It’s the holidays, and holidays mean candy-making! Of some kind, anyway. In my house, anyway. I really like to make candy, and it’s not as hard as I thought it would be before my first candy-making venture, oh so long ago. Just…please…respect the sugar. More on that later.
So I was reading through my Food & Wine magazine, and there was this lovely recipe for apple cider caramels. I adore soft caramels; I always have and I always will, much to the chagrin of my dentist. I’ve made them plain, I’ve made salted, I’ve infused them with lavender. But cider? Fall harvest deliciousness plus long-standing favorite candy? Yes, please! Tell me more!
Actually…before you go on, get the cider started because reducing a half-gallon of cider down to two cups takes FOR. EVER. Keep it at a nice, even, medium heat; you don’t want to scorch your cider, nor do you want it to take any longer than it must. Use the best cider that you can (remember, great ingredients = great food), though I would probably eschew anything excessively pulpy to avoid creating texture issues.
You can literally ignore this for the first 45 minutes or so that it’s on the stove, barring (of course) basic stovetop maintenance, i.e., making sure the cat isn’t sticking his nose in your pan or a toddler isn’t pulling boiling cider onto her head. After the first 45, kind of keep a closer eye on it until you see a real change in texture; it will go from, you know, juice-ish consistency to something that’s kind of thick and glossy. Keep a measuring cup nearby and just sort of pour it in when you think the reduction is getting close, to check how much you actually have. If it hasn’t reduced enough? Back in the pot until it’s ready to be checked again.
And so on.
FYI, you can park your cider once it’s reduced if, say…you have to get to Zumba class and need to take a pause in your pursuit of the perfect caramel. Be forewarned: the reduced cider will congeal into a solid amber gel. It’s a little freakish, but once you put it into a pot with sugar and heat it up it will break right back down, no harm, no foul.
Next: get your cream and milk going in one pot, and your sugar, water, corn syrup and (congealed or not) cider in another. It should look a little something like this.
Wait for the cream to warm through and the sugar to dissolve into a smooth, incorporated syrup. Once that’s happened, whisk in a stick of butter and then the cream mixture, carefully, and this is where I added the spices as the recipe called for even though it says to add them later (my one deviation from how the recipe was written). Let it turn from golden syrup…
…into a bubbling cauldron of sweet molten napalm.
OK, look. I know I always say this when I make candy, but it’s always true: hot sugar will mess you up but good. This candy requires you raise its temperature to 245°F, and as sugar gets hot, it gets sticky. If you plunged your hand into a pot of 245°F water and then pulled it out, it would suck–a lot–but as soon as your hand was out of the water it would at least start to cool. The sugar, however, would retain its heat, not cool nearly as quickly (so it would continue to cook your hand meat) and would stick to you. Ow. Here’s a short video I took of the caramel in process; consider it my version of a PSA.
Seriously, kids. Don’t try this at home.
The things I endure for friends and family. :)
Once you’ve cooked your sugar to the freakish 245°F, remove the candy thermometer and pour your caramel into a pan you have waiting, lined with aluminum foil and a coating of nonstick cooking spray.
Let it cool, and once it’s cooled off enough to manage, cover the pan and put it in the fridge overnight. And then sit down and relax, since you’ve survived the Night of Boiling Sugar. The next day you’ll just be involved in the grunt work of cutting and wrapping your caramels, and eating them as you wrap. :)
Out of the pan and onto a cutting board. Mark off one-inch sections with your handy kitchen ruler, and then start slicing into your caramel. It helps to coat your knife with a shot of non-stick spray, because by its nature caramel will stick to everything.
Then mark off half-inch sections in each row of caramel. Set up a workstation for yourself with a ruler (it sounds ridiculous, but my baking and candy making skills turned a corner when I realized I could use your basic ruler in the kitchen), wax paper and/or commercial candy wrappers, some scissors and a big-ass tray to hold them all in. Then go for it. There’s no other way around it.
Slice, wrap, toss in the tray; slice, wrap, toss in the tray. Get some good music on while you do it to make things move more fluidly. I believe I listened to a friend’s mixlr broadcast that day, because how can you not want to listen to the King of Jingaling while you wrap candies? Before you know it, you’ll go from naked cider caramels to…
Missing, of course, the half dozen or so I ate along the way. For quality control purposes, you understand.
These are delicious. They really do bring all the fun of a caramel apple without the bother of trying to fit your chops around a giant piece of candied fruit. I’m sure I’ll make other caramels in my lifetime, but these will remain in my candy repertoire for a long, long time to come. You should try it! It’s fun, and people always give you that, “Ooh! You made this?” squee, which provides its own benefits. And you can’t support an economy much more local than the one in your own kitchen. Go for it, folks. I’m cheering you on!
Just be careful with the hot sugar.