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Aunt Fan's Caramels

I really thought I'd put this caramel story and recipe (or at least the recipe) on my LJ before but I can't find it, so a possible repeat follows. Just finished making a batch of the chocolate ones, which need another hour or so to be cool enough to cut and wrap. I'll leave this dated from when I first wrote out the story.

December 23, 2000

One of those memories of Christmases of my childhood is the appearance of Aunt Fan, who was really my great-aunt. Aunt Fan didn't come to Moultrie (Georgia) for the main Barber Christmas gathering every year, but when she did, the food (especially the sweets) had some extra flourishes. She was a professional: for some years, Aunt Fan and her friend Mary Jo Thompson ran the Sanford House restaurant in Milledgeville, Ga., and before that she was in charge of food service at Wesleyan College in Macon, Ga.

When Aunt Fan was at the big family Christmas gathering, she would bring with her, or make while there, divinity candy, lace cookies all crisp and buttery and candy-like, and maybe a peppermint pie. During the Christmas Day afternoon gathering at my Grandmother Barber's house, Fan presided over the Russian spiced tea. But the strongest (and fondest) memory I have is of her caramels. Some vanilla, some chocolate, with or without pecans, each wrapped in a miniature butcher's fold of waxed paper with the ends tucked under, and crammed into a tin or a box. The caramels were soft and chewy, rich, the chocolate ones intense and the vanilla ones buttery. You learned to find the caramel container, then dig around, peering through the waxed-paper wrapping to see if it was vanilla or chocolate, with or without nuts, before grabbing yet another piece.

Aunt Fan showed me how to make those caramels one Christmas, and wrote out the recipe in the abbreviated style of her age. (Good thing I took notes, too!) I remember she left out the vanilla and realized the omission after we had poured out the caramels. No problem--she took the bottle, put her thumb over the opening, and sprinkled some over the top of the finished candy. They still seemed to taste OK, proving either that this is a very tolerant recipe, or that a great cook can get away with a lot.

This Christmas I dug out the recipe for Aunt Fan's caramels for the first time in years. I did a test run of vanilla caramels last night, and my father wandered through the kitchen as I peered at the candy thermometer. He remembers that it was a summer when he was in high school, in the late 1930's, that Aunt Fan went off to a cooking school in New York for two weeks. The caramels, and her candy thermometer, were part of what she brought back. Daddy remembers Fan setting up the caramel bars on the marble countertop, and pouring the hot candy out to set. (This would have been in Fan's sister's house, my grandmother's.) He also remembers the few months when he and my mother lived in Milledgeville in 1951, and they helped out at the Sanford House in the evenings. My older brother was learning to walk at that point, and the college-aged waitresses would try to induce him to walk from one to the other during slow moments of the dinner hour.

This afternoon, with the assistance of my nieces, aged 7 and almost 5, I made a batch of chocolate caramels. Cutting up the vanilla ones made the night before provided a chance for the girls to perform quality-control checks while waiting for the bubbling mixture to reach soft-ball stage. Younger niece tried her first bit (a small piece that had stuck to the pan) with caution, then asked for a "real" piece, then for one "...oh, this big, Aunt Nancy." "But there isn't a piece that big--that's three-quarters of the pan." "Oh, well, this big."

We'll cut the chocolate caramels tomorrow, and wrap the pieces in little squares of waxed paper, and the nieces will eat some and take some to their grandparents in Arizona. I'll mail some to my nephew who helped bake the plenitude of pies we had at Thanksgiving, and give more away to friends. And I'll think that Aunt Fan came to Atlanta for Christmas this year.

Have a Merry Christmas, everyone!

