Go fly a kite, pumpkin spice: Caramel’s moment has finally arrived

caramel candies and caramel sauce on a white background
Let’s start with a straight-ahead caramel candy recipe from Vermont’s king of baking. Wrap in wax paper and take them to work. Better yet: Put them in your own tummy. (Getty Images/iStockphoto/Magone) (Getty Images/iStockphoto/Magone)
slightly melted toffee caramel candy close-up isolated (with clipping path) on white background
Can’t do dairy? Here’s a vegan recipe for caramel candy. Coconut milk is an OK milk/cream substitute in these situations, but this recipe offers the  intriguing suggestion of using non-dairy coffee creamer. (Getty Images/iStockphoto/nickpo) (Getty Images/iStockphoto/nickpo)
This Sept. 8, 2014 photo shows salted caramel pumpkin buns in Concord, N.H.The bun combines two classics, pumpkin pie and a cinnamon bun, which is topped with a homemade caramel sauce. (AP Photo/Matthew Mead)
Why settle for plain ol’ cinnamon rolls when you can combine caramel with the flavor of pumpkin pie in these salted caramel pumpkin buns? (AP Photo/Matthew Mead) (AP/Matthew Mead)
This October 2016 photo shows salted caramel sauce in New York. This dish is from a recipe by Katie Workman (Katie Workman via AP)
Stir up a batch of this salted caramel sauce, then keep it on hand for ice cream, or use it in another recipe in this gallery, or put it on a sandwich. It’s a free country, son. (Katie Workman via AP) (AP/Katie Workman)
Caramel Corn
The planet’s best caramel corn is lovingly handcrafted by Garrett Popcorn in Chicago. If you can’t hit the one at 625 N. Michigan Ave., try the one off State and Madison a few blocks away. Or just go to … (checks notes) … Pentagon City!? There’s a Garrett’s at freaking Pentagon City?! (Vaya con Dios, self-esteem!) Don’t feel like fighting the traffic (or finding a cheap flight to O’Hare)? Try this recipe. Bonus points if you make it extra greasy. (Getty Images/Hemera/Stefanie Kossegi) (Getty Images/Hemera/Stefanie Kossegi)
In this Saturday, May 6, 2017, a bowl of apple pie nachos is shown at Coors Field in Denver. The $6-bowl consists of cinnamon-covered nacho chips, apple pie filling, cheddar cheese, topped with whipped cream and then drizzled with caramel sauce. The concoction is rated at 740 calories. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Apple pie nachos! (Clap, clap, clap-clap-clap.) Apple pie nachos! (Clap, clap, clap-clap-clap.)  Coors Field has hit it out of the park, and you can re-create that magic in your own kitchen. Start with cinnamon-sugar tortilla chips and top with apple pie filling, whipped cream and caramel. Go ahead and add that melted cheese if you want, but why go and do something like that when you can just triple the caramel? God bless America. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski) (AP/David Zalubowski)
Don't stop with a great boxed brownie mix. Keep going till you get a brownie that makes you yell OMG. Salted caramel crunch brownies ooze caramel between a top layer of pretzel and peanut-filled chocolate and a bottom layer of moist brownie. (AP Photo/Larry Crowe)
Salted caramel crunch browniesMust I justify their existence to you? Make them happen … whenever you get tired of apple pie nachos. (AP Photo/Larry Crowe) (ASSOCIATED PRESS/Larry Crowe)
**FOR USE WITH AP LIFESTYLES**  A Warm Harvest Martini is seen in this Sunday, Sept. 21, 2008 photo. The caramel sauce coating at the rim gives this Warm Harvest Martini a sweet start. (AP Photo/Larry Crowe)
A warm harvest martini comprises vodka, vanilla liqueur, apple cider and cinnamon, with a glass rim coated in caramel. It’s an autumn cocktail without nutmeg. Who knew? (AP Photo/Larry Crowe) (ASSOCIATED PRESS/Larry Crowe)
**FOR USE WITH AP LIFESTYLES**   Caramel Latte Pops are seen in this Tuesday, July 15, 2008 photo. Cool off in the hot weather with these caffeine-laden pops.   (AP Photo/Larry Crowe)
It’s a frozen pop that tastes like a caramel latte. What more do you need to know? This is a nice option, again, if you ever get tired of apple pie nachos. (As if.) (AP Photo/Larry Crowe) (ASSOCIATED PRESS/Larry Crowe)
This Oct. 26, 2011 photo shows caramel bacon peanut bark in Concord, N.H. This bark can be broken into chunks and packaged in plastic bags or candy boxes for gifts.     (AP Photo/Matthew Mead)
Behold this bark: Chocolate, caramel, peanuts and — for all you sexy omnivores out there — bacon. Get started on a test batch now so you’ll have it ready for the holidays. (AP Photo/Matthew Mead) (ASSOCIATED PRESS/Matthew Mead)
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caramel candies and caramel sauce on a white background
slightly melted toffee caramel candy close-up isolated (with clipping path) on white background
This Sept. 8, 2014 photo shows salted caramel pumpkin buns in Concord, N.H.The bun combines two classics, pumpkin pie and a cinnamon bun, which is topped with a homemade caramel sauce. (AP Photo/Matthew Mead)
This October 2016 photo shows salted caramel sauce in New York. This dish is from a recipe by Katie Workman (Katie Workman via AP)
Caramel Corn
In this Saturday, May 6, 2017, a bowl of apple pie nachos is shown at Coors Field in Denver. The $6-bowl consists of cinnamon-covered nacho chips, apple pie filling, cheddar cheese, topped with whipped cream and then drizzled with caramel sauce. The concoction is rated at 740 calories. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Don't stop with a great boxed brownie mix. Keep going till you get a brownie that makes you yell OMG. Salted caramel crunch brownies ooze caramel between a top layer of pretzel and peanut-filled chocolate and a bottom layer of moist brownie. (AP Photo/Larry Crowe)
**FOR USE WITH AP LIFESTYLES**  A Warm Harvest Martini is seen in this Sunday, Sept. 21, 2008 photo. The caramel sauce coating at the rim gives this Warm Harvest Martini a sweet start. (AP Photo/Larry Crowe)
**FOR USE WITH AP LIFESTYLES**   Caramel Latte Pops are seen in this Tuesday, July 15, 2008 photo. Cool off in the hot weather with these caffeine-laden pops.   (AP Photo/Larry Crowe)
This Oct. 26, 2011 photo shows caramel bacon peanut bark in Concord, N.H. This bark can be broken into chunks and packaged in plastic bags or candy boxes for gifts.     (AP Photo/Matthew Mead)

