Nosh: Apple Cider Caramels

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.

Looks kind of sludgy.  Gets better.  Promise.

Looks kind of sludgy. Gets better. Promise.

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.

Notice my bizarro glob of cidery goo in the pot on the back burner?  No sweat, it melts.

Notice my bizarro glob of cidery goo in the pot on the back burner? No sweat, it melts.

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…

It looks so shiny and inviting.

It looks so shiny and inviting.

…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.  🙂

Anyway.

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.

It gets much less scary after this.

It gets much less scary after this.

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.  🙂

Next day:

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.

And so the chopping begins.

And so the chopping begins.

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.

Be a pnnacle of industry!

Be a pinnacle of industry!

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…

:D  Yes, please!

😀 Yes, please!

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.

Festive Christmakwanukkastice!

Nosh: Little Dippers Cookies

Take 3/4 cup of butter out of the fridge to let it soften while you read this.  And pre-heat your oven to 350°.  Don’t ask questions; just do it!  All will be revealed in good time.

There’s little that’s better than chocolate with some coffee.  Unless, of course, you’ve got a cookie that combines the two flavors.

Behold!  The little dippers.  These festive beauties are also hand-held comfort nuggets, so they look as good as they taste.  Added bonus: they’re really easy to make.  Here’s the recipe, and surprise, surprise!  I didn’t deviate from it much.  So let’s get to it.

Put your flour, cocoa and salt into a bowl.

Of course you’ll stir it together. But first, just notice that it looks cool.

Give it a stir to combine, then set it aside.

Put your nicely softened butter into a mixing bowl and whip it for a minute or so, and then add your sugar in and cream the two of them together.  If you don’t have nicely softened butter, you can of course do the “put it on a plate and in the microwave for eight seconds and see if it’s soft, and then microwave again” process, but please be careful. You don’t want the butter to liquefy, and as anyone who’s ever eaten butter knows, it’s verrrry easy to over-microwave into a puddle.  Should that happen you would have to wait for the butter to start to firm up again before cooking, which is an ironic way to complicate this recipe.

Creamed butter and sugar.

True story: when I was a kid, I would cream together butter and sugar and have that on bread as an after-school snack.  Of course I ate it on overprocessed white bread, too, so I was basically mainlining pure carbs.  What a rush!  I still sort of miss it.

Anyway.

Mix in your egg and your espresso powder.

If you ever wanted to know what buttery sweet coffee tastes like, here you go.

For those who think they’ve got such mad skills that they don’t need to crack eggs into a separate container in case they break any shell into it, let me remind you: I have been baking for years and did, indeed, break some shell into the egg.  I was so glad that for once, at least, I had actually taken my own advice  and cracked my egg into a little cup.  Fished the shell right out, no drama, no concern about my cookies coming out crunchy-style.  Since I’ve been able to find instant espresso powder even here in my tiny hamlet, I assume most people would be able to get their hands on some in their own grocery stores.  If not, check out Amazon or other online outlets.  Hooray, internets!  Ingredients can be had.

Then add in your cocoa and flour mixture.  What’s the magic word when mixing a powder into a whirring set of beaters?  Incrementally.  In this particular recipe, I was able to get all the flour added without having to mix by hand.  You’ll have crumbly dough that looks a little like rubble.

Mmmmm, rubbly deliciousness.

Here is one of the areas where I deviate from the recipe.  It doesn’t call for putting the dough in the fridge to firm up before you roll and cut them.  Here’s the problem with that: butter-based goods, like this one, become notoriously difficult to handle when they’re warm.  Rolling them out is fine.  Cutting them with a cookie cutter is fine.  Getting them up off your work surface and onto a baking sheet?  That can be a bit of a problem.  They’re too malleable and susceptible to tearing and distortion.  Regardless of what the directions say, once you divide your dough in half, wrap it in plastic and let it firm for an hour or so before rolling.

Once they’ve firmed, it’s time to roll them out on a floured work surface.  To preserve the chocolately goodness of the cookies, you can flour the work surface with a half-and-half mix of flour and cocoa powder.  Oh, snap!  Yes, you CAN do that, OMG!  Works like a charm, and I am a total tart for all things chocolate.  Then cut them out with a star-shaped cookie cutter (or whatever shape you prefer, actually.  I won’t judge), put them on an ungreased cookie sheet, and into your waiting, pre-heated oven.

I know I’ve mentioned this in another recipe and I’m a little surprised this recipe doesn’t mention doing this since you can’t even come near the yield the recipe claims without doing so, but gather up the scraps from your cuttings, put them in the fridge (or freezer, if you’re in a rush) to let them firm up again, re-roll and re-cut the scraps to coax even more cookies out of your dough.  And then bake those, too.  Rotate the cookies once halfway through your bake time, and you’ll get gorgeous little chocolate-coffee stars that look something like this…

No matter how good they are right now, they’re going to be even better by the time we finish with them.

Once they’ve cooled, melt the chocolate in something nice and heatproof and deep enough for good dipping, in the microwave (or a double-boiler, if you don’t have a microwave, and check out this post to find out how to make an ersatz double-boiler without buying fancy dedicated equipment).  Dip each cookie, one-third to one-half deep into the chocolate.  Resist all urges to dunk the entire thing in a chocolate craze.  Lay the cookies out on wax paper so the chocolate can get and then?

Chocolate-coffee cookies stretch as far as the eye can see.

Enjoy!

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