There’s a bucket of caramels next to the register at my local CVS. At three for 99 cents, who wouldn’t try one? And they are good: fresh and buttery, soft, with just the right chew. They’re not exactly homemade, but they’re not exactly “mass produced” either. The company that makes them, L. Frances, is a small specialty factory in Appleton, Wisconsin. Their candies are obviously formed and wrapped by machine, but they are produced in small batches and shipped fresh, unlike most of the sweets at the checkout.
I find it pretty amazing that stores like CVS can make room for a caramel made by a company that has no more than 20 employees and operates out of a little town in the north woods. I can only conclude that people are hungry for candy that is just a little better than what’s on offer from the global food conglomerates, and small producers are inciting a renaissance.
For generations raised on Kraft cubes, the superiority of a fresh, small-batch caramel is largely unknown. In fact, the mediocrity of the overprocessed caramel helped chocolate bars rise to dominance in the candy aisle. While Kraft has been the most prominent caramel of the last half century, the company wasn’t even in the candy business when their cube took its place among confections. Kraft specialized in dairy processing—their first product was ice cream. Later, Kraft made its fortune in cheese. Caramels were just a sideline, another way to transform fresh milk into a shelf-stable product. Nevertheless, Kraft’s “dairy fresh” caramel cubes, with their particular milky flavor and fudgy texture, became the standard for American caramel—a stark departure from the sophisticated continental confection they once were.
Caramels first appeared on the American candy scene in the 1880s. The lineage of the first American caramel is obscure, and mired in ancient Anglo-Gallic rivalries. In flavor and character, what we know today as caramel candy is closely related to British toffee and butterscotch, which appeared in the early 1800s. British candy historian Laura Mason suggests that caramels might have evolved in the spirit of dental charity—a softer counterpart to the hard-on-the-teeth British toffee. Stephen Schmidt, author of Dessert in America and an expert in the history of American desserts, looks to the other side of the Channel for caramel origins: “The inspiration behind American caramels were French caramels, which came to this country during the vogue for French cooking of the Gilded Age.”
Whatever its British or French antecedents, the caramel candy that appeared at the end of the nineteenth century was a uniquely American concoction. Home recipes most closely resembled their French cousins, employing basic combinations of butter, sugar, cream and flavorings. But more unique confections were spilling out of professional candy kitchens: In their quest for market share and profit, commercial producers would experiment with such ingredients as paraffin, glucose, coconut butter, flour, and molasses to alter the texture, firmness and quality of the candies.
As for the word caramel, the OED is uncharacteristically vague on the origins of the term. It is traced to France, but questions persist about its reference. Theoretical etymologies attach it to callamellus little tube or reed, or to cannamella, the Latin term for sugar cane, but these are only theories, and not very persuasive ones. OED concludes, somewhat tersely, “origin uncertain.”
The OED’s lexicographers do not mention a more promising (but likely apocryphal) derivation attributing the name to one Count Albufage Caramel of Nismes, France. Tantalizing references to Count Caramel appear (and disappear) in the 19th century, most famously in William Jeanes The Modern Confectioner (1861; also known as Gunter’s Modern Confectioner). The Count is credited with first describing the final stage of sugar boiling just before the sugar would begin to darken. Although Count Caramel sounds more like a character from Jim Henson’s workshop than a bona fide member of the French aristocracy, something in the account rings true.
The French were most daring in experiments with sugar boiling in the 18th century, and the final “caramel” stage was the last to be added to the codification of stages of sugar boiling. At lower temperatures, the sugar boil is named with obvious descriptors: terms like ball, crack, pearl and feather. By the 19th century, the term “caramel” was widely used to name the stage just before the sugar began to burn; American candy makers today call it “hard crack.”
Whether or not Count Caramel actually existed, the obfuscation of meaning surrounding the term caramel is real. American caramel lovers beware; once you cross into international territories, a candy sack labeled “caramel” or “caramelo” is likely to contain nothing of the sort. It is a cruel trick, to be offered a “caramelo” and receive instead a lurid hard candy reeking of artificial cherry. These cognate candies evoke the elusive Count Caramel’s high sugar boil: sugar melted and raised to the temperature of “caramel” cools into a hard, glass-like candy.
As Catherine Owen attempted to explain to her 1887 candy-making aspirants: “Caramel is really sugar boiled until it changes color, but the candy understood as ‘caramels’ is something different.” Sara Rorer’s 1889 Home Candy Making, for example, gives a recipe for “caramel” that includes only sugar and water, boiled to “the consistency of molasses.” This would be sugar cooked to a very high temperature, over 330 degrees. Caramel candy recipes, in contrast, cook sugar with milk or butter at lower temperatures. The resultant browning and deepening of flavors is not caramelization, but a related effect known as the Maillard reaction. This is the flavor prized today as “caramel,” but for Americans in the 1880s and 1890s, that distinctive taste was not so closely attached to the caramel candy sensation. Even in caramel candy’s heyday, chocolate’s appeal and marketability were undeniable. Hence the famed Philadelphia Caramel, which was, as everybody on the eastern seaboard knew, a chewy morsel of chocolate.
Milton Hershey, who would go on to found the Hershey’s chocolate empire, began as a caramel man; his Lancaster Caramels were advertised to include a mix of 30 varieties. Prior to Hershey’s chocolate innovations of the 1890s, milk chocolate was a closely guarded European secret. Chocolate bars for eating were imported, expensive delicacies. Caramel, in contrast, could be made for every taste and budget. Caramel candy in that era was not a specific variety, but a generic form: so Hershey sold chocolate, strawberry, coffee, maple, and coconut caramels. Our familiar plain caramel would have been known in that day as another flavor, vanilla. Soon, the caramels got fancier. Nuts, cream centers, or even chocolate dipped. One day, Hershey looked at those chocolate dipped caramels and saw a new direction for his company. Exit caramels, enter the Hershey Bar.
These days, chocolate rules the candy shop and dominates the dessert cart. But caramel can be every bit as interesting and delicious—and thanks to small producers, the chewy, rich candy is entering a renaissance. Some makers find their audience through visible placement by the CVS register, while others reach an enthusiastic market through the wonders of artisan retail channels like Etsy.
It seems the candy universe is inviting an outcast back into its midst. Fifteen years ago, the makers of the film Good Will Hunting made caramel the candy of choice for the main character, a nerdy social misfit played by Matt Damon. Today, nerds are the masters of the universe and caramel has gone mainstream.