Don't bail out on me yet. These take a while, but they aren't as difficult as you might think. I've been making these at Christmas time for years. I've gone the stovetop route, and this beats it all to pieces. No constant stirring. I made this batch for my family for Valentine's Day. First, the ingredients:
1 cup butter
2 1/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 can sweetened condensed milk (14 oz)
1 cup light corn syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla
I've stopped buying stick margarine. I try not to use a lot of butter, so I figure it's worth the splurge when I do. It DOES matter in this recipe, but margarine will work if that's what you prefer.
I think I've had this recipe card almost as long as I've been married. This is the GOOD side.
I use a 4 liter Pyrex bowl. It does bubble, but doesn't expand so you could probably get away with something a little smaller, but this large size allows for plenty of room for stirring. I used a 9" x 9" square pan to pour them into this time, but I have also used a 9" x 13" in the past. The smaller pan is ok if you don't mind a little larger pieces, otherwise go bigger. Just be ready for more cutting.
I use butter-flavored pan spray, but you can use butter to grease the pan. Either one will work, just make sure the entire inside is coated.
Put all the ingredients into the bowl except for the vanilla. You don't need a lot of stirring at this point, just break up the brown sugar a bit. Put the bowl into the microwave and cook for 2 minutes. Take it out and stir, then return to the microwave for 1 minute. Repeat until the butter is completely melted.
Give it a good stir, making sure the butter is incorporated into the other ingredients. It might take a minute or two of stirring. Back into the microwave, cook for 5 minutes.
I had this recipe down to a science a few years ago. I could cook it for 10 minutes at this point and it would be done. Then I got a new microwave, cooked it for 10 minutes and yanked it out and threw it out the back door, trailing smoke. My point is, cooking time at this point in the recipe is subjective. I'm using a 900 watt microwave and ended up cooking this for 14 minutes including the 5 minutes mentioned above.
After the 5 minutes, test for doneness (see below). If it isn't there yet, return it to the microwave for 2 minutes, then test again. Don't stir. I don't know why, but that's what my recipe says and it's worked all these years, so I'm not messing with it. Repeat until it's reached the right color and texture. It's best to either use a new spoon for each test or clean it. I don't think licking it counts.
You're looking for a dark brown color like this.
I own a candy thermometer, but I find it's better to use the old-school "cold water method" to test if it's done. What that means, if you aren't familiar, is that you drop a little of the caramel into a glass of cold water, let it cool for a few seconds, then squish it with your fingers to see if it feels like caramel. If it does, it's done. If it doesn't, cook it for another 2 minutes and test again. Piece of cake.
When it's reached the right texture, called the "firm ball stage" (thank Betty Crocker for that one, not me) it will stick easily to the bottom of the glass and not move when you swish the water around.
Pour out the water and pull the caramel out with your fingers.
It will feel a little softer than it will ultimately be when it's completely cool, but you should be able to squish it with your fingers and it will hold its shape. If you don't eat this little test blob, you aren't human.
Stir in the vanilla. It may splatter a little and I just learned today that the alcohol fumes coming from it kinda burn the eyes. Stir the entire bowl thoroughly.
Pour the caramel into the greased pan. Be very careful. Molten caramel will burn, then it will stick to you and burn some more. Don't ask how I know this. Let the caramel cool for a couple of hours. Go read a book.
When your caramel is completely cool, it's time to cut it apart. This is truly the most difficult part. I find it easier if I cut it lengthwise into quarters, then pull one out that isn't next to the edge, as shown in the photo.
I transfer it onto a cutting board and cut each quarter-piece into 24 small pieces, for a total of 96. That part is entirely up to your personal preference. You can cut them into smaller pieces or bigger, but keep in mind you want to be able to pop a whole one into your mouth without a visit to the dentist and they are CHEWY.
My OCD wouldn't allow me to leave the pan all messy like that. You know that little stray one in the corner is a goner. In fact, don't count them. Some are already missing.
I've never dipped these in chocolate or anything else before, but I've always wanted to try it. I left some plain, dipped some in melted white chocolate chips and some in semi-sweet chocolate. The first bowl of white chocolate I tried to melt I followed the instructions on the bag and stuck it in the microwave for 2 minutes. When I pulled it out, the center was black. Yep, biggest disaster of the day, but pretty low on the all-time list.
I decided since these are for Valentine's Day, I'd get all fancy and put hearts on them. I had a little bit of white chocolate left, so I added some red food coloring and put it into a Ziploc bag. I cut a tiny piece of one corner off and used it like a pastry bag to pipe on hearts. That said, I don't own a pastry bag because I suck at it, so don't look too close at them.
I wrap these in squares of wax paper. Don't refrigerate, unless you like eating rocks. And be aware that once you've made these for those you care about, they know you know how and will never stop asking for them. You've been warned.
*Edited February 14, 2013:
I made these again this year, but wanted to try salted caramels. I made the regular recipe, but added an extra teaspoon of vanilla (thank you for your comment, scokeep!) and used a 9 by 13 inch pan. I didn't want all of them salted, so I waited until they were cool, cut them apart, then dipped my finger in coarsely ground Himalayan Pink Sea Salt (sounds fancy right? Not so much - Costco) and pressed it into the top of the caramel. It stuck well and I wrapped them with waxed paper. Just when you thought caramels couldn't get any better...