Walnut Sea Salt Caramels and Mochas – Headstart on the Holidays [recipe]

unwrapped caramels

This feature is sponsored by Nescafe Dolce Gusto, who is keeping us sweetly caffeinated with their full line of deliciously flavored coffees.

I can’t remember how to fold the paper.

I stare down at the heap of square wax sheets and neat pieces of walnut caramels spread out in front of me on the table and feel a lump settling into my throat.

“It’s not the same without my mom.” I think for perhaps the tenth time that afternoon.

wrapped caramels with mocha

It’s been fifteen years since my mom and I made my grandma’s walnut caramels together. I was still living at home at the time – was still an awkward teenager with braces, bad skin and a wardrobe that included a pair of overalls and regrettable platform sneakers.

Now that I’m an adult with my own apartment and life, I miss out on almost all of my family’s holiday rituals. I no longer get to be there to carve the pumpkins or decorate the windows with cobwebs and plastic spiders for Halloween. I no longer get to go pick out and hang ornaments on the Christmas tree. And I don’t get to help my mom make caramels when the weather in Southern California finally gets chilly enough to be called fall.

Making the caramels together always seemed to signify the beginning of the holiday season – my favorite time of year as a child. I loved standing next to my mom by the stove as we eyed the temperature on the candy thermometer and whispered like co-conspirators.

“Are they done yet?” I’d ask, as I impatiently stirred the bubbling brew of sugar, corn syrup, butter and evaporated milk.

“Not yet,” my mom would respond gently. “They need to reach 238 degrees.”

caramel and thermometer

It seemed to take forever, but the wait was always less bothersome when we were doing it together. Especially when my mom would decide it was time to test the caramels. She’d lift a spoonful out of the pot, release it into a bowl of cold water, and then let me pinch the hot candy together into a ball. I loved tasting the somewhat soggy caramel – in a strange way I enjoyed it more than the final product.

caramels in pan

It feels so different to be doing the steps alone today. My fingers feel clumsy, less sure than they were when my mom was by my side, telling me what to do next.

I push away from the table filled with unwrapped caramels, slip my feet into my slippers and head to the kitchen. It’s been a long day of solo stirring and waiting, and I need a break.

I need a mocha.

One by one, I pop the convenient Nescafé mocha capsules into the Dolce Gusto Circolo machine and take pleasure in how comparatively simple the process is after all the time I’ve spent cooking the caramels and waiting for them to harden in the glass pan.

circolo with mocha

My frothy gourmet coffee beverage is ready in seconds and as I savor the first indulgent sip, I’m ready to return to my afternoon project. As soon as I’m seated again, I slip a caramel into my mouth, relishing the sultry texture that compliments the creaminess of the mocha. I close my eyes, letting the salty, sweet, chocolate and caramel flavors intermingle in my mouth.

caramels with mocha

And then my eyes pop open in surprise.

I remember now.

My mom’s words echo in my head. “Just like a present.”

My hands fly to the slips of paper on the table, and I deftly wrap up the first caramel – just like my mom had instructed me so many years ago.

I take another sip of my mocha, plop another caramel into my mouth, and finally feel content.

It’s perfect.

It’s now officially the holiday season.

Walnut Sea Salt Caramels


2 cups sugar
16 ounces dark corn syrup
1 stick unsalted butter (½ cup)
1 12-ounce can of evaporated milk
1 teaspoon sea salt, plus more for sprinkling
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 ¼ cups chopped walnuts, toasted


Heat large sauce pan to medium high heat and add the corn syrup and sugar. Stir together and continue heating and stirring until it comes to a boil.  Once boiling, add the butter and continue stirring while it melts, making sure to keep the mixture boiling.

When the butter has melted, add the salt and then gradually pour in the evaporated milk.  Take caution to keep the mixture boiling while adding the milk.

Lower the heat, but keep the caramel at a continuous low boil until it has reached a temperature of 238 to 240 degrees. When it appears ready, drop a teaspoon into a bowl of cold water and pinch the caramel together. If it forms a ball, the caramels are done.

Remove from heat and add the walnuts and vanilla.  Pour into a 9” x 7” glass pan lined with greased parchment paper. Sprinkle with sea salt. When hardened (can take up to 12 hours until completely set), cut into strips, then squares, and wrap in wax paper — like a present.

by diana on November 8, 2010 · 7 comments

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Renae Schneider November 10, 2010 at 7:26 am

I loved your blog Diana, and I always looked forward to Henrietta’s caramels every year, they were wonderful!! Reminds me of when mother and I used to make pecan tassies together and it was the start of our baking. The first time I made them alone I know she was guiding me thru it and they actually turned out. I always took a day off work and went to Arlington and baked with her, and had a little wine to end our day.

Thanks for the memories. Love, Renae


Ashley November 10, 2010 at 8:03 pm

They were delicious! Note the past tense. I’ve eaten them all.


Kelly, Cooking Intuitively November 23, 2010 at 2:34 pm

What a sweet story. I fondly remember holiday traditions from my own childhood as well as the ones I later established with my kids. Now that my kids are grown and gone, this is my first year of making new traditions for me. Making your caramels will be a great way to kick off the season!


Coco @ Opera Girl Cooks December 23, 2010 at 11:58 pm

Ooh, what lovely caramels. A bittersweet story with a sweet ending!


DEE August 9, 2012 at 5:48 pm

did anyone see the report on ramen noodles? there are so many preservatives in them that they do not digest in your stomach.


DEE August 9, 2012 at 5:58 pm

sorry i thought i was on a different page.those caramels made my mouth water just reading this. also my mother in law sent a box of cookies the first christmas we were in Japan. there were 6 pecan tassies . they were wonderful.


nora October 10, 2012 at 10:18 pm

omg, loooks delish , can i use light corn syrup instead


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