It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.
When Editor-in-Chief Bernie Pacyniak asked if I’d be interested in shadowing the caramel portion of a Caramel, Fudge and Toffee course hosted by the Professional Manufacturing Confectioners Association (PMCA) at Savage Bros. in Elk Grove, Ill. last week (Nov. 7), I said what any reasonable person would: Absolutely.
Caramel has always been in the pantheon of classic confectionery flavors, but it has experienced a burst of popularity lately. Look no further than Mars Wrigley Confectionery’s launch of Caramel M&M’S last year, which likely has brought in millions of dollars for the company.
"Caramel is extremely trendy," Hank Izzo, Mars Wrigley v.p. of research and development, told CNN Money in October 2016. "It's a $2.2-billion flavor segment and the fastest growing segment in food right now. We want to be part of this category."
And so do other confectionery manufacturers. PMCA, which last held the Caramel, Fudge and Toffee course in 2014, had no trouble finding participants. A caramel course hosted by Retail Confectioners International in August sold out in 48 hours.
Randy Hofberger of R&D Candy Consultants helped teach both courses. He said caramel is attractive for a variety of reasons: It’s versatile; it’s an ideal carrier for functional ingredients; and, most obviously, it tastes good, especially with a little salt.
“Caramel is a growth industry,” he said while students worked on batches. “People love it.”
But as anyone who has ever made caramel knows, it’s as finicky as it is tasty. To illustrate that, about 20 students — among them product development specialists, operations professionals and equipment salespeople — took turns creating batches of caramel with different ingredients.
In some of the batches, students used varying sweetening agents, such as sugar, brown sugar and corn syrups. Other batches had different fats and dairy components, which ranged from sweetened condensed whole milk to whey powder. (At this point, I wished technology had evolved enough to include scents in stories, because it smelled amazing in the Savage Bros. kitchen.)
Once the batches were finished, students poked, prodded and tasted them with Mark Heim of R. Mark Heim Confectionery Consulting. Heim, who also gave overviews on how sugar, fat and dairy operate in caramel formulations, pointed to the ways in which different ingredients affect color and firmness.
This science-based breakdown is just what Megan Coffey of Victurs Ars, Inc. was looking for. Coffey learned to make caramel through an education in pastry, but in her newest role as a candy scientist with the Chicago-based consulting firm, Coffey wanted a greater understanding of caramel’s makeup.
“It’s in our chemistry — this beautiful, seductive flavor,” she said between sessions. “I think it’s directly correlated to memories. We all have a connection to caramel in some way, shape or form.”
And even if a product developer or a pastry chef has a vision for the perfect, nostalgia-inspiring caramel, it still has to be grounded in practicality, Coffey added.
“None of that matters if it doesn’t work on the machines,” she said.
Lindsey Augusta, a confectioner for Ohio-based Malley’s Chocolates, agreed. Also having a background in pastry, Augusta wanted to gain a firmer grasp of the chemistry that informs the dessert sauces, fudges and other items she develops. 
“If you don’t understand what an ingredient is doing in your product, you don’t understand what you’re doing,” she said.
Isn’t that the truth? While I’m certainly not a product developer, I’m glad I had to the opportunity to learn about caramel through observation (and tasting), especially since we’ll likely see more of it as companies roll out new products in 2018.
And kudos to PMCA for giving candy industry professionals — and writers — the tools they need to capitalize on trends, or in this case, traditions.