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Yours will not be this pretty. Mine aren't. Everyone will be too busy scarfing them to notice.

Friday Giveaway: Salted Caramel Edition

This week’s winner is Angie, who flattered me by saying she’s going to try to make my salted caramels. Flattery will get you everywhere, Angie. And now it will get you ten bucks! (Though actually I pick the winner randomly, I swear!)

———

Happy Friday, everybody!

This morning, I’m preoccupied with baking and writerly craft. Not necessarily in that order.

This is what it looks like where I grew up — the town on which Camelot, Ohio, is modeled

Room at the Inn got a lovely, thoughtful A- review from Dabney at Dear Author yesterday, which spurred a really interesting discussion in the comments that has me thinking about all sorts of things, from the threads of stories that never make it into the book to the whole issue of place in romance fiction.

Some of the commenters mentioned a discomfort with the celebration/elevation of small-town life in Room at the Inn and other small-town romance stories — a discomfort that I share, which is why I was a bit surprised that readers were having that reaction to my story. But then I was remembering how strongly Julie feels about Potter Falls, and the contrast between Potter Falls and New York City in her backstory, and I suppose it is true that Room at the Inn celebrates small-town life.

This is, as Willaful pointed out in the comments, probably inevitable in a story that’s meant to reboot It’s a Wonderful Life. But there’s also a distinct element of personal fantasy in the story, because the town I was imagining while writing it (the town in Upstate New York where my dad grew up) is dying, and I love that town, and whenever I visit I wish something could be done to rescue it. So I suppose that in many ways, this story was my way of expressing and resolving that wish creatively. It gave me a lot of pleasure to imagine a different fate for Potter Falls and execute it through my characters.

And this is the factory building I had in mind in Room at the Inn

I’ve also been thinking about how everyone invests place with meaning — different places, different stages of life, different meanings. I’ve lived several different places — a small town in Pennsylvania, two different college towns in Ohio and Iowa, a university town in North Carolina, London, and a midsize city in Wisconsin — and all of these places mean different things to me. They all call up different memories, different feelings of belonging or exile, affection or loneliness. My immediate family is scattered all over the country, so for me, belonging and having family close are both fantasies that have a lot of traction.

In romance, we rely so much on tension to give stories heft that it’s very common to see characters who feel differently about place: a hero who’s rah-rah about his hometown and a heroine who wants to destroy it, for instance. A setup like that provides an opportunity to showcase the positive and negative attributes of the setting. But because the hero and heroine always need to find a way to settle their differences in the end, one character’s viewpoint is usually obviously superior: the heroine who wants to destroy the hometown will be shown the error of her ways, and the hero’s view of his beloved town will triumph. Thus valorizing the small-town-loving viewpoint. And you can do the same thing with an urban setting (I do in the naked beekeeper book) — but either way, there’s a dynamic in which the setting, big or small, frequently becomes part of the fantasy.

Anyway… I’m not trying to reach any particular point here. Just thinking aloud. My next series is set in a small college town, with characters whose opinions on the place vary. Then there’s a novella set in Green Bay. The three after that are New York books — the first of them described by my critique partner as a “love affair” with New York. It will be interesting to see how people react to the depiction of place in these various titles — and how my own thinking on the subject evolves over time.

At any rate, it’s an honor to have my stories read, engaged, and discussed by such a serious, smart bunch of readers — both at DA and elsewhere. A dream come true, honestly. Thanks to you all.

Aaaaand that was a lot of words that I didn’t intend to write. Okay! Moving along — on the subject of other things we invest with meaning, let’s talk about baked goods! Stella asked for my salted caramel recipe after I mentioned it in my last newsletter, so I’m sharing. Just be warned: this salted caramel is OFF THE HOOK. And also kind of dangerous. Don’t sue me if you injure yourself while adding warm cream to boiling, burning sugar, is all I’m saying.

