Apple Cider Caramels

It has very quickly started feeling like fall around here. The other night I walked outside and it smelled exactly like a snow and the my first thought really was, “oh god, winter actually is coming.” Luckily I’ve been packing my weekends so full with fall activities (i.e. haunted houses at BuschGardens), college homecomings at schools I didn’t even go to, drinking beers while wearing flannel. You know, the usual stuff) that it kinda keeps my mind off that sad fact.

You know what else makes me forget about the impending horrors of winter? These apple cider caramels! So do apple cider donuts for that matter, but that’s a story for a different time. I know that the Internet has already said a lot about these caramels and they need no further verification that they taste like the actual essence of fall itself, but here I am doing just that.

The intense apple flavor is what makes these caramels so notable. It has both that rich, nearly buttery flavor of caramelized apples while retaining that tart aspect that really gets the salivary glands going. This comes from boiling 4 cups of apple cider down to about a half cup of pure apple syrup. The syrup then gets a hefty dose of sugar, butter, and cream and flaky salt and cinnamon help to counterbalance the richness and sweetness. The end result is what I can only describe as all things that are good in one single bite. I would go on about how it makes me reminisce about walking through a brisk park while admiring the changing colors of the leaves or something along those lines, but then I might start sounding like this guy. So, I’ll just stop here before things get too carried away and tell you to make these now.

Apple Cider Caramels
Recipe from Deb Perelman’s Smitten Kitchen

4 cups apple cider
½ tsp cinnamon
2 tsp flaky sea salt
8 Tbs (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1 cup granulated sugar
½ cup packed light brown sugar
1/3 cups heavy cream

Pour the apple cider into a saucepan and heat on high until boiling. Continue boiling until you have only ½ cup of cider remaining. This should take 30 to 45 minutes. In the meantime, measure out all of your ingredients since the process goes rather quick once the cider is ready. Also, line the bottom and sides of a square brownie pan with 2 pieces of parchment paper.

Once the apple cider has reduced, remove from the heat and add in the sugars, butter and cream. Return to a medium-high heat and stir until all ingredients are melted and incorporated. Stop stirring and attach a candy thermometer to the side of the pan. Let the mixture boil until it reaches 252 degrees Fahrenheit. This will take 4-5 minutes.

Once it reaches temperature, remove the caramel from the heat, quickly stir in the cinnamon and salt and pour the caramel into the pan. Set aside until completely cool. You can also place it in the fridge in you are in a bit of a rush. To cut, remove from the pan and peel off the parchment paper and transfer the caramel to a cutting board. Coat the blade of a large knife in vegetable oil and cut in to 1-inch squares. Wrap each in parchment paper if you are patient like that.

Apple Tart (reprise)

Well, Halloween is over so I guess that means it’s Christmas, right? I hate to admit it but I think I’m getting in that holiday mood already… though in my defense it is hard to avoid. Certain little details are cueing me in on the festive spirit: the earthy, musky smell of decaying leaves on the side of the road, a bubbling pot of chili on the stove, a cool intake of breath mingling with the smell of wood smoke, Christmas lights on the trees outside my office. There’s no denying it, the holidays are here, ready or not.

And with all of that said, I’m starting to also get the baking itch. It is yet again time to start compiling the “need to make” cookie list with my sister (though we barely put a dent in last year’s), stocking up on butter like it’s a rare commodity, and coming up with any excuse to make the house smell like cinnamon.  And because I conveniently had a bag full of apples after a trip to the pumpkin patch last weekend it all began with an apple tart (again).

Yes, this one is extremely similar to the one from 3 years ago, albeit in a cooler looking pan, but that’s ok. A classic apple tart is one thing that certainly bears repeating. The dough comes together incredibly easily in the food processor and is filled with nothing but a whole lot of sliced apples. It gets a nice coating of sugar and butter before going into the oven, causing the tops of the apples to caramelize, and the whole thing is glazed with a layer of apricot jam after coming out of the oven. For the record, the dough recipe makes enough for two tarts, which means you can make one now and freeze the rest of the dough to make another on Thanksgiving. Can’t beat that!

You can use whatever tart pan you may have, it doesn’t have to be rectangular one like the one pictured.

Apple Tart
Adapted from Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa


For the Pastry
2 cups flour
½ tsp. salt
1 Tbs. sugar
12 Tbs. cold unsalted butter, diced
½ cup ice water

For the Tart
4-5 crisp/tart apples
¼ cup sugar
3 Tbs. cold unsalted butter, diced
¼ cup apricot jam

For the pastry, combine the flour, salt, and sugar in the food processor and pulse a few times to combine. Add in the butter and pulse until about 10-15 times until the butter is well distributed and the size of small peas. With the machine running, slowly pour in the water until the dough just comes together. Dump onto a floured surface and knead into a ball. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least an hour. 

