Sweet, salty, with a buttery slightly burnt or umami aftertaste, caramel is a decadent wintertime treat.
Caramel is basically cooked sugar. The process of caramelization is similar to the Maillard reaction. When sucrose begins to break down from the sustained heat, it thickens and becomes a sweet sticky treat. Anything with the right amount of sugar can be caramelized, onions, parsnips, even carrots. It adds a delicious sweet and umami component to food. Caramel itself is really nothing more than sugar that has been melted and browned until it reaches a thickened, caramelized texture. Heaven knows when the first food was caramelized or even when the first caramel candy was created, however it appears that the first caramel candies for commercial consumption were made and sold around the 1800’s.
From a culinary perspective, caramel is a delicious treat all by itself. Bringing sugar up to the appropriate heat and allowing it to thicken and brown to a bubbly sticky scrumptious goodness is actually pretty easy. You just need some sugar, a heat source, and a candy thermometer. You can vary the thickness, stickiness, and stiffness of caramel by heat and length of cooking time. Caramel can be a liquidy topping or a thick and chewy candy and anything in between. If the cooking time is less and heat temperature slightly lower, it will give you a nice liquid caramel; you can pour this over any number of delicious desserts. If you cook it slightly longer and a slightly higher heat point you can make a denser version of caramel. Using a thermometer you can cook it to the appropriate heat then, preparing a cookie sheet, you can pour the caramel mixture out onto the buttered surface and spread it out with a spoon. Once it cools you can cut it into little cubes or chunks and then wrap in wax paper. Enjoy.
From a health perspective, caramel is sugar so all the rules of sugar consumption apply. That being said, if you use a quality minimally processed sugar, like demerara or turbinado and eat in moderation, then a small amount of caramel consumption isn’t going to make or break your holiday diet. The key words of course are "small amount".