Why It Works
- Due to its shallow depth, this caramel is easier to judge by color than by temperature, so aim for a light amber hue.
- Chilled cream shocks the caramel to halt cooking.
- A final cooking temperature of 245°F (118°C) gives the caramel a thick and chewy texture.
- The dairy in milk chocolate gives the cookies a fudge-like texture.
My introduction to Star Crunch came with a field trip to the planetarium when I was probably eight years old. Somewhere along the way, a dark blue box of Little Debbies started making the rounds. It was splattered with stars, and strangely bleak: a lone astronaut floating through space, tethered to a giant cookie that was maybe some sort of meteor? My Trek-obsessed self immediately approved, and that was before I discovered that Star Crunch taste like the best sort of transporter accident—like Caramellos crossed with Rice Krispies Treats.
If you don't live in the Little Debbie distribution belt, you've probably never even heard of this distinctly low-budget treat. Not that the allure of gooey caramel, creamy milk chocolate, and crunchy rice requires an explanation. The combination is flawless in theory, but, burdened by too many artificial flavors and stabilizers, Star Crunch taste a little weird. Fortunately, though copycat recipes often involve incredible feats of culinary engineering, this DIY recipe is as straightforward as they come. Make some caramel, stir in a handful of milk chocolate, add Rice Krispies, and you're done.
Making the Caramel
So please, oh please, don't let a fear of caramel keep you away. There is absolutely no reason for caramel to ever burn, overflow, or cause any of the other nightmare scenarios you've likely heard. These are almost always caused by poorly written recipes that foist professional techniques on cooks at home.
Sure, pastry chefs typically favor a dry-skillet technique, but, unless you're blessed with a gas range and a trusted pan that conducts heat amazingly well, it's a hit-or-miss proposition for beginners. With the "wet" method, you just boil some sugar water until pale gold (no thermometer required), then splash in a bit of chilled cream.
The sudden change in temperature shocks the caramel, halting the cooking process, so you don't have to worry about residual heat pushing its flavor too far. While I generally love the bitterness of dark and foxy caramels, lighter caramels have a butterscotch-y quality that pairs well with milk chocolate (more on that in a bit). Because I know someone will ask, I'll also add that this isn't a good place for toasted sugar. I mean, it'll work just fine in a traditional caramel, but it's a waste of time and effort, since direct heat from the stove will ultimately produce the same intensity of flavor whether the sugar's toasted or plain.
After you shock the caramel, it'll lump up like cooled lava, except more delicious and far easier to deal with, because it will dissolve in a few moments. To me, a bit of extra stirring is less trouble than carefully dribbling in hot cream and praying you don't wind up with a caramel volcano. I'm not saying it won't bubble; that can't be avoided, but chilled cream makes that process more controlled. Plus, there's zero chance of overflow so long as your pot holds at least three quarts (a detail that eliminates mishaps related to subjective assessments of "medium" or "large").
The creamy caramel simmers until it hits 245°F (118°C), the "firm ball" stage in candy-making lingo; a temperature that ensures the caramel cools into something chewy and thick. To keep it from cooking too far, and to jump-start the cooling process, I transfer the caramel to a heat-resistant bowl.
To prevent the cocoa butter from melting out in a greasy layer, wait until the caramel cools to roughly 140°F (60°C) before adding the milk chocolate. Even if it's not your go-to choice for snacking, milk chocolate plays an essential textural role, making the Star Crunch creamy and soft; with dark chocolate, the "cookies" will be crumbly and dry (not to mention more bitter than the original).
Forming Star Crunch
Full disclosure: Once you've added the Rice Krispies, it's dangerously easy to find yourself hoarding the bowl. The gloppy brown mixture of caramel, chocolate, and cereal won't win any beauty pageants, but it's unfathomably delicious—crispy, gooey, chocolaty, and warm. I'm all about spooning it over vanilla ice cream, or just stealing bites one finger-ful at a time.
For those with the willpower to stop eating it out of the bowl, the "batter" is dolloped out onto a parchment-lined half sheet pan or cutting board, then flattened into disks. If you want, you can scoop out roughly 15 one-ounce portions with a two-tablespoon cookie scoop, but, since the "cookies" aren't baked, there's no need to be precise.
While Star Crunch are soft and pliable while warm, they'll firm up nicely as the caramel and milk chocolate cool. This takes about an hour at room temperature, or 20 minutes in the fridge if covered tightly with foil, as insurance against odor and humidity.
Thanks to the low moisture content of caramel cooked to 245°F (approximately 13%) and the "waterproofing" effect of melted chocolate, Star Crunch have an excellent shelf life—about a week in an airtight container. Maybe longer; I've just never had any make it that far. Cookies this stellar tend to disappear (womp, womp).
4 ounces water (1/2 cup; 115g)
7 ounces sugar (1 cup; 200g)
1/2 teaspoon (2g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; other salts may contain additives that induce crystallization
10 ounces heavy cream (1 1/4 cup; 280g), straight from the fridge
3 ounces milk chocolate, minimum 26% cocoa butter (2/3 cup; 85g), very finely chopped (see notes)
1 1/2 ounces Rice Krispies (1 1/2 cups; 45g)
Combine water, sugar, and salt in a 3-quart stainless steel saucier over medium-high heat. Stir occasionally with a fork until sugar dissolves and syrup is bubbling hard, about 2 minutes. Stop stirring and simmer until syrup turns pale gold, like clover honey, roughly 8 minutes. Meanwhile, measure out cream so it will be ready to add at a moment's notice.
When syrup turns pale gold, add cream and reduce heat to medium-low. Cook, stirring constantly with a heat-resistant spatula, until the foam subsides and the boiling caramel seems more molten than foamy, about 6 minutes. Clip-on a digital thermometer and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until caramel registers 245°F (118°C), about 5 minutes more.
Immediately transfer caramel to a heat-resistant bowl and allow to cool until it registers 140°F (60°C)on a digital thermometer, about 40 minutes. Stir in milk chocolate until fully melted, then fold in rice.
Divide into about 15 one-ounce (2-tablespoon) portions and arrange on a parchment-lined half sheet pan or cutting board, then flatten into disks with the palm of your hand. Let stand at room temperature until fully set, about 1 hour, and transfer to an airtight container with a sheet of parchment between each layer. Star Crunch will keep up to a week at room temperature, or a month if refrigerated.
This recipe requires good-quality milk chocolate, free from artificial ingredients and added fats such as palm oil. Look for brands with no less than 26% cocoa butter, or see our favorite supermarket milk chocolates for baking.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 8g||11%|
|Saturated Fat 5g||27%|
|Total Carbohydrate 20g||7%|
|Dietary Fiber 0g||1%|
|Total Sugars 17g|
|Vitamin C 2mg||10%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|