In honor of my dear friend Carol’s birthday, I have decided to forgo the typical birthday treat (cake) and make her a smorgasbord of tasty delights– Lemon bars, chocolate-dipped peanut butter bon bons, and caramel cremes.

Another reason I decided to forgo the birthday cake was because I am still scarred from burning her cake last year.  Now I am the first to admit I am a bit of a klutz.  It seems like a nightly occurrence that my boyfriend is standing under the smoke alarm waving a dish towel back and forth to clear the smoke enough for it to turn off.  It’s not that I’m burning my food, but that I’m a klutz, often spilling something on the burner, and hence causing the smoke.

But last year, I DID burn the food.  What was meant to be a lovely Black Forest Cake, turned into a Forest Fire instead.

Anyways, I have made all of her birthday goodies without one single smoke alarm going off. I was very proud.  Tonight I am taking her to the Wildfire Restaurant (ironic name given the cake fiasco) here in the Windy City, which promises to be delicious.

Lemon Bars (click for recipe)

Chocolate-Dipped Peanut Butter Bon Bons

18 ounces peanut butter

2 1/2 cups powdered sugar

1 tsp vanilla

8 ounces chocolate

In a bowl add peanut butter, and with a hand mixer running on low, slowly add the 2 1/2 cups of powdered sugar.  Mix until combined, then add vanilla. Once combined, take spoonfuls of the mixture and roll into a ball. Place on a wax paper lined baking sheet, and freeze for 1 hour.

Over a double boiler melt the chocolate. Using two forks (or your hands), dip the peanut butter balls into the chocolate and then place back on the baking sheet. With remaining chocolate, drizzle the top of the balls.  Place in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes so the chocolate can harden.

Caramel Cremes

1 cup sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
3 cups heavy cream
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon fleur de sel (flaked sea salt), plus extra for sprinkling
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Line the bottom of a 9 by 13 inch baking pan with parchment, allowing the parchment to drape over 2 ends (for easy removal). Lightly oil the parchment paper.

In a very large saucepan (the size of a big soup pot), place the sugar, corn syrup, and 1/2 cup water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Do not stir! Keep boiling until the caramel is golden brown in color. Watch closely so it does not burn.

In a large saucepan, combine the cream and butter. Bring to a boil, remove from heat, and set aside.

As soon as the caramel is a warm golden brown, slowly add the cream mixture. It will boil up violently. If it threatens to boil over, stop adding the cream mixture, allow the caramel to settle down and add the rest. With a wooden spoon, stir in the fleur de sel and vanilla extract.

Using a candy thermometer, cook the caramel over medium heat until it reaches a temperature of 248 degrees F (firm ball stage), between 5 and 10 minutes.

Very carefully pour the caramel in the prepared pan and refrigerate until firm, about 1 hour.

Once firm, flip the caramel onto a cutting board and slowly peel back the parchment paper. Cut the caramel into 2 inch strips widthwise. Take each strip and roll up the long side until you have a long caramel log. Cut the caramels into 1 inch segments. Repeat this process for the rest of the caramel strips.

You can choose to wrap the caramels individually in parchment paper, like I did,  or store them in an airtight container. Keep refrigerated for firm caramels or at room temperature for soft caramels.