These caramels have been a long time coming. They might be my ideal candy: salty, buttery, chewy and licorice-kissed. The best part? They are completely, realistically doable in your kitchen, right now! I am an amateur candy maker at best– I think this is the third time I have made homemade caramel anything, and one of those projects was not the most successful. These caramels were a raging success: no burns, not much of a time investment and hugely rewarding. I am over the moon happy with how they turned out.
My love affair with salted caramel and salted licorice is no secret. I’ve gushed at length about my beloved Finnish treat, salmiakki, and how I seek it out anywhere Scandinavian foods are sold. I like salt licorice ice cream from Molly Moon and will pass up every other color jelly bean to get to the black ones… which aren’t salted, but still. As for salted caramel, I know I’m not alone there, since it seems to be on every coffeehouse board/restaurant dessert menu/sweets blog in town. Works for me! My husband made me an incredible cheesecake with a salted caramel sauce for my birthday one year and a chocolate cake with salted caramel frosting another year. Why is salt such a draw in sweets? Well, scientifically speaking, it distinguishes and amplifies other flavors, waking up your taste buds and making even a small bite of something taste grand. One square of this salted licorice caramel satisfies even the most discerning sweet tooth.
It’s nice to have a few candies in your recipe box for holiday gift giving and entertaining and I am eager to share these with friends and family. I know that licorice is not at the top of everyone’s list of favorite flavors, but you have to trust me: these are so subtle and sophisticated, I think even folks who don’t think they like licorice will like these caramels. They are caramel flavored first; the salt and licorice are accents. You could dip them in chocolate for another flourish, since dark chocolate works really well with both caramel and anise. They can be wrapped in papers to give or piled high in a candy bowl, as pictured. For Halloween, consider adding black food coloring (I’ve read in two places that gel coloring is the way to go with caramels, and just a drop or two is sufficient) to up the spooky factor; that would also work if you wanted to distinguish them from plain or differently flavored caramels given or displayed at the same time. You can also increase the saltiness by sprinkling a little extra sea salt on the caramels just before wrapping or serving. I used Jacobsen Salt and highly recommend it. Lastly, a note about anise flavorings. I use anise oil I bought at a local (sadly now closed) bakers’ supply shop. You can use extract if you like but will need much more extract than oil. The basic proportions: 1 part oil = 4 parts extract. Most recipes I looked at called for 2 tsp. anise extract and I used 1/2 tsp., and then increased it to 3/4 tsp. because I wanted a stronger flavor. Be careful to use food grade products and not essential oils intended for aromatherapy. Anise oil and extract can be found in local kitchen stores and online from retailers like King Arthur Flour and Amazon.
If you’ve made fifty batches of caramels this year or zero; if you like fennel, kind of, in salads with dressing and that’s it… or you’re fighting me for that last black jelly bean; if you’re curious about adding salt to confections or carry your own Jacobsen tin in your purse– whatever the case, these are must-make caramels. You will impress your friends, and yourself! The reward of that first buttery, chewy, licorice-y, salty-sweet bite is reason enough to make a batch right now.
Salted Licorice Caramels (adapted from Mel’s Kitchen)
- 1/2 c. water
- 2 c. evaporated cane juice or white sugar
- 1 14 oz. can sweetened condensed milk
- 1 c. light corn syrup
- 12 T. unsalted butter
- 1/2 – 3/4 tsp. anise oil (see notes above)
- 1/4 tsp. vanilla extract
- about 1/2 tsp. sea salt (not kosher salt or table salt)
Line an 8″ x 8″ or 9″ x 9″ square baking pan with parchment paper, allowing an inch or two to overhang at least two sides. Lightly butter the parchment and set aside.
Have all of your ingredients measured and ready to go. Into a heavy-bottomed saucepan with at least a 4-qt. capacity (bigger is better), add the water, sugar, sweetened condensed milk, corn syrup and butter. Attach a candy thermometer to the side of the pan, making sure the tip is submerged in the ingredients but not touching the bottom of the pan, and get a heat resistant rubber or silicone spatula ready to go.
Heat the ingredients over medium-high heat while stirring constantly. Constantly. Unlike some caramel recipes, the success of this depends on keeping the ingredients in motion so they don’t scorch. (At any time, if you think the bottom of your caramels may be scorching, lower the heat slightly and continue.) The mixture will boil fairly quickly and will bubble in large, lazy bubbles which slow as you approach the desired temperature of 242-244 degrees F. You should have a golden brown, very thick caramel by 242 degrees, which is when I removed my caramels from the heat; I wanted them to be thick enough to hold shape when cut but still retain a good amount of chewiness. The cooking process took approximately 15 mins.
As soon as the caramels are off the heat, add 1/2 tsp. anise oil and vanilla and stir to combine. Take a small amount in a spoon and cool off– remember, this was just boiling!– for at least a minute before tasting. (You can place the spoon in the freezer or drop into a glass of cool water to speed the process.) If you like the flavor, you can stop there, or add the extra 1/4 tsp. anise oil if you want a more pronounced licorice flavor, as I did.
When the flavoring is to your satisfaction, pour the hot caramel into your prepared pan; sprinkle the top evenly with sea salt and cool on a wire rack for at least an hour. I left the caramels in the pan for about 3 days before removing (the parchment comes in handy for lifting the entire block from the pan) and cutting them. Use a steady cutting board and a large, sturdy knife to cut the square into long, thin strips (about 8) and then into small cubes. You can expect to get about 64 caramels from this batch. Wrap your caramels individually in wax paper or parchment squares to prevent them from sticking. If you want to enhance the saltiness, sprinkle with or dip in more sea salt just before wrapping.