Baked Sunday Mornings: Vanilla Bean Caramel Apples

I somehow made it through my entire childhood without ever eating a caramel apple. I envied the kids who got them at Halloween, but my mother never bought the packages of Kraft Wrapples (basically discs of some caramel-like substance that you would wrap around an apple and warm up in the oven) that were prominently displayed in the produce section of the grocery store in the fall.

So I was grateful that the gentlemen bakers provided a recipe for a simple, homemade caramel apple that could help me realize my childhood Halloween dreams. Step one was to find some suitable apples. I stopped by the farmers market close to my office and consulted with the farmer who always offers the widest selection of apples (Emily from Black Rock Orchard). She let me sample a few varieties and I decided to go with her recommendation of Crimson Crisp apples, which are super crunchy and slightly tart. The apples were also on the small side, which is what I was looking for. I washed and dried the apples, removed the stems, and inserted apple sticks.

Step two was to make the caramel. You steep a vanilla bean and the scraped seeds in heavy cream; strain out the pod; add sugar, corn syrup, and butter; and bring the mixture to 245 degrees F. This turned out to be quite challenging. The instructions say to use a small pot, so I used a two-quart All-Clad saucepan that is my go-to pot for making caramel. The mixture boiled over and after I cleaned up the mess, I put it back on the heat and could not increase the heat above medium, or the caramel would get too close to boiling over again. The mixture stalled around 220 degrees and stayed there for what seemed like forever. Eventually, it finally crawled up to 245 degrees.

The recipe says you should set the pan on ice to stop the cooking, but given how slowly my caramel had come up to temperature, I wasn't too worried about the caramel continuing to cook after taking it off of the heat. Also, I didn't think that a straight-sided saucepan would be the most convenient receptacle to hold the caramel while I dipped the apples. So I put a stainless steel mixing bowl in the fridge while I was cooking the caramel and I just poured the caramel into the chilled bowl when it reached 245 degrees.

Step three was to dip the apples. I noticed right away that there were a lot of bubbles in the caramel, and these bubbles were visible on the apples. (In the photo below, you can see that the apple on the left has air bubbles in the caramel.) I had enough caramel to dip 14 apples. I stuck the apples in the fridge on a parchment-lined tray to set up. Once the caramel was set, I used a sharp paring knife to trim off excess caramel around the bottom of the apples. It was easy to clean them up and make them look nice and neat.
These apples were freakin' delicious. First, the apples themselves were wonderfully crisp and nicely tart to offset the sweetness of the caramel. The layer of caramel around the apple was elegantly and uniformly thin, and it was soft and stretchy; the textural contrast of the chewy caramel against the crunchy apple was delightful. The vanilla bean flavor came through loud and clear. While the caramel was set at room temperature, I preferred eating the apples chilled, when the caramel was slightly firmer and the apple was nice and cold. And I have no idea how long these are supposed to last, but we enjoyed the last apple on day three and it still tasted amazing.

I don't feel too bad about the lack of caramel apples in my early life, because in the 70s and 80s, pretty much all homemade caramel apples were made from Wrapples or by melting Kraft caramels. And even without ever having tasted the Kraft varieties, I know that this completely made-from-scratch version surpasses them by leaps and bounds.

Recipe: "Vanilla Bean Caramel Apples" from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito, recipe available here at Baked Sunday Mornings.