It might seem rather a stretch, including caramels in a book about gingerbread. The fact of the matter is, though, that in France (and in Burgundy, in particular) the use of spices is so ubiquitous that they make their way into everything from breads and cakes to preserves and confections. This recipe is based on caramels I first experienced in the Burgundian hill town of Vézelay. The shops there were filled with tempting local specialties. Among the shelves of wine, honey, mustard, and preserves, I almost always found pretty little sacks of caramels d'épices. These delicious, dark amber-colored gems, wrapped beautifully in gold and purple foil, were a revelation. Spicy, sweet, and creamy, caramels d'épices were candy bliss. As soon as I returned home, I began developing my own recipe for these caramels, which I now present to you. I realize that making candy can be quite intimidating and admit that it is often a tricky business. These caramels, though, are truly as consistently easy to prepare as they are delicious. Encase them individually in foil or waxed paper, or wrap the entire sheet in plastic wrap, store it in a cool and dry area, and cut the caramel into pieces as you need them.
1-1/4 cups heavy (whipping) cream
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1-1/2 cups packed light brown sugar
1/4 cup light corn syrup
3/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Lightly butter a 9-by-5-by-3-inch loaf pan. Cut 2 strips of parchment paper to line the bottom and sides of the pan, allowing at least 1 inch to hang over the edges. Fit the strips into the pan and then butter the parchment paper.
Combine the cream, butter, brown sugar, and corn syrup in a medium saucepan and cook, stirring occasionally, over medium heat until the butter is melted. Bring to a boil, place a candy thermometer in the mixture, and continue to cook the caramel, without stirring, to 248°F (150°C) (firm-ball stage), about 20 minutes The caramel will appear foamy and dark amber in color when it is ready.
Remove the caramel from the heat and carefully stir in the ginger, cinnamon, allspice, salt, and vanilla extract. Pour the caramel evenly into the prepared pan and set aside on a wire rack to cool completely, at least 2 hours.
Lift the sheet of caramel out of the pan, using the edges of parchment, if necessary. Cut the caramel into squares or rectangles and wrap in waxed paper or candy foil. Store the caramels in an airtight container in a cool area for up to 1 month. Alternatively, wrap the whole sheet of caramel in plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator for up to 6 weeks, cutting pieces as needed.
Yield: Makes one 9-by-5-by-3-inch pan of caramel or about forty-five 1-inch pieces
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