The Caramel Cook: Stephanie Williams, La Vache Microcreamery

By Natalie Ermann Russell / Photography By Natalie Ermann Russell | January 15, 2015
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The packaging Williams designed is just as sweet as the caramels.

STEPHANIE WILLIAMS is the ultimate hyphenate: mother-architect-wine-guild founder-designer-caramel maker. What gives this juggling act even more weight is that she’s doing all of these jobs simultaneously.

Today, for instance, in the certified kitchen of her Charlottesville home, she’s already begun scooping organic cane sugar onto her kitchen scale, the start of a batch of her uber-popular, uber-addictive Fleur de Sel (or salted) caramels. Daft Punk pours from her phone on the counter, and, yes, there is some dancing going on. “Hey, it’s a good time to try to get in a workout,” Williams says, shrugging.

In the next room is 2-year-old son Nate, busily playing and occasionally wandering into the kitchen to hug on Mama’s leg (his 5-year-old brother, Reid, is off at kindergarten).

“This is a passion project for me,” says Williams, whose La Vache Microcreamery won a 2014 Made in Virginia award from Virginia Living magazine but who has been a part of the local food scene for some time. She not only worked at the now-defunct local-foods magazine Flavor and cofounded the Wine Guild of Charlottesville, but she and husband Evan, also an architect, make their own sausage, brew their own beer, and are expert canners with the excess produce from their garden.

Even her work as an architect is imbued by her love of food. Several projects of late have involved local restaurants, which, she says, is her favorite kind of space to imagine (she also specializes in designing animal shelters).

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caramel cooking
Photo 1: Stephanie Williams and son Nate.
Photo 2: Caramel cooling in parchment-lined pans.

Right now, though, it’s back to the caramels. Williams carefully measures the brown rice syrup, an ingredient she chose over corn syrup for its nuttiness—and because, unlike corn syrup, it’s available in an organic form.

“With my lavender caramels, I substitute honey from Hungry Hill for the brown rice syrup,” Williams explains, pulling out a glass jar of another local ingredient: Homestead Creamery’s heavy cream (bottled in Wirtz)—her dairy choice simply because she knows the cows are raised naturally, even though the company isn’t certified organic.

With the sugar, rice syrup, and some water heating up on the stove in a large pot, Williams heats the cream and some salted butter in a small saucepan. The sugar mixture begins bubbling, and she slips on her ‘Ove’Gloves so she can start a-swirlin’ (because “caramel burns hurt”).

At first there’s a nutty, slightly bitter aroma, but pretty soon, once the warm cream is added, it takes on an intoxicatingly sweet perfume that can best be described as intensely caramel-y.

The addition of the cream also marks the time when Williams must keep constantly stirring with her silicone spatula. “I usually get sore shoulders and triceps,” she says, standing on a small stool, which helps lessen the pain. As she talks, Williams’ eyes remain fixed on the mixture and the thermometer, watching for the precise moment when it’s ready.

Of late, the caramel business has been ramping up, with a holiday season that pushed Williams to capacity. Just before Christmas, she was making two or three batches a day (the most she could handle), yielding about 2,500 caramels per week, enough to supply a handful of select local retailers and corporate orders for gifts and favors.

For today’s batch, she’s ready to pour the hot caramel into four square metal pans already lined with parchment paper. From start to finish, it takes about 40 minutes to transform the remarkably simple ingredients—sugar, cream, butter—into their caramel form.

Two hours later, the mixture is cool enough to cut—a process that takes another 40 minutes. Next is the packaging (the logo for which Williams designed herself). Family and friends sometimes help with filling and wrapping the boxes, which of course elicits much gratitude—and free candy.

Even with that help, though, Williams is doing most of the work herself. But the big investment of time (and shoulder muscle) is most certainly worth it, as these addictive little sticks of heaven have a texture and dulcet flavor far superior to any mega-brand you’d find in the supermarket.

To end up with something tasty and tangible relatively quickly, Williams points out, is not the realm of every occupation. She should know. “You cook it, you package it, and it makes someone happy the next day,” she says, stretching out her arms. “Not like architecture, where the payoff doesn’t materialize until years later.” Plus, might we add, even the most beautifully designed space just isn’t nearly as creamy and delicious.

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