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Drinking the Salted Caramel Kool Aid

I didn’t have a lot of time to myself over the holidays.  Who does really?  But a working single mom leads no glamorous life – I assure you.   I DID have a LITTLE time and in the spirit of the holidays I tried out a new recipe I found on a blog.  Four batches later I’m addicted.

In case you’ve been living off the grid, the whole Salted Caramel trend is big right now.   I’ve never been a caramel girl – bad memories of rock hard square pieces of Kraft Caramels abandoned in my Halloween loot or waxy drugstore turtles made with tasteless chocolate with caramel inside were my only caramel encounters.  Clearly, I’ve been missing out.

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It was the “Apple Cider” in the recipe that snagged me.  I love to heat up a mug of apple cider over the holidays – just the thing for a frosty cold night or to sooth a sore throat.  So Salted Apple Cider Caramel seemed a perfect treat for the holidays.

My first batch was not a complete success.  It turned out a little on the hard side but it DAMN SURE tasted good.  I used a big Le Creuset style pan, which while heavy duty – was too wide and I suspect threw the temperature off to the higher side.

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I also found I didn’t really have a way to package the caramels when I was done.  I improvised and used non stick aluminum foil – but those looked like discarded gum in the wrapper it came in and it still stuck.  Despite the obstacles,  the flavor was phenomenal so it was well worth another go.

Before the second batch I researched a little more background on making caramels.  I switched to a smaller pan –a vintage “Wonder Ware” pan from a set my grandmother gave me  (I treasure these pans).  Candy requires exact temperatures but I was scared they would still come out too hard I took the pan off the heat at 250.  (You may need to adjust your final temperature for your pan and stove.)

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I also added a dash more cream as I read someplace that more cream makes for softer caramels.  The result of this batch was perfection!  They were the perfect, light caramel brown.  They were ooey, gooey soft, melting on your tongue yet still holding their shape.    I wrapped them in little pieces of wax paper – gently twisting the ends – and bagged them up for New Years treats.

I’m not going to lie to you – cutting caramel into bite size pieces is a wicked bitch.  After they cooled for 10 minutes, I gave them a final light dusting of sea salt.  Then when the caramel has cooled for 2 hours –you move your batch – via the parchment paper that lined your pan with –  to a cutting board.  Then oil your knife – which I presume meant with vegetable oil (that’s what I used) to cut long rows – oiling after every cut.  Next, cut the rows into bite sized pieces.  I used two knives as I found – even with the oil – the caramel would stick to the knife and needed to be cleaned off.   I alternated the knives – soaking the blade in warm water to dissolve the sugar.

For the third batch I experimented with using Pear Apple Cider and pouring a bit of the caramel into a silicone mini muffin pan.  This worked great but the round size wasn’t conducive to pop in your mouth.  This led to a search for mini bar or tiny treat size, high temp silicone pans.   I found some bar shapes are easy to pop out and wrap.   I also invested in some better wrapping papers (from Candyland Crafts)  Wax paper works but still sticks a little and is prone to tearing.  These tips should help make your caramel a success.

So consider me a Caramel Convert – I’m drinking the Caramel Kool-Aid -so to speak.  Here’s the recipe!

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Apple Cider Caramels
From The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

Apple cider (sometimes called sweet or “soft” cider), as I’m referring to it here, is different from both apple juice and the hard, or alcoholic, fermented apple cider. It’s a fresh, unfiltered (it has sediment), raw apple juice — the juice literally pressed from fresh apples. It’s unpasteurized, and must be refrigerated, because it’s perishable. In the Northeast, I usually find it at farm stands and some grocery stores. I occasionally find vacuum- sealed bottles called apple cider in the juice aisle, but none of the bottled varieties that I’ve tried has the same delicate apple flavor as the more perishable stuff sold in the refrigerator section.

4 cups (945 ml) apple cider (be sure to use American made Apple Cider – check the label, you can also substitute Pear Cider – Don’t use cider made in China!)
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 teaspoons flaky sea salt, such as Maldon, or less of a finer one
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into chunks
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1/3 cup heavy cream
(I used a dash more)
Neutral oil for the knife (I used vegetable oil)

Boil the apple cider in a 3- to- 4- quart saucepan over high heat until it is reduced to a dark, thick syrup, between 1/3 and 1/2 cup in volume. This takes about 35 to 40 minutes on my stove. Stir occasionally.

Meanwhile, get your other ingredients in order, because you won’t have time to spare once the candy is cooking. Line the bottom and sides of an 8- inch straight- sided square metal baking pan with 2 long sheets of crisscrossed parchment. Set it aside. Stir the cinnamon and flaky salt together in a small dish.

Once you are finished reducing the apple cider, remove it from the heat and stir in the butter, sugars, and heavy cream. 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, (250 worked for me)  only about 5 minutes. Keep a close eye on it.

(Don’t have a candy or deep- fry thermometer? Have a bowl of very cold water ready, and cook the caramel until a tiny spoonful dropped into the water becomes firm, chewy, and able to be plied into a ball.)

Immediately remove caramel from heat, add the cinnamon- salt mixture, and give the caramel several stirs to distribute it evenly. Pour caramel into the prepared pan. Let it sit until cool and firm—about 2 hours, though it goes faster in the fridge. Once caramel is firm, use your parchment paper sling to transfer the block to a cutting board. Use a well- oiled knife, oiling it after each cut (trust me!), to cut the caramel into 1-by-1-inch squares. Wrap each one in a 4-inch square of waxed paper, twisting the sides to close. Caramels will be somewhat on the soft side at room temperature, and chewy/firm from the fridge.