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Caramel is made by cooking sugar up to a high temperature of about 340°F (170°C). It has many uses in candy and sauces, and as a topping for such desserts as creme brulee.
This sweet has a distinctive dark tan color and a rich flavor that suggests vanilla. Home cooks will probably add a little more vanilla to it as it is cooking, to intensify this flavor. Cocoa can also be added for a chocolate caramel, or rum for the buttered rum taste.
A cook should slowly heat sugar in a completely clean skillet, stirring the mixture with an equally clean spoon. This helps the sugar to convert to caramel, rather than to crystallize. The cook should stir the mixture until it boils, and then remove it from the heat with no further stirring.
One popular Southern U.S. recipe that uses this form of sugar is a caramel cake. The cake is a yellow cake, sometimes flavored with caramel syrup, but the frosting is what makes this cake special. In the frosting, milk and brown sugar are cooked together to soft ball stage, or about 234°F (112°C). Butter and vanilla are added and the mixture is beaten until the frosting comes together. This extremely sweet treat is a favorite at bake sales and family reunions.
Caramel sauce is also a popular as an ice cream topping. The principle is the same as the frosting, but the mixture is kept in a more liquid form. It is usually best when served warm over the ice cream. Some cooks also like to pour the sauce over yellow cake and serve that with vanilla ice cream.
As a confection, caramel may go as far back as the 1650s, when Americans first began stirring up their own kettles of candies. Caramels became so popular that many well-known candy makers, Hershey’s included, started out making this treat. Milton Hershey learned about chocolate while searching out new coatings for his caramels.
Chewy, sweet and rich, caramel is a treat alone, in a cake, over ice cream, or coating a tart apple. It’s a taste of the old-fashioned.
@Grivusangel -- In my experience, making caramel frosting, or anything candy-like, should be done when it's cold, clear and the humidity is low. But the powdered sugar recipe may be one to look for.
I love caramel apples, myself. I've done the melt the wrapped caramels thing, and the make it from scratch, but I'll admit: the caramel "wraps" you peel off the wax paper and wrap around the apple are the easiest to deal with, and they're not sensitive to temperature or humidity. So what if they're not the kind you get at the fair? I don't have a copper candy making pot like the pros do and it's not easy to get caramel to do what it's supposed to do without breaking it or burning it. The wraps are a cop-out and that's fine with me.
Caramel cake is my mom's favorite, but the frosting is so aggravating! It can be nearly impossible to get it right. I ran across a recipe in a magazine that uses powdered sugar and for some reason, it always turns out all right. Maybe it's the cornstarch in the sugar. It's not quite like the traditional caramel frosting, but I doubt anyone knows the difference. My mom likes it and that's all that matters!