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Hypothetically, caramel apples are nothing more than flawless seasonal produce paired with the simplest homemade candy. Done right, they're a study in contrast, every juicy bite of apple offset by the earthy richness of caramel, sophisticated in its composition but presented humbly on a stick.
If only the reality were always so grand. All too often, ginormous apples derail the fruit-to-caramel ratio and force you to unhinge your jaw like a snake to manage that first bite. Then your teeth are plunged into icy-cold fruit, locked in place by caramel so chewy it entails a full-body workout. And when that caramel starts to feel like wax on your tongue, you know you've been given a mouthful of corn syrup and palm oil instead of the real deal.
Caramel apples may be a hit-or-miss proposition when store-bought, but they're a thing of beauty when made from scratch. That isn't to say that any homemade caramel will do, because not all recipes are fit for dipping. In fact, most aren't. Too rich, and the caramel will slide off the apples as if they're coated in Teflon; too lean, and you'll chip a tooth. Cook it too briefly and you'll wind up with Caramel Sauce; cook it too long and you've got Homemade Milk Duds.
Like Goldilocks' bed, the perfect caramel is all about getting things just right.
As with my basic caramel, this recipe starts by dissolving sugar in water, which is boiled away to caramelize the sugar. This method offers lots of control, allowing you to stop at a light honey gold to keep the flavor mild and butterscotch-y, or develop the roasted, bitter notes that accompany darker shades.
Once the caramel color's just right, whatever that means to you, it's combined with an equal weight of chilled cream to halt the cooking process. From there, the caramel is boiled until it reaches 250°F (121°C), driving off enough liquid to make a thick candy, but not so much that it becomes brittle or crisp.
Since it takes a reasonably large pot to contain the bubbling cream, once the foam subsides, the caramel itself is too shallow for dipping. For that reason, I pour the finished caramel into a small heat-safe bowl. That transition also helps speed up the cooling process. You want the caramel nice and thick, but still warm enough for dipping—about 212°F.
If it gets much cooler, it'll be too thick to dip, but a great way to speed the cooling process without losing that dippable consistency is to start with cold apples. This is easy if you store them in the fridge anyway, but even giving them an hour will help tremendously. When the warm caramel hits the cold apple, it will begin to set almost immediately. That means less dripping, and more caramel on, rather than under, your apples. (I haven't had a problem with the caramel getting too cold, but if it does, a short zap in the microwave should loosen it back up.)
Because apples come in all shapes and sizes, the number you're able to dip can vary considerably from batch to batch, but expect between eight and 12 small apples. (I like to avoid larger ones, which are tricky to eat.) Once they're dipped, you can roll the candy-coated apples in crushed peanuts or other toppings, but I love them best plain and simple—particularly with the autumn sunshine on my skin, because what's the point of a stick if you don't take that apple outside?
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