WASHINGTON — Caramel is but a simple substance, reliant more on careful alchemy than ingredients. Sugars are heated and stirred just so, then milk and fat are added and it’s all stirred some more.

The result is golden magic. Combine that with chocolate, and the result is as perfect as Scherzer’s A-game.

And like chocolate, caramel is just so versatile: It can be a solid candy; a thick dip for fruit; or thinned out for a saucier situation.

After over a century of mostly supporting roles, caramel is getting as many starring roles as chocolate these days — especially with fall and the Halloween candy deluge. It’s in yogurt. It’s in coffee. In coffee creamer. In maple syrup. In pancake mix. In diet(?!?) snack bars. It’s now even in M&Ms (and sounds like David Cross).

The numbers bear this out: As of August, caramel confection sales had increased by 4.9 percent over the previous 52 weeks, according to the National Confectioners Association. This growth outpaces candy and gum overall, which has increased by just 1.1 percent over the same period.

So how did we all get here? Who in the heck dreamed up this concoction, and when? And is it pronounced “CAR-mel” or “CARE-uh mel”?

Fade to flashback

Caramel’s origins are fuzzy. Confectionery pioneers were making hard candies in kettles back in the mid-17th century. At some point, a genius figured out that adding milk and cream to boiling sugar and water yielded something special.

Credit one Milton Hershey for introducing caramel to the mainstream American palate, before Hershey’s Chocolate ever came to be. Yep: He actually found success making caramel before he launched his chocolate empire, said Pam Whitenack, director of the Hershey Community Archive in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

After his first business went bankrupt in 1882, Hershey traveled to Denver. There, Whitenack said, he learned a formula for caramel using fresh milk, “which was an important innovation in that they make the caramels naturally chewy … but also increase their shelf life.”

It didn’t catch on immediately. After another failed venture in New York, Hershey returned to Lancaster, the Pennsylvania town where he had learned to make candy. In 1886, he started the Lancaster Caramel Company, which became the largest caramel manufacturer in the nation, even marketing to Asia and Europe.

“He had a variety of fruit-flavored caramels, but he also had chocolate-flavored and chocolate-coated caramels,” she said.

It was a trip to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 — featuring an exhibit of chocolate-making machinery — that persuaded Hershey to shift away from caramel.

“He recognizes the growing popularity of chocolate by itself as a confection,” Whitenack said. “He recognizes the popularity of his own chocolate-flavored and chocolate-coated caramels. They’re some of his best sellers.”

According to Whitenack, he told a companion after seeing the exhibit: “Caramels are a fad. Chocolate is permanent.”

You probably can guess what happened next: Hershey sold off the Lancaster Caramel Co. and went all in on chocolate. “He just walks away from it,” Whitenack said. “He’s like, ‘I’m done.'”

He then proceeded to make chocolate bigger than caramel ever was.

Cut to present day

Or did he? As the numbers indicate, caramel is growing, and it’s showing up in unexpected ways. Christopher Gindlesperger, a National Confectioners Association spokesman, cites such new examples as caramel crunchy chickpeas, salted caramel cookies and caramel made with coconut milk.

The addition of salt, which has no doubt had its skeptics, is now an accepted thing.

The why of this is arguably scientific. A 2016 study found that salted caramel can be downright dangerous to sensible eaters. While other foods yield satiation, complex flavors such as salted caramel (which is salty, sweet and creamy) stimulate even more craving and consumption — an effect that the researchers term “hedonic escalation.”

Long story short, the researchers found that “a final analysis correlated the amount of hedonic escalation with the number of flavors a participant identified in a food.”

Does caramel’s popularity of late still sound like “a fad” now?

Yes, caramel is but a simple substance that comprises a complexity of flavors. And you best believe it will elevate your kitchen game going into the holidays. (Check out the gallery above for some choice recipes that will convert even the most-militant pumpkin spice enthusiast.)

One last thing: That sticky issue of pronunciation

But how is “caramel” supposed to be pronounced, you ask?

Merriam-Webster’s actually rules that both pronunciations are OK, as does the National Confectioners Association. Whitenack pronounces it “CARE-a-mel,” but she has co-workers at the Hershey Community Archive who say “CAR-mel.”

We won’t sugar-coat it: This is unacceptable. Pick a side, people.

To break the deadlock, the case was reviewed by Washington’s Top Food Court: the WTOP newsroom. And as you’ll see in the video above, the court’s ruling, unfortunately, was not unanimous.

Happy Halloween!


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