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Peel the apples and cut them in half down the center. Use a melon baller and a knife to remove the core. Place each half cut side down and use a small sharp paring knife to cut the apples into thin slices.

Remove the pastry from the refrigerator and divide in half. Save the remaining half of the dough for a later use, freezing if needed. Use a rolling pin to roll out the dough until abut an inch bigger than the tart pan on all sides. Place into the pan and trim off the extra overhanging dough. Arrange the apples in the pan, flat side down so that they all fit snuggly inside. Sprinkle the sugar overtop and scatter the diced butter over the apples as well.  Add a dusting of cinnamon on top as well. Bake for 50-60 minutes, until the crust is golden and the apples are caramelized.  Right after taking the tart out of the oven, warm the apricot jam in a small saucepan and use a pastry brush to glaze the top of the tart. Allow to cool for an hour before serving. Delicious with vanilla ice cream!

Pome and Circumstance

As circumstance has it, I don’t really cook too much anymore. With a nighttime restaurant job, my college self’s pastime of making overly elaborate meals for nearly every meal is essentially gone. On the bright side, things are a good deal cheaper with a steady diet of yogurt and toast but unfortunately much less inventive.

However the current circumstance and the changes this has brought to my lifestyle has created a change in palate. I used to gravitate toward long lists of ingredients and the challenges that they offered. I’ve now had to make peace with the fact that I can’t quite take on those challenges every day anymore. But it’s been an easy transition. Perhaps my constant proximity to food, and very beautiful and luxurious at that, satiates the need for it. I now need, seek, and crave things that are simple, quick, and filling. Whether I’m eating lunch before work or scouring the fridge after a long night, all I want is a meal that is starchy, crunchy, juicy, and salty all that the same time. In short, bread, cheese, and pome fruits.

Something about the combination of salty fatty cheese (cheddar and goat are my current preference) with chewy and filling bread all offset by a palate cleansing and thirst-quenching bite of an apple or pear really seems to be all I need right now. Even when I’m having it for the fifth day in a row, I still drive home maybe a little too fast in my anticipation for my nightly cheese on toast.

Fortunately for me the fall season is fast approaching and my pome fruit addiction is about to become tastier with the soon-to-come abundance of these gems. A fresh picked apple or pear in incomparable in every aspect imaginable. Apples, in their weight, seem halved and their flesh denser and drier. The skin is thick and floral and they take twice as long to eat as a regular apple, though whether this is from their savored tastiness or substantiality, I do not know. Yet they still have just the right amount of juiciness that they spray a fine mist of sticky nectar with that first crisp bite. With fresh-picked pears, they are heavy in their syrupy juice so that it relentlessly drips down the chin. The texture is minimally gritty and rather thick and creamy like butter. Pure and simple, fresh and raw - that is the way I best like my pome fruits.

To change up the pace with the starch aspect of my new typical meal I made these cheesy savory scones. The recipe is by Nigel Slater from his book Ripe. He suggests them as a perfect accompaniment to a raw pear. He is quite correct with that note as he is on most things fruit and vegetable related. The book in its entirety is exquisite and a must have for anyone fascinated by nature’s sweetest produce and both the sweet and savory applications for them. The recipe, too, is quintessentially British as a savory take on the teatime classic and a base for some of the country’s finest cheeses. They are light and airy as a biscuit yet a little more moist and wet from the melting cheese dispersed throughout. The touch of spelt flour and hazelnuts adds a deep nuttiness and slight sweetness to counterbalance the salty cheese. Eaten warm with a smear of butter, a clean arugula salad, and, of course, a fresh juicy pear, it is a lunch I’d be glad to return to as my circumstances require.

Goat Cheese and Thyme Scones (with pears)
recipe adapted from Nigel Slater’s Ripe
makes 4 scones

1 cup all purpose flour
¾ cup spelt or whole wheat flour
1 Tbs baking powder
3 Tbs cold butter cut into small cubes
3½ oz shredded sharp cheddar cheese
2 oz goat cheese
1 tsp. chopped thyme
¼ cup hazelnuts, toasted and coarsely ground
½ cup buttermilk
salt and pepper
pears, for serving

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In a mixing bowl sift together the flours and the baking powder. Scatter the butter cubes over the flour and use your fingers to rub it into the flour until evenly distributed. Alternately, you could do this step in a food processor and transfer to a mixing bowl after. Add the goat and cheddar cheese, the thyme, the ground hazelnuts, and a pinch of salt and pepper to the flour and butter mixture and give a small stir to combine.

