The Local Food Report: Starving off the Land

Can you tell that I have my holiday baking blinders on? I have even found a way to turn my friend Tamar into a chocolate covered caramel sprinkled with sea salt.

Of course, if you know her and have a guess at why I might have been visiting with her in the first place, I suppose it isn't entirely surprising that she's covered in salt. Because, amongst many, many other things, that's what she does: churn out Cape Cod sea salt.

The habit came from a challenge that she took on with her husband, at the start of 2009. They were wondering, after moving here from Manhattan (just in time, proving their prudence, to sell off one house before it became very clear it was not a particularly good time to own two), if Marstons Mills might allow them to become self-sufficient. That idea lasted roughly ten minutes, even on New Year's Day, a day that, by all accounts, allows wonderfully far-fetched idealistic hopes to last for at least twice as long as they do on any normal day. Self-sufficiency, in the snow, with very limited experience in, say, soap making or procuring whale's oil and blowing glass lanterns or aging goat's milk, was not looking good. And so they settled for a middle ground: they would eat something, one thing, every day, that they had hunted, fished, gathered, or grown. Tamar took out a website, Starving Off the Land, and away they went.

Needless to say, it's been quite a ride. It is not every year that you build a chicken coop, attempt to start a small commercial mushroom spawn operation in your bathtub, give out your very own homemade sea salt instead of wine at dinner parties, and botch a batch of real, live sassafrass and yeast root beer. Did I mention that she also went lobstering, oystering, and ice fishing for trout?

The thing is, none of these projects are particularly outrageous on their own. I know other people with chicken coops, and Julie Winslow at the Orleans farmers' market grows mushrooms from spawn, too, and plenty of peoples had a hard time with their very own backyard gardens this year. It's more the frequency, and the range of creativity that is so impressive. For instance, Tamar came up with the sea salt idea one day while simply sitting and staring at the wide, shallow humidifier on top of her woodstove. She wondered what would happen if she filled it with sea water, went down to Sandy Neck to fill up a pot, strained the ocean water through a coffee filter, and a few hours later had a pan of pure white Cape Cod sea salt.

Another time, she found a sassafrass tree on her property. She got out a spade and a pair of clippers and dug down until she exposed a root, and she went home and washed it off. Then she boiled it up with wintergreen and ginger and juniper berries and sugar, and added a bit of yeast too. This, according to an 1832 recipe, was a sure bet for homemade rootbeer. (Apparently they stopped making rootbeer the old fashioned way because sassafrass was found to maybe be mildly carcinogenic, but that didn't scare Tamar.) Things were going pretty swimmingly until she tweaked the recipe, taking away some of the sugar because she thought it tasted sweet enough, but forgetting that the yeast would be eating the sugar in order to produce the requisite bubbles and boozy-ness. In the end, the rootbeer turned out a lot like cough syrup, but even that experiment she is willing to try again.

At any rate, I could retell you every single one of Tamar's stories, because really they are all very good, but that wouldn't make much sense. For starters, I have a lot more chocolate covered caramel making to do, and also, Tamar tells them terribly well herself. I think it would be a little silly for me to carry on. So instead, just click on over here and make yourself at home, and I think you might find yourself laughing out loud. You might also find yourself making your own sea salt, an activity that I can now, after trying it once myself, wholeheartedly recommend. I also recommend caramels, and chocolates, and especially the recipe below.


This recipe is of the cobbled together sort. It started when I found this recipe over here, but I didn't like the fact that the chocolate was mixed in to the caramel instead of wrapped around it. Then I spied this one over here, which I used for the base, but which still didn't solve the chocolate problem. In the end, I decided to just haul out my copy of Chocolate Epiphany, figure out how to temper chocolate, and pour it on top.

Although it is helpful to have a candy thermometer for the caramel making, you can also make do by using a meat thermometer (which go up to 220 degrees F) to watch the temperature up to 220, and then above that, by judging the consistency using the water drop trick. This involves dropping little drips of the caramel into a glass of cold water every few minutes or so and stopping cooking when it reaches the consistency you want. In fact, even if you do have a candy thermometer, I'd use this technique, because depending on altitude and humidity and whatnot, even exact temperatures are not always reliable. The meat thermometer will also work for the chocolate, which only needs to get up to 125 degrees F.

