Is there a way to make caramel apples that doesn’t involve unwrapping lots of caramels? Yes. Is there an easy way to make caramel apples that doesn’t involve unwrapping lots of caramels? That depends on what you call easy.
When I was asked some years ago to make caramel apples for a fundraiser, I said, “Sure, no problem.” I figured, I’ve played with caramel for lining molds and making sauces; I know my way around a kitchen, no problem. Turns out I was in for a humbling experience, and actually wound up buying the caramels and doing it that way after all.
So what was the challenge? First of all, candy making and the whole area of confectionery is very different from regular cooking. It requires special equipment, a willingness to work within strict parameters, and a very precise kind of personality. It’s funny, because I’m particular and often a purist, but the exactitude required of a candy maker eludes me.
Turning to my one and only candy book, I found several recipes for caramel, one of which was recommended specifically for making candy apples. It seemed easy enough: blend together sugar and corn syrup, boil to 305°F, add butter and milk bit by bit, and remove from the heat when it reaches 246°F. Let stand five minutes, add salt and vanilla; pour into the top of a double boiler, and dip the apples.
Well, using milk instead of evaporated milk means it takes longer to evaporate out a lot of the water, so this recipe can take up to 35 minutes to make. And guess what? Long cooking of milk or cream tends to toughen candy and often causes curdling. You know my first batch curdled. So I decided to use the recipe which called for evaporated milk, which promised, “Because these caramels are made with evaporated milk they cook quickly without taking the first mixture to a high temperature (only 250°F vs. 305°F).” This batch of caramel never hardened properly, and slid off the apples when I dipped them.
Running out of time, I went to the store and purchased caramels. It took some time to unwrap enough to make a dozen apples, but I was able to turn them out finally and bring them to the fair. In a post-mortem effort to find out what went wrong with the home method, though, I stopped in to see our local candy maker and asked him for advice. I still have the note that says, “Per Doug, method is wrong. Cook sugar syrup up to 280°F before adding milk and butter. Use equal parts sugar, corn syrup, and evaporated milk.” According to the professional, the temperature was too low and the proportions off.
Should you decide you want to try, here are some pointers. Before you do anything else, if you don’t have one, buy a candy thermometer. It’s a must, as is a heavy saucepan.
Select small to medium-size apples; they’re easier to coat and easier to eat. Get organic if possible, as you’ll leave the skins on. Wash and dry them thoroughly. Bring a quart of water to a boil, and pour it into a tall bowl large enough to hold an apple. Select whatever you’d like for the handle – a chopstick, a wooden skewer, or a popsicle stick. Remove the stem from the apple and carefully aim the handle through the center of the apple, going almost all the way through. Dip each apple in the hot water for five to 10 seconds. Dunk it all the way down; this removes the waxy coating which if not removed, will cause your caramel to slide off the apple. (You don’t have to ask how I know this, do you?) When each apple has been de-waxed, dry it thoroughly.
Cover a cutting board or sheet pan with parchment or waxed paper and butter it carefully. Use more butter than you think necessary. You want to be sure the apples will come off the paper after the caramel coating has cooled.
Use the heaviest saucepan you have for making the caramel. It needs to be large enough to contain sugar syrup at a rolling boil, so be sure it’s not more than half full. Ban little kids from the kitchen when you’re doing this. Burning yourself would be bad enough; you don’t want to risk any little people getting hurt. Caramel is hotter than boiling water and can burn badly.
One of the easiest recipes I’ve found calls for two cups each of brown sugar and corn syrup, one cup butter, and one (14-oz.) can of sweetened condensed milk (not evaporated milk; they’re different.)* Put them all in your heavy saucepan, and stir together over medium heat. As soon as it comes to a boil, insert your candy thermometer and cook the caramel over medium heat, stirring with either a wooden spoon or preferably a silicone scraper all the while, until the temperature reaches 245°F. Be sure the thermometer isn’t touching the bottom of sides or the pan, which would give you a false reading. You’ll have to move it around as you stir the caramel.
Once the caramel reaches the correct temperature, remove from the heat. Continue to stir and allow to cool for a couple of minutes before adding two teaspoons of vanilla extract. Dip your apples now, allowing any excess caramel to drip back into the pan, and place them on the buttered paper. If the caramel cools and thickens so you can’t finish dipping all the apples, put it back over medium heat briefly to thin it out. Leave the apples to cool for several hours before risking anyone’s braces or dentures.
* Don’t worry about the proportions not matching Doug’s. This is a different recipe from his.