Sarah Kieffer, Minneapolis blogger and author of Baking for the Holidays, thinks homemade caramels are the bee's knees. While she enjoys a basic caramel as much as anyone else, she highly recommend trying her orange, espresso and salted variations.
Grease an 8×4-inch loaf pan and line it with parchment paper so the paper comes up all sides and has about a 2-inch overhang on each side.
In a heavy large saucepan (the caramel will bubble up quite a bit once it starts cooking, so it's important to have a deep pan), combine sugar, corn syrup, the water and salt. Heat over medium-high, stirring very gently to combine while trying to avoid getting any sugar crystals on the sides of the pan. Cover and bring to a boil until sugar has melted and mixture is clear, 3 to 5 minutes. Uncover, clip a candy thermometer to the side of the pan and cook until mixture has turned light golden and reaches 300°, 6 to 7 minutes. Reduce heat to medium; cook until deep golden and 340°, about 4 to 5 minutes more. Immediately remove pan from heat and add cream and butter. (The cream will foam up considerably, so be careful pouring it in.)
Return pan to heat. Cook over medium-high until caramel reaches desired stage, 4 to 7 minutes, stirring frequently. For soft, melt-in-your-mouth caramels, cook until 248°; for firmer caramels with a bit more chew, cook until 252°. Remove from heat; stir in vanilla. Let stand until bubbles subside, 2 to 3 minutes.
Carefully pour caramel into prepared loaf pan. Gently tap pan on the counter a few times to eliminate any air bubbles. Cool completely, then transfer to the refrigerator and chill 1 hour.
Using the parchment paper, lift caramel out of pan. Peel away paper and place caramel on a cutting board. Cut caramel in half lengthwise, then cut each half into twelve 2-inch pieces to make 24 rectangular pieces. Candies can be left as rectangles, or cut again into squares, for a total of 48 pieces. Individually wrap each caramel in wax paper or plastic wrap, twisting the ends closed. Store wrapped caramels in an airtight container at room temperature up to 2 weeks.
Add 1 tablespoon triple sec and 2 teaspoons orange zest to caramel mixture with the vanilla.
Add 1 teaspoon instant espresso coffee powder and 1 tablespoon strong brewed coffee to caramel mixture with the vanilla.
Top each cut piece of caramel with a sprinkle of fleur de sel before wrapping.
If you'd like to DIY the metallic crepe paper bags seen here, find the instructions at midwestliving.com/treatbags.