 

RUTHIE’S OFF-THE-HOOK SALTED CARAMELS

Yours will not be this pretty. Mine aren’t. Everyone will be too busy scarfing them to notice.

a.k.a. Fleur de Sel Caramels, New York Times, 12/31/08. Adapted from a recipe by Michael Recchiuti and Fran Gage.

1 1/2 c. granulated cane sugar

1 c. heavy whipping cream

2 Tbsp. light corn syrup

1 Tbsp. unsalted butter

1/2 tsp. sea salt (pulverized form) + chunky sea salt for finishing

1 tsp. vanilla

 

1. Line bottom and sides of 8″ square baking pan with lightly oiled parchment paper. Or else do what I do and buy a Silpat pan, which you don’t have to line or grease with anything.

2. Put sugar in a medium heavy-bottomed pot. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until it melts. It’s going to look chunky and weird if you stir it too much, but if you don’t stir it it’ll brown too quickly, and basically you’re going to panic and think you’re ruining it. Hang in there, grasshopper. You can do this. Try not to stir too much, but you will have to move the sugar around a bit. Continue to cook until the sugar is entirely liquid and it has turned dark amber. The recipe says this will take 5 to 6 minutes. In my experience, it takes an eternity. It’s done when it’s done. Don’t let it burn, but don’t freak out if your “dark amber” looks more like “almost the color of molasses.”

3. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan bring cream to a simmer over medium heat. Try not to let it boil over — but honestly, you will probably let it boil over. It is really fucking hard to keep it from boiling over. Do your best.

4. When sugar is the right shade and all liquid-y, stir in the corn syrup. It’s going to sputter and steam and make you nervous, but keep stirring until you get all the corn syrup in. Then remove pot from heat (I don’t actually do this) and stir in the hot cream slowly. This is the part where the pan of hot boiling sugar-goo will try to rise up and destroy you. Don’t allow this to happen. Just poke at it with your spoon until it subsides.

5. Return pan to medium heat and cook until mixture registers 252 degrees on a candy thermometer or, if you’re like me and have never gotten around to buying a candy thermometer even though you’ve been making candy since you were 12, it reaches the “soft ball” stage. You’ll know it’s reached the soft ball stage because you’re going to drop some of it off the spoon into a cup of cold water, then reach in and pick it up with your fingers. If it just falls off your fingers in a gloppy mess, it’s not ready. If you can form it into a little caramel ball which you then eat, you’re good to go. Once you’ve made these caramels six or seven times, you can tell by looking at it when it’s reached soft ball stage, but you’ll probably keep testing it anyway, because it gives you an excuse to eat the caramels. The recipe says this stage takes 5 to 7 minutes. Sometimes it takes 2 minutes. Sometimes it takes 10. They’re ready when they’re ready.

6. Remove pot from heat, immediately add salt, butter, and vanilla, and stir with a wooden spoon until distributed. The caramels will try to kill you again, but they won’t try quite as hard this time.

7. Pour caramel into prepared pan (if you’ve got a lot of undissolved sugar chunks, you can pour it through a mesh strainer) and cool to room temperature. Refrigerate to harden. Cut the caramels into pieces with a giant butcher knife, taking care not to stab yourself. This part is difficult, and you will hate it. Whatever you do, DO NOT THEN PUT ALL THE PIECES OF CARAMEL IN A BOWL AND DECIDE TO WRAP THEM LATER. Even cold, these fuckers are sticky. Cut and wrap in one go.

8. Cut squares of waxed paper, sprinkle chunky salt on top of each caramel, and wrap it up, twisting the ends closed. Give them away to all your friends, who will be so impressed with you. Or else eat them until they give you a stomachache.

Today’s question: Which makes you feel more sentimental, baked goods or places? Do you have any thoughts on all the blathering I did above? What about caramels — do they give you thoughts? As always, comment to enter, and I’ll give away a $10 gift certificate tomorrow morning to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or iTunes — winner’s choice.

