Vanilla Opera Caramels

To start off our series of reworked vintage confectionery recipes the first step was to find the recipes. We have a bounty of recipes available in Beth's antique confectionery cookbook collection but I though I'd start with the the place that houses one of the top cookery collections in the world. After spending many hours in the caverns of the New York Public Library with countless patient librarians and hundreds of confused tourists, I had found a number of vintage candy recipes published between 1834 and 1928. I returned home to start my work on a candy recipe found in the 1928 cookbook The Modern Cook Book by K. Camille Den Dooven. The book itself looked like it had never been used in a kitchen, but as I opened it, pages fell into my lap. I imagine that someone spent hours carefully reading through it and copying each recipe so as to not subject the book to the messy conditions of the kitchen. I followed suit and made copies of the pages and ultimately chose to make the opera caramels because I liked the name. Opera caramels sounded like maybe they were concocted to make a mouth sing.

Despite my attempt at research, it appears that no one knows the exact origin of opera caramels or where the name comes from. My best guess is that they were somewhat of a luxury in the 1920s when items such as cream and butter weren’t a part of every kitchen. Maybe the caramels were eaten after special occasions like going to the opera or the theater.

The opera is associated with a form of luxury and was so even in the 1920s. But opera became more and more popular at the time because of the invention of the radio, which made it available to the masses. Operas such as Cleopatra’s Night and Blue Monday were popular and Verdi’s Don Carlo, which opened at the Metropolitan Opera in November of 2010, originally premiered there in 1920.

Maybe there is someone out there that can enlighten me as to the mysterious past of the opera caramel?

Vanilla Opera Caramel Recipe
Makes about 60 caramels.

3 cups confectioner’s sugar
2 tablespoons butter
½ cup milk
½ cup heavy cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 teaspoons (light or dark) corn syrup

  1. Combine milk, cream, sugar, and butter in a pot.
  2. Using a wet pastry brush or a moistened towel, wipe down the sides of the pot so that they are clean.
  3. Cook until boiling and insert candy thermometer.
  4. Continue to cook, stirring carefully and wiping down the sides of the pot with water until the temperature reaches 235 degrees or the candy forms a soft ball when a small amount of the caramel is dropped into a glass of cold water and shaped with your fingers.
  5. Remove the pan from heat and add vanilla extract.
  6. Beat the mixture with a fork or spoon until creamy and smooth, then pour it into a buttered pan or onto a sheet pan lined with a silicone sheet liner, such as a Silpat.
  7. When the caramel is nearly cold, cut it into squares with scissors.
  8. Wrap individually in parchment paper and store in an airtight container.

I added corn syrup to the original recipe and only stirred occasionally in order to avoid re-crystallization. Re-crystallization of the sugar occurs when sugar granules get into the mixture during the cooking process and makes the finished product grainy rather than smooth. Stirring often causes re-crystallization, as sugar granules get stuck on the sides of the pot and then added back in the mixture. I also added corn syrup, which is an invert sugar. An invert sugar is much sweeter than regular sugar and is actually a combination of glucose and fructose. It is created when sucrose (regular granulated sugar) is split into these two different components. Invert sugar has two properties that are valuable to us in candy making: first it holds moisture well which allows the candy to keep longer, and secondly it prevents crystallization. Using the corn syrup, stirring carefully and brushing the sides of the pot with water to make sure no crystals were stuck prevented the caramel from re-crystallizing.

Now that you have the key to making these delightful vanilla opera caramels, how about going to the opera or taking advantage of the 2010-11 Metropolitan Opera Live in HD season at a movie theater near you, and enjoying some tasty opera caramels afterwards?


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