Caramel is magic.
Caramelization (and its close cousin, the Maillard reaction; colloquially we use the term “caramelization’ for both) takes bland foods and makes them incredibly complex and delicious. It’s responsible for so much of the deliciousness of cooked foods.
And you can just unwrap all that and pop it in your mouth.
Recently, caramel has been starting to get some of the attention that has been lavished on chocolate for years. Flavored caramels are popping up at fancy shops and at Trader Joe’s. Last winter I bought a couple of boxes of Liddabit caramels at Chelsea Market in NYC: fig-ricotta, gingerbread stout, and apple cider.
Swoon. They were all amazing, but it was the apple-cider ones that made me think maybe I could do this. I even bought the Liddabit cookbook (in part because the Kindle version was about $2). It’s a beautiful cookbook, and makes candy-making seem approachable and fun. But I never made anything from it.
Then I got my new stove, and started thinking about cooking projects to try. Candy sounded fun. I’d seen an apple-cider caramel recipe on Smitten Kitchen not too long ago, and pulled out the Liddabit cookbook as well, and was stunned to see that making caramels looked really easy! Basically, boil stuff together until it comes to the right temperature, pour into pan, cut! Easy-peasy!
The other surprise was how different the three recipes I looked at (I also found one at King Arthur Flour’s website). They called for similar ingredients – sugar, corn syrup, apple cider, butter, and cream (or evaporated milk in one case) – but in very different quantities. Having no idea what would recommend one over the other, I picked the King Arthur Flour recipe for two reasons: I trust their recipes implicitly, and I happen to have their specialty boiled cider on hand, which greatly simplified the process.
If you don’t have boiled cider on hand, you can add an extra step at the beginning and boil 4 cups of cider down to about a half cup, which should take 30 minutes or so.
The King Arthur recipe had a footnote indicating that if you want caramel sauce instead of caramels, boil the mixture to a lower heat (226 to 230 instead of 248). So I pulled out a ladleful at that temperature and left the rest to boil. It made a great ice-cream topping, like hot fudge only chewier and flavored like caramel apples instead of chocolate. Delish.
It took rather longer for the syrup to come to the proper temperature than I expected, maybe half an hour. Smitten Kitchen says it’ll take about five minutes, so maybe I was just namby-pamby with the heat. I was afriad it would boil over, so maybe I should have used a larger pot. At any rate, watch your candy thermometer closely – this recipe is simple, but does require precision.
The resulting caramel is fantastic: apple-scented, faintly spiced, just a touch salty. It’s like a really terrific caramel apple. A friend’s daughter declared herself “in heaven” on eating a piece, and I have to second her. It’s a pretty solid caramel that takes a little chewing to get started, but it’s worth it.
We cut it into 1″ x 1/2″ squares, rather than the 1″ x 1″ squares called for (which would have been enormous!), and wound up with more than 100 pieces of candy. We wrapped them in 4″ x 5″ squares of parchment paper, which we cut ourselves – but you can buy waxed paper candy wrappers at specialty stores. They make for a pretty bowlful!
The amount of spice called for is noticeable but not strong. If you want a spicier effect, try increasing it by half a teaspoon.
Spiced Apple Cider Caramels
Makes 100+ caramels
2 cups heavy/whipping cream
1 cup light corn syrup
2 cups sugar
6 tablespoons butter (I used salted, but unsalted is fine too)
1/2 cup boiled cider, boiled down from 4 cups cider
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon apple pie spice (or cinnamon plus a little ginger and nutmeg)
Lightly grease an 8″ x 8″ baking pan. Cut two pieces of parchment paper, about 8″ x 12″ each, and lay them across each other in the pan so there’s overhang on all sides.
Combine all ingredients in a deep saucepan.
Bring the mixture to a boil on high heat, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Reduce to medium-high and cook until the mixture reaches 248 degrees on a candy thermometer, 20-30 minutes.
For a softer caramel, stop at 242 to 245 – for caramel sauce, stop at about 228.
Carefully pour the hot mixture into the prepared pan. Now you have to be patient – let cool at least 12 hours before cutting.
Trim the edges (you’ll just have to eat the scraps, sorry about that), then cut into 1″ by 1/2″ squares. Wrap in 4″ x 5″ pieces of parchment or waxed paper, twisting the ends to close. Unwrapped caramels will melt back into a solid mass, as my little bag of scraps demonstrated over the course of a few days.