The following 101, on making apple cider caramels, comes from HOMEGROWN member Jackie, a “cook, writer, and farmer eating my way around my small Pennsylvania farm.” There, at Auburn Meadow, Jackie raises cattle for milk and beef, as well as heritage-breed pigs to help keep the pastures cleared. Thanks so much, Jackie, and please keep the good ideas simmering!
We’ve already talked about that quirky, thrifty, antique ingredient, apple cider molasses. Remember? Got to admire that Yankee ingenuity. Cider molasses was just one way of wasting not and making do with the resources that were abundant in apple-rich New England.
Fortunately, ’tis the season for you to have a go at making some of this Yankee treasure yourself. Cider molasses is probably the easiest preserving project there is, but I won’t tell. It’s still so little known, rare, and useful, people will be super-impressed with your culinary genius.
Cider molasses (pictured at right) is now a favorite ingredient around here, flavoring vinaigrettes, hot tea, sodas, beans, bacon jam, pies; served with cheese; drizzled over yogurt and granola; schmeared on PB&J’s—anything you would do with maple syrup or honey, really. It’s a workhorse, I tell you, but if that doesn’t convince you, perhaps another use for it will: apple cider caramels.
If you’re strong enough to resist gobbling them up yourself, these caramels are one of the most charming and delicious gifts ever. Have no fear, newbies: This is candy making simplified. Ready to get started? We’re almost there. Just a few key points to go over first that will save you some time (and possible heartache) later.
APPLE CIDER CARAMELS: SOME TIPS BEFORE YOU BEGIN
APPLE CIDER CARAMELS: WHAT YOU’LL NEED
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen, this recipe lets the tart sweetness of the apples shine through, with just the right amount of fall spice. Worth repeating: Measure your ingredients and have them ready to go. Things move fast once the candy starts cooking, and you won’t have time.
» ⅓ to ½ cup apple cider molasses* (or 4 cups apple cider)
» ½ tsp ground cinnamon
» 2 tsp flaky sea salt (if using finer salt, use less)
» 8 Tbsp (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into small chunks
» 1 cup granulated sugar
» ½ cup packed light brown sugar
» ⅓ cup heavy cream
» 8” square baking pan with straight sides
» parchment paper (foil works, too)
» neutral oil for the knife (corn, canola, or safflower rather than olive or sesame)
» wax paper for wrapping
* The thickness of homemade apple cider molasses varies. If you’ve made yours on the thin side, you’ll need to start with a larger quantity, up to 1 cup, and begin your caramel making by reducing the molasses to a thick syrup. The final volume of your thickened syrup should be ⅓ to ½ cup. Don’t worry about being too precise. The recipe has some forgiveness.
Line the bottom of your baking pan with 2 long sheets of parchment paper or foil, laid in a cross. I trim my paper with scissors to eliminate bulkiness, which can cause wrinkles in the finished candy. This cross acts as a sling later to help remove the candy from the pan.
Heat your cider or molasses in a 3- to 4-quart saucepan over medium-high to high heat until it reduces to a thick, dark syrup. (If you're using cider, this will take a while. You’ll begin by reducing your 4 cups of cider to ⅓ to ½ cup of molasses.)
Once your cider has sufficiently reduced, it’s time to set up your thermometer, if you’re using one. Remove the cider from the heat and stir in the butter, sugars, and cream. Return the pot to medium-high heat. Bring to a boil and continue boiling until the mixture reaches 252°F. Stir very gently and occasionally, just making sure the bottom isn’t sticking.
Your boiling caramel will look like the photo at right. Keep an eye on the pot and be careful not to aerate with lots of vigorous stirring.
If you’re not using a thermometer, try the cold-water test after no more than 5 minutes. Watch closely: The mixture goes from boil to burn fast. Careful! Yours may not take 5 minutes. The difference between rich, buttery caramel and crackly, burnt threads can be less than a minute. Full attention here.
A success! This caramel is soft and creamy, and a spoonful forms a proper soft ball when dropped into cold water.
Not so successful. When cooking sugar, a lot can happen in one minute. The burnt sugary threads on the spoon and the water test both confirm overcooked, burnt candy.
Immediately remove caramel from the heat, add the cinnamon and salt, and give the mixture a few good stirs to distribute seasoning. Pour into the prepared paper- or foil-lined pan, tap a few times on the countertop to release any air bubbles, sprinkle a bit of coarse salt on top, and let sit until firm. Cool at least 2 hours or overnight before cutting. You can speed things up by placing it in the fridge.
Once your caramel is firm, use your parchment paper sling to transfer the caramel to a cutting board. Using an oiled knife (you’ll want to re-oil throughout the cutting process), cut the caramel into squares. Wrap each piece in a 4-inch square of waxed paper and twist to close.
The caramels will be softer at room temperature than store-bought varieties and will keep in an airtight container at room temp for about two weeks.
VARIATIONS ON THE CARAMEL THEME
I am a relentless experimenter in the kitchen, which means I make things that sometimes don’t work out the way I expected. Over- or undercooked jams can be used in place of the apple cider molasses to make other flavors of caramel (strawberry, plum, etc.). Any fruit chunks or seeds will become super-chewy, but overall, caramel is a great way to use up less than perfect jams and jellies.
Got a question for Jackie? Or a morsel of your own to share? Post it below and keep the conversation rolling. If you’ve got extra Honeycrisps on hand, you might check out the 101s on five ways to preserve apples, making apple pectin, espaliering a fruit tree, and small-batch canning, in addition to Jackie’s Apple Molasses 101. If you’re into syrups, you might give the 101s on maple tapping and maple syrup making, brewing an elderberry flu fighter, and homemade extracts a gander. You can always find more things to cook, preserve, plant, grow, make, craft, and give in the HOMEGROWN 101 library.
ALL PHOTOS: JACKIE/AUBURN MEADOW FARM