes our anti-grandma agenda even more outrageous is the fact that most “grandma candy” is good. Some, like Andes Mints or vanilla taffy, are great. And then there’s Werther’s Originals—buttery discs of hard caramel that slip around your mouth like satin—which are perfect. They are simple and timeless, like a string of pearls or a can of SPAM. If you’re complaining about being offered free Werther’s Originals, you either hate candy or you’ve got some serious issues with grandmas.
If I haven’t already persuaded you to reevaluate your relationship with Werther’s Originals via guilt (a trick I learned from my Sicilian grandmother), then maybe you’ll change your tune once you learn how easy they are to make yourself. In fact, there’s an excellent chance you already have all the ingredients you need in your kitchen this very second, and you don’t need a candy thermometer, fancy equipment, or any innate candy-making ability to do it. Silky, buttery caramels have been around since before your grandma, before your grandma’s grandma, and before Werther’s, and no matter what jokes anyone makes about them, they will never, ever go out of style.
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1/3 cup Golden Syrup (see note at bottom), or light corn syrup
- 1/4 tsp. distilled white or apple cider vinegar
- 1-2 Tbsp. water
- 2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into 8 small pieces
- 1/8 tsp. sea salt
- 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
In a 2-cup glass measuring cup, stir the sugar, syrup, vinegar, and one tablespoon of water together until you no longer see any dry patches of sugar. (If needed, add more water one teaspoon at a time.) Do not worry about the mixture being smooth—as long as there are no dry spots, you’re good.
Put the measuring cup in the microwave for 3 minutes, and keep your eye on it while it cooks; the moment it begins to boil vigorously, stop the microwave. (Note that this might occur sooner than the 3-minute mark.) Stir the mixture gently with a fork until smooth, then return to the microwave and continue cooking in 30-second increments—again, keeping your eye on it—until the mixture just barely begins to change color. Give it one more gentle stir, then begin microwaving in 10-second increments until the caramel turns a rich amber color. The total amount of time this takes will vary depending on your microwave; in my kitchen, it takes between 4-5 minutes.
Remove the caramel from the microwave, add half the butter, and let it sit undisturbed for about 30 seconds until the butter melts. Use your fork to gently stir it in—it will bubble and hiss, but don’t be scared!—then repeat with the remaining butter. Add the salt and vanilla, and gently stir the caramel for about one minute until smooth.
Use butter (or a neutral-flavored oil, like canola) to generously grease a small, shallow heatproof baking pan. (I personally use this 3.2-cup glass container; if you don’t have something similar, cut a 12-inch piece of heavy duty aluminum foil, then fold up the sides to make a 6-inch square “pan.”) Pour the caramel into the pan, then let it sit undisturbed for 20 minutes.
After 20 minutes, the caramel should still be warm, but cool enough that you can touch it. Run a paring knife around the edges of the pan to loosen the caramel, then invert it onto a cutting board; if the caramel is too stubborn to come out on its own, use your fingers to help pull it out.
Heat a large, sharp chef’s knife under hot running water for about 15 seconds and wipe dry with a clean towel. Cut the block of caramel into small squares, then walk away and leave the caramel completely alone for another 20 minutes. Separate into individual pieces and wrap tightly in small pieces of wax paper.
NOTE: Golden Syrup, or treacle, is an inverted sugar syrup made from sugar, water, and citric acid. Popular in British baking, it has a light caramel flavor with a buttery finish, and even though it’s not a common baking aisle sight in America, I think it’s worth seeking out for this recipe. You can purchase Lyle’s Golden Syrup online, or look for it in your supermarket’s imported foods aisle. If you’d rather not go through the trouble of tracking it down, this recipe will work just as well with light corn syrup or honey, and though it won’t taste exactly the same, it will still be delicious.