Pour the buttermilk over the flour mixture and use a fork to quickly bring the ingredients together into a firm ball of dough. If it looks a little too dry add a little more buttermilk. Dump onto a floured surface and shape into a round disk about 6 inches in diameter. Transfer to a lightly floured or parchment lined baking sheet. Using a knife, score a deep cross into the dough (making sure you don’t go all the way through to the baking sheet) so that you have 4 wedges. Sprinkle a little more cheese and thyme overtop.

Bake for 35 to 40 minutes until puffed and golden brown. Let cool for about 10 minutes before eating with a lovely autumn pear.

Apple Tart

Apple season always puts me in this crazed fanatic mood. I stock up on dozens and literally change all of my meals so that they somehow incorporate this beautiful seasonal ingredient. I’ve been making pork chops topped with sautéed apples and blue cheese, sweet potatoes stuffed with apples and cheddar, butternut squash soup sweetened with apples and cider. There is nothing comparable to the taste of a freshly picked Virginia apple. The skin is rough and bumpy, free from that awful wax that defiles the outside every store-bought variety. The flesh is firm and dense as if every square inch is packed with as much pure apple flavor as possible. And of course nothing beats that satisfying crunch with each and every bite.

But a celebration of the fall apple wouldn’t be complete without an apple pie, right? Well, the thing is, I’m not a huge pie fan. They are just so heavy and the crust seems to overtake the fruit inside, the ingredient that should stand out instead. The filling usually ends up as a sickeningly sweet and syrupy concoction that masks that great fruit flavor and that syrup eventually runs to the bottom and transforms what used to be a flaky crust into a pile of mush.

Yep, definitely don’t like pie too much.

But a tart…now a tart is not a pie. A tart takes all of the unfortunate aspects of pie and gets rid of them, leaving all that is good and tasty. Whether it’s a fruit tart, chocolate, frangipane, etc., it just seems to get the proportions right.

This simple apple tart I made is a proper tribute to the fall apple. A thin, flaky, and buttery crust serves as a sturdy base for a whole lot of pure and simple apple. No gelatinous flour sauce coats this fruit. It gets a little brush of butter, a sprinkling of coarse raw sugar, and a dash of cinnamon. That’s it. It bakes long and slow and the apples slowly soften, the sugars condensing and turning the tart flavors slightly sweeter. A sweet and toasty smell fills the air in a scent that speaks of nothing but fall. The crust crisps up, turning delicate and tender with a subtle crunch from the sugar and a thin glaze of jam puts a lightly sweet glisten over the top. It needs nothing on the side (though a little whipped cream or vanilla ice cream wouldn’t be bad at all) for the apples speak for themselves. If you want to celebrate apples this year, this is the way to do it.

Apple Tart
from Smitten Kitchen’s adaptation of Alice Water’s recipe

This tart actually keeps for a while in the fridge. Though it’s best warm and fresh out of the oven, it revives beautifully when recrisped in a toaster oven. Like any pie, it can also be frozen after cooling and reheated in the oven if you want to make it ahead of time. But it is so light and fresh and fragrant, you may not be able to resist from gobbling it up before it makes it to the freezer.

for the dough:
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ tsp. sugar
1/8 tsp. salt
6 Tbs. just-softened butter cut into cubes
3½ Tbs. cold water

for the filling
5 firm and tart apples (I used enterprise apples) peeled, cored, halved, and cut into thin half-circle slices
2 Tbs. butter, melted
3 Tbs. coarse sugar
a dash of cinnamon

for the glaze
your favorite jam

First make the dough. Mix the flour, salt, and sugar in a mixing bowl. Add 2 Tbs. of the butter. Rub the butter into the flour with the tips of your fingers until it resembles coarse crumbs. Add the rest of the butter and rub into the flour until you have pea-sized pieces. Dribble in the water, one Tbs. at a time and toss it into the butter and flour mixture with your hands. Continue adding the water (add more or less as needed) until the dough is able to form into a ball. Roll into a ball, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

While the dough is sitting in the fridge, you can work on preparing you apples, peeling, coring, halving, and cutting into thin slices. When ready to assemble, preheat oven to 400 degrees. Roll out the dough with a rolling pin until about 1 inch bigger that the tart pan on each side. Lightly grease the ban and drape the dough overtop, pressing it up the sides and letting the extra hang over the edge. Arrange the apple slices inside, flat, cut-side down, overlapping and working in a circle from the outside in until you use all of the apples. Take the overhanging crust and drape it over about two inches of the apples on the outside. Remove any excessive crust. Brush the melted butter over the apples and the crust and sprinkle over the sugar and a little bit of cinnamon. Bake for 45 minutes, turning every 15, until the crust is golden and the apples soft.

Remove from the oven to cool about 15 minutes before serving. Before serving, heat a small amount of your favorite jam or preserves (apple or apricot would be nice) in the microwave and brush a thin layer over the apples so they shine. Serve alone or with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.