I remember my very first caramel apple. It was during grade school, at a friend's Halloween party. A bunch of us spent what felt like forever unwrapping bags of caramel candies, then watched as our friend's mother slowly melted them on the stove-top, stirring as the caramel began to bubble. We took turns dipping our apples in the melted caramel, waiting for the caramel to set up before decorating our creations with candies, sprinkles and nuts. The hardest part was trying to keep the caramel and decorations away from our costumes before trick-or-treating. Looking back, the group of us must have been a sticky mess to behold. But those apples, and the experience, were magical.
From carnivals to fairs, the candy-covered apple is one of those quintessential festival treats and, along with candy corn, a Halloween staple. Take a crisp apple and swirl it with a coating of rich caramel, or dip it in a pot of molten sugar as shiny and red as a new sports car.
And while you can find an assortment of boutique options available at candy counters and gourmet shops, this is one treat that's just as much fun to make at home. You can use some of the terrific local or heirloom apples at farmers markets — and you don't even need a fancy kit.
To make your own candy-coated apples, you really only need a few things: apples, popsicle or other sticks, the ingredients for your coating, a heavy pot and a candy thermometer.
The first thing you'll want to do is give your apples a good cleaning. Beyond the natural dirt, you'll need to remove any wax. Even just-picked apples from farmers markets often have a thin coating of wax — a natural preservative — that can make it difficult for sugar or other coatings to adhere properly. Blanch your apples for 10 seconds or so in boiling water treated with a little lemon juice or cider vinegar; the acid in the water will help to break down the wax. Wipe the apples clean, then chill them in an ice bath to bring the temperature down so the residual heat doesn't cook the apples.
Caramel apples are probably the easiest ones to make, though nowadays I prefer to use homemade caramel over the pre-packaged candies. Some brands melt well for a nice, smooth coating; others have added ingredients that prevent the candies from melting evenly, making for a chalky, rough coating. Not to mention, you can make your own caramel from scratch using just a handful of ingredients in about the time it takes to unwrap a bag of store-bought candies.
Making your own candy apples require nothing more than cooked sugar, flavoring and a little food coloring. That, and a candy thermometer. Cooking sugar is a science, and you can't just eyeball when you think the sugar is done; it needs to reach the right temperature – whether you're making candy or caramel apples – for the final coating to have the proper consistency.
Recently, I tried making candied apples using nothing more than maple syrup. Simply cook a pot of syrup until it reaches 248 degrees, or "firm-ball" stage. Simple as this sounds, give yourself plenty of time. It takes about an hour for the syrup to gently boil to the right temperature, and you'll want to keep the heat low enough so the syrup doesn't boil over and burn. Once the sugar is ready, there are two ways to candy the apples. Dip them straight into the hot syrup for a glossy, toffee-like coating similar to the maple candy known as "sugar on snow." Or cool the syrup for a few minutes, then whisk it until it becomes opaque, before coating. The latter coating is similar to the molded candies you often find at East Coast stores shaped like maple leaves.
Another advantage to making your own caramel and candy apples is that the results are so elegant that you don't need all the extraneous toppings and decorations. Keep them for cookies — or costumes — and let the apples stand on their own.