Campus is Cookin’: Caramel Apples

It’s the end of fall. You can sense the snow’s arrival in the blank skies and chill of early morning, the bare branches of trees on the Great Lawn, the stuttering of pipes from the radiators in SamPhil and the condensation on frosted windows. Winter’s approaching, and while there’s nothing like the first step onto newly fallen snow or the first snowball fight in front of Commons, I’ll miss fall. Not just the weather, but the colors and the flavors like the warm apple pie your house counselor baked on a whim, a perfectly spiced chai tea latte (a recipe for another day) or caramel apples at that little farmer’s market downtown. So let’s have one last hurrah for autumn, shall we? Caramel is probably the most gorgeous candy ever. It’s a perfect, golden toffee-brown, smooth and creamy. It’s sweet, but it has a more complex flavor than normal sugar, a little burnt, like a perfectly toasted marshmallow over an open fire. And the kicker? You can pretty much dip anything in it. At our neighborhood fall festival, they serve caramel-dipped-chicken. No joke. But for today, we’re going to stick with something a little more conventional. Caramel apples. Crisp red fruit, just dipped, sticky and gooey and spectacular. The first time I had a caramel apple was when a house down the street was handing them out for Halloween. I took that first glorious bite…and my loose tooth fell out. But that one bite was worth it. I figured out how to make caramel on a stove this summer (it’s really just melted sugar) and when I was making tea this Thursday, I looked at the sugar containers and was inspired. Before we start, a disclaimer: this is, in no way, a conventional, professional, accurate way to make caramel. But when the results involve smooth, sugary, golden-brown clumps of candy that taste like toffee, it can’t really be called a failure, can it? There’s one big thing to be careful with when you’re making caramel. The color. One second you’ve got sugar in a bowl, and the next second, it’s turning brown and bubbling up. You turn around to get a plate, and by the time you turn back around the entire thing has spontaneously combusted. So keep an extremely careful eye on the sugar while it’s in the microwave. Spontaneous combustion may sound fun, but scraping burnt caramel out of a microwave most definitely won’t be. Start by pouring sugar into a soup bowl until it about a third full. This will ensure that the sugar is shallow enough to melt and caramelize evenly, but it’s deep enough that the sugar will melt slowly, ensuring better control of the temperature. Now add half a spoonful of butter. Toss the butter in the sugar, and then stick it in the microwave until you can see that the butter is completely melted and bubbling. Quickly fill another soup bowl about a fourth full of half-and-half. This is for the caramel after the sugar has cooked down. Next, take the mixture out and give it a few brisk stirs, just until the butter is incorporated into the sugar. At this point, the sugar should look like sand, with a damp but still grainy texture. Stick the sugar back in the microwave and cook in thirty-second increments, taking it out every time to stir a little bit. The point of this is not to beat the sugar to death, just to keep the sugar on the sides of the bowl from burning. About a minute or two into this process, the sugar should start turning a golden brown at the edges. From this point, the caramelizing happens ridiculously fast. Keeping a close watch on the bowl, take out the caramel periodically to check on the color, stirring any chunks until they are no longer visible. Once the caramel is a dark golden-brown color, stick a spoon in it. The caramel should be liquidy enough to be stirrable, but gooey enough to coat your spoon. Pour in small amounts of half-in-half at a time to get the right consistency. The caramel should foam up the first couple times, which is why we don’t pour it all in at once. Just keep stirring and the foam should subside. Next cut an apple into small slices. Dip the slices into the caramel using a fork, covering the entire surface of the piece of apple. At this point, you could drop a couple chocolate chips on the slice, or add a dab of peanut butter. You could get fancy and drip chocolate ganache, a sauce of cream and melted chocolate, onto the apple slice, or you could just eat it, unadorned, undecorated, unvarnished and delicious. Because most of the time, caramel is all you need.