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.
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, 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 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).
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).