One last word about tempering chocolate: do not let any drops of water get anywhere near the chocolate as you work. It will cause a complex chemical reaction that I understood earlier today but do not really care to get into again, so please, just believe me and keep the faucet and your water glass at bay.

For the caramel:
1 cup heavy cream
5 tablespoons butter, cut into 5 pieces
2 teaspoons sea salt
1 and 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1/4 cup water

Line an 8" square baking pan with parchment paper. In a medium-size heavy-bottomed pot, heat up the cream, the butter, and the salt. Bring the mixture to a boil, turn off the heat, and set it aside.

In another medium-size pot, heat up the sugar, corn syrup, and water over moderate heat, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Then stop stirring and bring the mixture to a boil, gently swirling the pan, and continue cooking it until it turns a deep auburn color. This takes much longer than you think, so feel free to drink a glass of wine, or maybe some eggnog, while you wait. Patience, lots of patience.

When the color finally does arrive, pour this mixture into the cream mixture—it will sputter and steam—and stir over very low heat until it comes together into a soft caramel. Continue cooking, stirring constantly, for roughly 15 minutes, or until the caramel reaches the desired consistency. (This will definitely be over 220 degrees F, but after that point, you should start using the water drip test as explained above.) Pour the caramel into the baking pan lined with parchment paper and leave it to cool overnight. Cut it into squares before moving on to the chocolate.

For the chocolate:
1 pound very dark chocolate, preferably between 65% and 72%

Chop up the chocolate into little bits. Set aside one third of it (we will call this Chocolate 1), and heat up the other two thirds (Chocolate 2-3) using a double boiler, stirring frequently. When Chocolate 2-3 is melted and reaches 125 degrees F, remove the top pot from the heat and stir in Chocolate 1. This should melt Chocolate 1 and cool Chocolate 2-3 down considerably, but keep stirring it until all of the chocolate reaches 84 degrees F. Now put the top pot back over the boiling water, and quickly heat all of the chocolate back up to 87 degrees F. (This sounds like a lot more back and forth than it really is; it doesn't take very long.) At this point, your chocolate is tempered, and you should pour it immediately over the caramels in whatever pattern you like. I tried to really douse mine, but a drizzle would be nice too I think. After the chocolate has had 10 or 15 minutes to start to set, sprinkle a little bit of sea salt on top as a garnish, and allow the candies to cool for a few more hours before indulging.

For the record, wrapped up in tins, these caramels make excellent gifts.


katbeauchampster said...


I made two batches of these over the weekend, and found I was unable to cut them into squares. They were too gooey. How did you do that? I cover them in chocolate and put them in muffin wrappers. It worked fine, and they were delicious.

Elspeth said...

Hi Kat:

The trick is to keep checking the consistency using the water drop test as you cook the caramel. Whether or not you can cut the caramels completely depends on how long you cook them—too little and they will be overly gooey, and too long and they will be hard as a rock. As you drip a little of the caramel into cold water, eventually it will start to form little balls. Each time you do the test, rub one of these balls between your fingertips to check the consistency.

The reason I recommend checking the consistency this way rather than using an exact thermometer temperature is that most recipes I read that used an exact temperature to guide them had a lot of complaints because so many things can influence how caramel cooks (i.e. weather, humidity, etc.).

Let me know if you have more questions...caramels can be tricky and are mostly a matter of practice!

All the best and happy holidays,

Bie said...

Elspeth; Your Dad is an authority on chocolate chewies.Have you tried these on him? They sound yummy to me. Hugs Biee

Carolyn B said...

Amazing! I was looking for a "chocolate covered caramels sprinkled with sea salt" recipe and here you are, Elspeth. I discovered this luscious combination recently and can't wait to try it. Happy holidays. :-)

Elspeth said...

Biee, don't tell anyone (Shhhhh!) but he just might be getting some soon.

And Carolyn, I'm so glad. This one is delicious—especially the way the salt brings the flavors out.

All the best, & happy holidays!


Jen (emsun.org) said...

Thanks for this post! I'm going to have to try it out...

Elspeth said...

Jen, good luck! You will have to let us know how it goes.

All the best,


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