Happy Hallo-week!! Do you have any plans for this Friday? Are you dressing up? The fact that Halloween is right before the weekend this year makes going out on the town tempting, but in all honesty, it’s more likely you’ll find me in the kitchen this week, wearing fuzzy socks and making sweets for the kids who live downstairs instead of going out. I mean, I just bought these awesome new pajama pants (they have cuffs! they’re not threadbare! they don’t have holes!) and I’m pretty sure Molly’s pumpkin mini loaf cakes urgently need to be made into trick-or-treatable mini donuts. Urgently, you know?
So I admit that I’m kind of a homebody. (In case you weren’t tipped off by the extreme excitement over clothes that will never see the outdoors.) It’s just that home is so awesome. Home is free(r) drinks in a forever open bar. It’s a brunch wonderland. And this weekend, when B2 was suddenly inspired to buy a pumpkin and carve an impromptu Batman into it, which then inspired me to figure out an impromptu Halloween-y treat so that I could share both of them with you all, it was full of pumpkin shavings and apple-spiced fragrance. What’s not to love?
After my first magical experience with caramel a few weeks ago, these apple cider caramels by the flawless Deb seemed like the perfect thing to try for Halloween, with a little twist from an abundance of crème fraîche in my fridge (for a fun giveaway coming up next month!) that needed using. (In retrospect, making pumpkin caramels might have been nice symmetry, but I say you don’t shy from a Smitten Kitchen recipe when you have an opportunity to make one.)
And, as over a thousand comments on her recipe (!) might suggest, they were amazing. The apple cider reduces down to a spicy, aromatic syrup that itself begins to caramelize, then the addition of a good bit of sugar, crème fraîche and butter turns it into a pliable candy that tastes like chewy, melty apple pie. These don’t have quite the rich, deep butterscotch-y warmth that plain caramels do — but instead, the apple cider and crème fraîche add a lively, tart tang to what can otherwise be a heavy treat. If regular caramels are like sitting in front of the fireplace on a winter evening, swaddled in blankets, these apple cider ones are the joy of kicking up fall leaves in the fading dusk of a fall day, with just a hint of chill but a flush in your cheek. Both are pretty darn amazing in their own ways.
The other wonderful thing about Deb’s recipe is that she includes a tip for those of us (me) trying to muddle through candy-making without a candy thermometer. Her cold water trick worked perfectly, although I erred on the side of caution and ended up with caramels that were a little too soft at room temperature. Still, I figured it would be better to have gooey caramel than teeth-breaking ones — and they were perfectly firm out of the fridge — so I was happy with them. If this happens to you, you can try returning the caramel to the pot and cooking it a little further, even after it’s cooled and firm.
Whether you’re kicking it on the couch with a bowl of candy on your doorstep or out on the town in full costume, I hope you all have a fantastic Halloween! This will be me. (It’s a talking porcupine eating a pumpkin. Yes. The best thing I have seen … ever.)
barely adapted from Smitten Kitchen.
- 4 cups (945 ml) apple cider
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon (or more, to taste)
- 2 tsp flaky salt, plus more for sprinkling
- 8 tablespoons (115 grams or 1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into chunks
- 1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup (110 grams) packed light brown sugar
- 1/3 cup (80 ml) Vermont Creamery crème fraîche
- neutral oil for the knife
- Boil the apple cider in a large pot over high heat until it reduces to a dark, thick syrup, between 1/3 and 1/2 cup in volume. It should take about 35 to 40 minutes, and by the end, bubbles will begin to turn shiny, viscous, and pop more slowly.
- While the apple cider is reducing, line the bottom and sides of an 8- inch straight- sided square metal baking pan with 2 long sheets of crisscrossed parchment. Set aside. Stir the cinnamon and flaky salt together in a small dish, and have the butter, sugars, and creme fraiche measured out and ready to go.
- When the apple cider has reduced, remove it from the heat and stir in the butter, sugars, and creme fraiche, just until dissolved. Return the pot to medium-high heat with a candy thermometer attached to the side, and let it boil until the thermometer reads 252 degrees, only about 5 minutes. Keep a close eye on it.
- If you don't have a thermometer, prepare a bowl of very cold water while the caramel is boiling. Cook the caramel until a spoonful dropped into the water becomes firm, chewy, and able to be plied into a ball. You may want to cook the caramel at a lower heat for a little longer, to give yourself time to test the caramel before taking it off the heat.
- When the caramel is at the right temperature or consistency, immediately remove it from heat, add the cinnamon-salt mixture, and give the caramel several stirs to distribute it evenly. Pour the caramel into the prepared pan. Let it sit at room temperature or in the fridge until cool and firm. At room temperature, it will take about two hours; in the fridge, one should do it.
- Once caramel is firm, use the parchment paper to transfer the block to a cutting board. Use a well-oiled knife or a pizza wheel, oiling it after each cut, to cut the caramel into 1-by-1-inch squares. It will slice better when cold. Optionally, sprinkle each square with a bit of flaky salt. Wrap each one in a roughly 3x4-inch piece of waxed or parchment paper, twisting the sides to close.
If you don't have crème fraîche, just sub in equal parts heavy cream.