over easy

Caramel Apples Are Overrated

Meh. Photo: Madeleine Aggeler

Over Easy is a weekly food column by a 20-something woman who can barely cook an egg and just wants to learn how to throw together an elegant three-course meal for her friends.

The best Halloween candy, in my opinion, would emerge from a nuclear disaster unscathed, its plasticky body intact amid the rubble and fumes and cockroaches. I’m talking candy corn, Swedish Fish, mini-Twix bars — foods that would confuse and offend our ancestors.

That being said, my past ventures into homemade drugstore candy, while certainly offensive, have been less than successful. So for Halloween this year, although it goes against everything I believe the season is about, I decided to make something slightly more natural: caramel apples.

As a child, I thought caramel apples were a huge scam. You think you can trick me into eating fiber by covering it in burnt sugar? Nice try, grown-ups. Not only are they far too healthy for my taste, caramel apples are difficult to manage — sticky, gooey caramel inevitably gets everywhere, and there’s no way to reach your hand inside your trick-or-treating bag in pursuit of better, more processed candy because you’re too busy balancing a dumb apple on a dumb stick. But I thought perhaps now, with age and sophistication, I would appreciate them more.

I decided to use this recipe from Erin Jeanne McDowell at the New York Times. McDowell is not strict about what kind of apples to use, though she suggests Granny Smith, McIntosh, or Honeycrisp, and preferably organic because, as she notes, most non-organic apples have a wax coating that makes it difficult for caramel to stick to the skin. At one of the several overpriced organic food stores by my apartment, I bought six Granny Smiths — the undisputed queens of the apple world, in my mind. Per McDowell’s recipe, I also bought corn syrup, which felt odd because I had naively imagined that corn syrup was something only large, multinational corporations could purchase, and even then, only if they agreed to use it to make something that would caramelize children’s insides. But it turns out that anyone can buy it at their corner grocery store. Nice.

While I could buy corn syrup, none of the overpriced organic food stores by apartment sold wooden treat sticks — the kind your dentist might use as a tongue depressor — with which to impale my apples. As a substitute, I got plastic disposable spoons and broke off the spoon bits.

Though McDowell’s recipe is intended for four apples, I decided to multiply all the quantities by 1.5, because I assumed many people in my life (at least six) would want caramel apples.

After stabbing the apples with my beheaded spoons, and lining them up on a slightly greased baking sheet, I started making the caramel. I combined a cup and a half of sugar with half a cup of corn syrup and half a cup of water, and stirred it with a wooden spoon over medium heat until it began to bubble around the edges. When it started bubbling, I stopped stirring. McDowell recommends letting the sugar mixture cook for 10 to 12 minutes, “until it begins to turn a medium amber color.” After 10 minutes, my mixture didn’t seem to have changed color, and I started to worry my heat was too low. Then, at 11 minutes, one corner suddenly started to darken very quickly, turning amber, and then orange, and then an angry, dark brown, while the rest was merely a light yellow.

Angry caramel. Photo: Madeleine Aggeler

I thought that would have to do, and hurriedly moved on to the next step — pouring 1.5 cups of heavy cream into the pot. McDowell notes that “the mixture will bubble up vigorously.” In my case, this was a tremendous understatement. The brown, milky, frothy goo exploded and popped, threatening at any moment to spill over onto the stove, and my floor, and eventually eat my face off. I realized I should have used a bigger pot, but at this point I was in too deep so I kept going, dropping in 1.5 tablespoons of butter, and 1.5 teaspoons of vanilla extract, which was probably more like two teaspoons of vanilla extract, because the steam from the devil goo burned my hand a little bit.

With a meat thermometer, the only thermometer we have in our apartment (but which, I assure you, has never been used for medical purposes), I checked the temperature of the caramel. It was about 230, and as McDowell told me to do, I stirred it constantly for about 10 minutes, until the temperature reached 245 degrees, only dropping the thermometer in the caramel once.

(A note: no matter how delicious the bubbling, molten hot caramel looks, do not taste it. It will incinerate your soft, delicate mouth tissue, leaving it scarred and numb. I’m not saying you will do this, I’m not saying I did this, I’m just saying it’s something to think about.)

Once the caramel reached 245 degrees, I turned off the burner, and let it cool down to 200. Earlier, I had chopped up pistachios and pretzels to dip the apples in when they were ready, hoping for a more complex, elevated version of caramel apples. When the caramel was finally cool enough, McDowell warns that you will have to work quickly, before it cools too much and doesn’t stick to the apples, so as soon as it reached 200, I dipped an apple in, and then frantically tried to spoon chopped pistachios on as fast as I could. This was a bad method that got pistachios everywhere in my kitchen except on the apple. With the second apple, I dipped in caramel, and then dipped it right into the bowl of chopped pretzels, which worked slightly better, but was still very messy.

Eventually, all six apples were covered in caramel, as was a significant portion of my counter space. After I cleaned up, and when the apples had cooled, I ate one that had been dipped in pretzels. The first bite was incredible. Maybe caramel apples were good after all! The caramel was sweet and salty and the pretzels added a satisfying crunch. Then, I realized I liked the first bite so much because I did not actually consume any apple. The subsequent bites were disappointing. The tartness of the apple did mix well with the sweetness of the caramel, but sticky apple juice dripped all over my mouth and hands, and the whole time I ate it I found myself wishing I was just eating an enormous ball of caramel on a stick, and that no apple had been involved in the process at all.

Halloween is this weekend, and I’m sure you have a lot of fun party plans. You could make homemade caramel apples for everyone, or you could buy a huge bag of mixed drugstore candy. I’m not telling you how to live your life, but I do think one option will make your guests much happier than the other. Because five of my caramel apples are still sitting in my fridge, untouched by me or my roommates, waiting for some sad scammer to come and claim them.

My report card
Preparation: B+
Taste: C
Spookiness: D

My Overall Performance: C

Caramel Apples Are Overrated