One of the nice things about spending your time reading food blogs is that you stay up to date with current trends in food and you can get feedback on recipes before you even try them. I'll admit, I'm not a big candy-maker (I often get put off by the use of candy thermometers), but I saw three separate bloggers like myself attempt different caramels, so I thought I'd throw my hat into the ring. My edition is a rather plain caramel base, but after that was made, I coated the small squares of deliciousness with Guittard milk chocolate and topped them with a mixture of Tahitian vanilla bean paste and English flake sea salt that I picked up at my local Napa Style store (which, by the way, I'm convinced is the most amazing foodie-hangout since Williams-Sonoma and Dean & Deluca).
The wall of amazing sea salts at Napa Style was my real inspiration. I know Dean & Deluca make an amazing range of sea salts as well (including a vanilla one, if memory serves) so feel free to experiment here. Some of the salts I tasted were too sulfurous, so I went with the English flake since it was the cleanest on the palate. The salt is what makes these caramels really pop. I resisted the urge to put a big pinch in the caramel base, however, and I think the balance turned out well. If I were to do it over again (and I'm sure my family will demand a repeat of these next Christmas due to the newcomer's overwhelming popularity among the old standbys on the cookie platter) I would probably add the bulk of the vanilla to the base rather than mixing it with the salt (the pure whiteness of the topping would be more elegant). These also make excellent house-warming or host/ess gifts, travel well, and last at least 2 weeks (but you'll never know since they'll be gone so fast!)
Vanilla Salted Caramels
4 Tbsp (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, plus some for greasing the pan
1 ½ cups heavy cream
2 cups sugar
½ cup light corn syrup
1½ teaspoon vanilla extract, plus the scrapings of one vanilla bean
12 oz. milk chocolate, melted
1 Tbsp flaked sea salt (I used some from a specialty store, but Maldon would work fine here)
Directions: Grease a 9-inch square baking pan. Combine all ingredients except vanilla in a small saucepan and turn the heat to low. Cook, stirring constantly, until the sugar dissolves, hen cook, stirring only occasionally, until the mixture measures 250 degrees, or hard ball stage on a candy thermometer. Stir in the vanilla and pour into the prepared pan. When the mixture has cooled to room temperature, remove the block of caramel from the pan and use a sharp knife to cut it into small squares. The chocolate can be tricky—it needs to be close to body temperature to coat the caramels without pooling when you set them down. I melted the chocolate over low heat on a double boiler, and then allowed it to sit at room temperature for a few minutes. Dip the caramels into the chocolate then place on parchment. While the chocolate is still wet, sprinkle conservatively with the sea salt and don't remove from the parchment until the chocolate is completely set. Makes about 48 caramels. If desired, wrap in small squares of wax paper or place in petit fours cases for presentation.