Miss Fanny White's Caramels

1 cup sugar
1 cup white Karo syrup
1 cup whipping cream
1 T. butter
1 tsp. vanilla

Mix sugar, syrup, and cream in a large saucepan. Cook over medium heat until the mixture reaches 230 degrees F. (soft-ball stage) on a candy thermometer. Add butter and vanilla, then continue cooking until the mixture reaches 242 degrees (firm-ball stage). If desired, stir in one or more of the following:
3/4 c. chopped pecans (toast them first if desired)
3/4 c. chopped toasted almonds
3/4 c. shredded coconut, toasted or not
Pour mixture into a buttered 8" square or 9" round pan. Let it set overnight, then cut into pieces and wrap individually in waxed paper.

Choccolate Caramels
Add 3 (1-oz) squares of semi-sweet chocolate when mixture reaches 230 degrees. Add butter and vanilla when chocolate has melted, then cook to 242 degrees and proceed as above.


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 24th, 2008 12:10 am (UTC)
Thanks for the story and the recipe. I'd say it's a very forgiving one, due to the low number of ingredients. IME, the more things you have in something, the fussier it is to make.
Nov. 24th, 2008 02:53 am (UTC)
What's fussy about this one is the temperature--or maybe it's just me. I've tried 4 or more different types of candy thermometers and I still haven't found the magic to get exactly the consistency I want. (Just barely firm enough to not run out of the wrapping papers, that is.) They are always good, but sometimes the results are chewier than others.

Yesterday's vanilla caramels are just a touch firmer than I like, but today's chocolate ones are perfect. Unless they start oozing from the ends of the paper wrappers....
Nov. 24th, 2008 03:28 am (UTC)
Buh-buh-but... if any of them ooze from the papers, they were obviously flawed and should not be given away under any circumstances! You have a reputation to protect! You'll have to, ahh, be rid of them by some other method! Umm, obviously. Ummmm.


And my address is...... :)
Nov. 24th, 2008 03:56 am (UTC)
Younger niece, who was assisting today, kept staring at the bubbling pot o' chocolatey goodness and saying, "It looks good now--I don't mind that it's still liquid. Just give it to me!"

We did have to dispose of several flawed pieces during the wrapping process....you just can't use those odd-shaped corner pieces as gifts, now, can you?
Nov. 25th, 2008 12:24 am (UTC)
Wow, those sound good.

BTW, I had a Grandmother Barber, too (my mother's mother), but she couldn't cook her way out of a paper bag. She was an entrepreneur back in the days before there were lady entrepreneurs, instead.

BTW, my mother's people originally came from Georgia/the Carolinas. I wonder if we're distantly related [g].
Nov. 25th, 2008 01:40 am (UTC)
My Grandmother Barber was probably best classed as a "good plain cook", though any real specific memories have faded. She did really like coconut, though, and I recall coconut cakes and coconut pies eaten at her house. Her sister Fan, though--the caramels were a small part of Fan's repertoire.

If your Barber relations came from Onslow County, NC, we might have something. The group that came to Georgia was pretty small and stayed pretty close, so that's less likely. Might be fun to try and track back a ways!
Nov. 25th, 2008 03:13 am (UTC)
My mother was a good plain cook, too. She doesn't cook anymore, though, except what little she does to keep herself fed. When I go visit her, we have a repertoire of restaurants we hit. I get my fried okra fix from Lubys, my barbecue from Bodacious, and so forth [g].

Honestly, I don't know exactly where my relatives came from, just what my mother's told me, and she didn't get that specific. My cousin the genealogist is from my dad's side of the family.

There seem to be far fewer Barbers out there than you'd think, for some reason, which is why I brought it up.

But I can tell you that my Barber grandparents made it into a volume of Ripley's Believe It Or Not. Because they both cut hair for a living [g].
Nov. 27th, 2008 12:45 am (UTC)
I've never tried making caramels. Maybe it is time I remedied that. These recipes seem simple enough.
Nov. 27th, 2008 06:32 am (UTC)
I am going to try this! Thank you.
Nov. 28th, 2008 03:48 am (UTC)
Great story!
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )


Nancy Barber

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