• Associated Press
  • Tuesday, October 26, 2004 9:00pm
  • Life

Mad caps, sweet treats to hand out on sticks if you wish, come in perfect Halloween colors. A core of ghostly white marshmallow is double-dipped, in pumpkin-colored caramel and in earth-dark chocolate.

The candies are a confection with wide appeal, for sophisticates as well as the junior set. They are simple to make, but if time or taste suggest a variation, you can forgo the chocolate bottoms – just dip the marshmallows deeper in the caramel.

When the mad caps are set, pop them on bamboo skewers or other sticks, group them for display, or hand them out. You could also serve them in gold-foil candy cups.

The recipe is among 50 assembled by food writer Peggy Cullen for a cookbook with a clear focus: “Caramel.”

She surveys the many ways you can use this versatile golden substance for “deliciously gooey desserts,” many shown in color photos by Maren Caruso.

For this candy, she says, be sure to use marshmallows from a freshly opened bag. You’ll need a candy thermometer for the caramel coating – but don’t be intimidated, it’s as easy as taking your own temperature, Cullen says, and to make things easier you can use a digital thermometer.

Mad caps

6ounces good-quality bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, tempered (see note)

110-ounce bag marshmallows

Creamy caramel coating, cooked to 235 degrees (recipes follows)

Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone mats. Temper the chocolate in a small bowl or microwave container. Holding a marshmallow by one end, dip it into the chocolate, covering the bottom and about 1/4-inch up the sides. Shake it and scrape any excess chocolate off on the edge of the bowl as you lift it.

Place the marshmallows, chocolate-side down, on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with remaining marshmallows. Work quickly so that the choc-olate doesn’t harden before you are done.

Refrigerate until the chocolate is set, 5 to 15 minutes. If properly tempered and fully set, they will adhere slightly to the parchment paper, but will lift off cleanly, without leaving a mark. Slide a small palette knife under each marshmallow first to release it. Any leftover chocolate can be reused.

To dip the marshmallow tops in the caramel: The caramel should be thick and fluid, but not runny. If too cool and stiff, heat it in the microwave or over low heat, stirring occasionally, until barely warm to the touch. Grasping the chocolate end of the marshmallow with your fingers, dip the top half about 1/2 inch into the caramel; shake gently to remove any excess.

Set the marshmallow, caramel top up, back on the baking sheet. (If the caramel drips down the sides of the marshmallow, it is too warm.) There should be a stripe of white marshmallow between the chocolate and the caramel.

Repeat with the remaining marshmallows. If the caramel becomes too stiff, gently rewarm. Serve the same day. There will be leftover caramel, which can be reused.

To do ahead: Make the creamy caramel coating up to 1 week ahead and refrigerate. When ready to dip the marshmallows, warm the caramel over low heat, stirring, or in the microwave for less than 1 minute.

Makes about 40 mad cap marshmallows.

Note: Chocolate that is being melted to work with must be re-tempered (bought chocolate has already been tempered once for appearance and handling). Tempering is a simple process of melting, cooling and stirring. An easy way to do it at home is to reserve about one-third of the chocolate and melt the rest in a microwave or double boiler until completely smooth. Finely chop the portion set aside. Stir the chopped chocolate into the melted chocolate; continue to stir occasionally, gently, until all the lumps are melted and the chocolate has cooled to the touch (test with the skin just below your lower lip).

Work quickly once the chocolate is tempered – there is a small window of opportunity here. If the chocolate becomes too cool, it will thicken and be difficult to work with.

Creamy caramel coating

1cup sugar

2tablespoons water

1/2teaspoon fresh lemon juice

1cup heavy cream

1/4teaspoon salt

1cup light corn syrup

1/4cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cut into pieces

1teaspoon vanilla extract

Fill half full with ice water a bowl large enough to accommodate the bottom of the saucepan you are using.

To make the caramel: In a heavy, medium saucepan, gently stir together 1/2 cup of the sugar, the water and lemon juice. Using a wet pastry brush, wash down the sides of the pan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and cook, undisturbed, occasionally washing down the sides of the pan, until the sugar starts to color around the edges. Gently swirl the pan to even out the color and continue to cook until the mixture turns a light amber. Immediately remove the pan from the heat and, at arm’s length, gradually stir in the heavy cream; it will bubble up.

Add the remaining 1/2 cup sugar, the salt, corn syrup and butter to the mixture. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the caramel dissolves and the butter melts. Wash down the sides of the pan again with a wet pastry brush and increase the heat to medium-high.

Insert a thermometer and cook until the temperature reaches anywhere from 234 degrees to 246 degrees, according to the recipe in which the coating is used (235 for the mad caps recipe), 6 to 8 minutes. Immediately remove from the heat.

Plunge the bottom of the pan into the bowl of ice water for a few seconds to stop the cooking. When the bubbles subside, stir in the vanilla. Use immediately or pour into a heatproof container. Let cool, cover and refrigerate.

To make ahead: Creamy caramel coating keeps for up to 2 weeks, covered and refrigerated, because the cream has been boiled briefly at high temperature. Reheat in a microwave, checking frequently, or over low heat on the stove, stirring occasionally, until fluid but still thick.

Makes about 2 cups.

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