29 thoughts on “Friday Giveaway: Salted Caramel Edition

  1. I think places are more sentimental for me. After my grandmother passed away several years ago her place has been empty. Every once in a while I will drive by, get out and go inside just to make sure every thing is ok inside. Brings back SO many memories. *sigh*

    I thank you for the caramel recipe!! I have never made caramels before BUT my kids love caramel. I will definitely have to give this a go! The only time I’ve used caramels in a recipe with with the “Knock You Naked Brownies” I make from time to time ( http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ree-drummond/knock-you-naked-brownies-recipe/index.html ). They are delish. ;)

    Thank you for the opportunity to enter the giveaway! Merry Christmas!

  2. I think food is more sentimental to me because I’ve lived so many different places, and not all of them hold happy memories. The only thing my older sister could name as being something she and my late mother agreed upon was food: all Christmas cookies need butter, sugar and probably almond extract. These were the constants in our childhood, not the buildings or towns, but my mom’s baking, the smell of brewing coffee, and a little salt to balance the sweet.

  3. I think places are more sentimental to me. I grew up in Connecticut, and when I go back to visit I see all the places I loved. The pond where I ice skated, totally my winter social life, high school, church……etc. But, I do have to say smelling the goodies definitely starts my mind reeling! The traditional holiday cooking, cookies, pies, and of course egg nog!
    Thank you for the caramel recipe…great gifts, but most of all thank. You for your wonderful stories!

  4. Places. It use to be food actually, but since my husband is active duty it has change my perspective. Now places make me feel sentimental, because I always thought I would end up staying in one place. How wrong I was. :D

  5. My Norwegian Grandmother lived on a farm outside a small town in North Dakota – She and her husband were some of the first settlers from Norway and built a life for themselves there. Every Christmas my family would visit and Grandma had the whole kitchen spread out with a dozen varieties of Norwegian Christmas cookies….the smell of them baking will always be with me. There were always enough to bring some home but they didn’t last long….she had several special utinsels made of metal to shape some of them and I wish I had them now to try to duplicate the delicate shapes. They truly would melt in your mouth.

    1. Oh, that’s so lovely! My mom always managed to round up some lefse for the holidays, and she also always makes kringla, which are a figure-eight shaped Norwegian cookie.

  6. Places are more sentimental to me. Although most of the places that mean the most to me are out of state and I rarely get to visit them. There are only a couple foods that are sentimental to me and they will probably seem strange to most….but my grandmother was older when she had my mom so by the time I came around she was always pretty sick and couldn’t do much. So when ever I came to visit she would always make me any kind of sandwich I wanted with whatever bread I wanted. My favorite was always peanut butter with banana on toasted wheat bread, sliced into triangles. I still eat it that way today and think of her every-time.

  7. I haven’t traveled much so I would say food has more of sentimental value for me. There are some baked goods that are sentimental to my family like homemade bread and waffle cookies. My husband’s grandma made these and even though I never met her he said they taste as good as hers.
    I am going to try making your salted caramels. Have a great day!!

  8. Oh man, salted caramel ANYTHING is my weakness. My wonderful CP just gave me a sweet Christmas gift of a box of salted caramel chocolates. Every week at crit group, I inhale a salted caramel cupcake. Oh yeah, I’ll be making these. Thanks for the recipe Ruthie.

    I loved reading about Potter Falls. It was as much a character as Carson and Julie. Setting is so important, and you nailed it in Room at the Inn. Nice job!

    1. Jessi, I loved the Potter Falls setting too. Don’t you wish that Ruthie Knox would write another story set there. Surely there have to be other characters with a story to tell in that lovely small town!

      1. Kelly (of Instalove) demands that I write a story for Leo Potter next. She and several others on Twitter said they’d love to have a hero who’s kind, confident, attentive, skilled in bed, and not all that hot. I’m intrigued.

