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Remembering an old friend: Caramel recipe evokes cherished memories

The caramels came in squares, topped with a dollop of bittersweet chocolate, each hand-wrapped in specialty red-and-green candy paper that had been ordered online.

Receiving one of these little boxes of goodness was a highlight of my winter.

For years, Arnold Ismach made these caramels at the holidays and delivered them to his friends and colleagues around Eugene. His visits to The Register-Guard newsroom, where my husband Scott and I worked in the early 2000s, were highly anticipated.

A longtime reporter and educator, Ismach was dean of the University of Oregon School of Journalism when I enrolled there in 1986. While in college, Scott and I got to know him quite well. He was the first non-family adult we invited to dinner in our Eugene apartment, and he cheerfully offered culinary tips whenever I asked. (He was considered an expert in chocolate – not a bad expertise to have.)

He was there at our wedding. And he was ready with a present – an Oregon Ducks outfit, naturally – upon the birth of our daughter.

Ismach would have turned 86 years old on Wednesday.

He was a mentor and a friend, and when he died in January 2015, I was reminded of how much we enjoyed his company and how much we will miss him.

But at least I had the caramels.

One year, on a whim, I asked if he would share his recipe with me. Amazingly, he agreed, as long as I didn’t spread the recipe around.

Last Christmas, the first since Ismach’s death, I pulled out my original printout of his email, dated Dec. 4, 2001, and prepared to make my annual batch of Christmas caramels. I took a photo of part of the printout, wrote “In the kitchen with an old friend today” and posted it to Facebook. I tagged Ismach’s Facebook page, which his children have maintained since his death.

Friends started asking for the full recipe, which I shared after getting the OK from his kids. His son suggested naming them Arnold Ismach’s ‘Civil Liberty’ Caramels, because Ismach was a staunch supporter of progressive causes. So I did.

I’ve adapted the recipe over the years. Ismach called for cooking the caramels in a heavy 3-quart saucepan. The ingredients are nearly too much for my 4-quart pot, so if you have something in the 4-to-5-quart range, that should work. He also called for two 15-ounce cans of sweetened condensed milk. I can only ever find 14-ounce cans; two of those work fine. When it comes to removing the slab from the pan, I usually just loosen the edges, flip the pan over onto a large cutting board and let it slowly release. For wrapping the finished candies, I use wax or parchment paper, whichever I have on hand.

Finally, I’ve never attempted the chocolate topping. Instead, I bump up the salt in the recipe to 3/4 teaspoons, then top the caramels with a good sprinkling of fleur del sel.

Arnold Ismach’s “Civil Liberty” Caramels

1 pound unsalted butter

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 pounds brown sugar

16 ounces light corn syrup (Karo)

2 cans (14 ounces each) sweetened condensed milk

2 teaspoons vanilla

Begin by buttering an oven pan, about 12-by-18, with edges at least 1/2 inch high.

Melt butter in a large, heavy saucepan. Attach a candy thermometer to side. Add brown sugar and salt, mixing well. Stir in corn syrup. Gradually add milk, stirring constantly at this point. It will start boiling at 200 degrees.

Cook and stir over medium heat until mixture reaches firm ball stage (245 degrees). This will take perhaps 30 minutes. Remove from heat just before reaching 245, and add vanilla. Stir.

Pour into pan. Let cool for at least an hour, then remove caramel slab from pan onto a cutting board. Cut into squares and wrap in waxed paper. If desired, top each piece with melted bittersweet chocolate.

Keys to success: Keep stirring, and use an accurate candy thermometer.

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