McCrea’s Caramels

The Science of Candy: McCrea's CaramelsWords by Rachel Travers / Photographs by Katie Noble

The alchemy for making caramels is delicate—heat too low and you have a sauce. Overheat and it becomes hard and tacky like taffy. But caramels from McCrea’s Candies, which combine cane sugar, fresh local milk and cream, inverted cane sugar (which controls the crystallization), local butter, molasses, salt and natural flavorings, are perfect examples of the true culinary craft of the caramel.

And Jason McCrea is the perfect caramel wizard. A scientist, with degrees in biology and chemistry, he was intrigued with sugar chemistry. This lead him to create something special, his slow-cooked, handcrafted line of well over a dozen varieties of caramels. But this was after 10 years working as a biologist and then moving into what he terms “number crunching and data base stuff.” But, fortuitously, in 2009 when his company moved their headquarters out of state, Jason did not want to go—so he was laid off. It gave him time to “play in the kitchen and have fun,” as he puts it. It also gave him time to write an all-important business plan.

Jason began making caramels in his home kitchen first, with a candy thermometer, a couple of pots, and a wooden spoon. Moving up to a computer-driven batch cooker, which stirs the cooking caramel and regulates the kettle temperature, gave him the opportunity to make a non-varying recipe. And it was a winning one.

Kate Michmerhuizeen, Jason’s wife of 18 years and mother of their three children, turned out to be her husband’s biggest cheerleader. With a masters in biology and a minor in applied and computational math, Kate proved to be a hardcore scientist as well, equally predisposed to finding intrigue in the making of caramels. Pre-family she had segued into becoming the Director of Marketing and Development for a small Montessori school. When the school downsized, Kate found herself laid off as well.

To show you how together this couple really is, instead of freaking out about the new family no-adults-working situation—and with three children—they chose to take a long weekend trip, sans children, so they could clear their minds and regroup with some perspective.

“I remember the very beginning of thinking that perhaps we should go in a new direction. We went away together to Acadia National Park and started talking... It was very productive talk, but we didn’t have a plan,” Kate says. “Then a few days later, back at home, Jason made a batch of caramels for a little girl we knew who was in a body cast, and he thought she could use a treat.”

But what really happened was that Jason got amazing feedback from the little girl’s parents and friends, which led him to make more caramels. Within a week or two, people were asking for orders. And Kate was right there with him.

“Then I remembered that I missed science a lot and I really like doing the chemistry of the caramel.” And Kate, ever the pragmatist, concurred;  “There were a lot of people job hunting, but not that many people making caramels.”

It falls on Kate’s shoulders to make any new flavor that has come out of their brainstorming sessions happen—and to be able to repeat it. She works in three pound batches, but eventually has to adjust that to a 50 pound batch, without loss of consistency or flavor.

Spirits are trickier to work with than other flavors. “Alcohol volatizes—and you’re hoping that your flavors aren’t all gone. But it’s the high water content in spirits, not the alcohol content, that causes the variable,” says Kate, who can nail a recipe on the first or second batch, but when working with spirits, finds it can be 10-15 small batches before she finds what she calls “the happy spot.”

And then the happy spot is ours. A bite of Black Lava Sea Salt, for example, becomes a soft, dense and toothsome (but not cavity killing) sweet little package that begins to melt in your mouth immediately. The flavor, in this case the high-end salt, mixes easily to extend the caramel until there is nothing but well-balanced residual taste.

The same can be said about other flavors like Rosemary Truffle, Dark Roasted Mocha, and the spirited (yes, made with real spirits) Highland Single Malt Scotch, Coals (anise-flavored) and Bubbly (made with real champagne). And there’s more—Tapped Maple, Ginger Fusion, Mad Vanilla...

The biggest star in their tiny one-story operation might just be the bright fire-engine red and stainless vintage wrapping machines. Made locally in Springfield, Massachusetts at the turn-of-the-century by the Packaging Machinery Corporation, the Model K would only be known to an elite few who have delved into craft candy making. (Just as a point of reference, this was called a Model K for kiss—and apparently all small candies used to be called kisses. In fact, Hershey made caramels before they made chocolates.)

The magical Machine Age machine is attached to the end of a steel cooling table where the caramel mix is poured and rolled for optimal feeding into the Model K, which measures the caramels, cuts them, then wraps them, twists the ends, and spits out the caramels—800 per batch (taking about ten minutes).

McCrea’s is about to enter their “crazy season”—the short-lived holiday season when the market for candies surges. There should be over 13 flavors by then, packaged in little handfuls of five, tubes of a dozen, and some holiday assortments. Sophisticated tasting caramels will be on a lot of gift lists this year, and McCrea’s will be ready for the demand.

McCrea’s Candies 202 Neponset Valley Parkway Hyde Park 617.276.3388 mccreascandies.com

Rachel Travers is a freelance food and lifestyle writer who has been contributing to the Boston Globe for 16 years—and to Edible Boston for its proud six!  She can be reached at racheltravers.food@gmail.com