  9. Places, definitely, places…*misty eyes*………
    I love the blathering. People sometimes share recipes and expect you to know the caramels are going to try and kill you and that is normal. How on earth would I know that??
    A recipe I might try if I get the nerve. Melting sugar???
    You were talking about the blathering in the recipe directions, right? ;-)

  10. Although I love caramels and these sound delicious, I don’t think I would ever be able to do this! It just looks like way too much work for me. Places tend to make me more sentimental than food though.
    June

    1. Your comment made me laugh, June. The definitions of what people consider “way too much work” are always fun. It’s really only about half an hour’s work, all told! It’d rather make 30 pans of caramels than go to the mall and buy something. :-)

  11. Places make me more sentimental. Typically the things I ate at places. I started eating meat again when I visited Savannah, GA ten years ago when a widow offered me home cooked chicken while telling me about the great love of her life. I couldn’t turn it down! I ate as I listened at it was the best piece of meat I’ve ever eaten in my life. As the years went and I continued to visit, I ate whatever she put on my plate but back home I was still a vegan until two years ago when I moved back North. My first attempts at cooking chicken were hilarious but I figured I had to learn if I were ever going to get a great love like that widow.

    1. What an interesting and strange story! Or maybe it just seems strange to me as a vegetarian. I can sort of imagine myself doing what you did — being totally unable to turn down the chicken because of the context. But my vegetarian husband would NEVER eat the chicken. NEVER.

  12. Dear Ruthie,

    I came across this recipe whilst I was browsing the awesomeness of your blog (to which I was referred by your general awesomeness.) I just completed my first attempt at making what I have come to view as a test from God of patience, skill, and aversion to profanity. I failed on every level.

    And it also made me realize that you probably excel at making these for one of two reasons: 1) your awesomeness (see previous paragraph) or 2) you have the greasiest, koala-like-est hands in all the land. I mean that in the nicest possible way*.

    *Really, its a compliment! Koala hands are actually mind-bogglingly complex, with two opposable thumbs and claws. You can’t get much cooler than that without the use of bionics.

    Anyway, my hands are just regular human-like ones, and I lack general awesomeness, so the caramels came out tasty, but utterly lacking in form. But the goo I made was super tasty. So very. Tasty goo, yum.

    Thanks for the recipe!

    1. Dear Koala-fied,

      I love this comment! It made my afternoon. You certainly have your share of awesomeness. Is it possible that your skill lies in koalas, rather than caramels? Just a thought. Or perhaps you just need to keep at it. If your caramels are very goopy, they probably just needed to cook longer. One time, I tried to make caramels, and they turned out to be fudge. I have no idea what happened, but I sent them to Del Dryden, and she was pleased, so that’s good.

      Also, now I would like koala hands.

      1. I think I lost credibility in with anything related to animals at age 6, when I told my mom I wanted to name our new pet cat “Orgy.” Completely innocent mistake, but one that has followed me ever since. He ended up being christened “Oreo Knee-Highs.” Best. Name. Ever.

        And, yes, the dreaded “I intended A but I got B” scenario. In our house, it is literally the letters A and B because my preschooler is learning to write. But caramels becoming fudge sounds like a win-win, while “CAT” turning out as “OBI” doesn’t quite have the same appeal.

        Speaking of Ms. Dryden, I read Theory of Attraction last week and almost fainted several times. Luckily, the desire to continue reading was so intense that it somehow regulated my blood pressure long enough to pull me back to oxygen-positive and finish the book. I loved it. LOVED it! And she can describe Texas weather so well that it makes me want to go back there (born and bred, now live in the Northeast.)

        But New England is actually just as nice as Texas, to be honest. In a different way. Just don’t tell Pope Perry or he might Texcommunicate me.

        And now it’s awkward because I’ve been rambling like that One Friend who always leaves super long voice mails about nothing until your mailbox gets filled up and you still listen to the entire 2 minutes and 43 seconds of it because you never know, but the reality is that you do know, and I’m just going to shut up now.

        Wait, no. Love your books. Okay, done.

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