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.

Salted Caramel Ice Cream with Butter Pecans

Is it just me or do other people out there feel like total poseurs when deciding to make a dessert that follows the new supposed fad of combining sweet with salty. Whether is sea salt and caramel, bacon and chocolate, or potato chips and ice cream, this simple flavor combination seems to be taking over the world. So now when I make something along these lines or buy a salted chocolate bar, or whatever, I always think people view me condescendingly saying in their head, “oh, well she’s just following the crowd.” It’s either that or they just think I’m off my rocker, “What does she want salt on her cupcake for?”

Well I think that’s just bogus because as far as I can remember people were eating chocolate covered pretzels, apple pies with cheddar, and green olives with cream cheese (no wait, I think that was just me…) without thinking it was a big deal long before there was a mad rush to start sprinkling French salt onto candy. Our taste buds are programmed to send pleasure signals to our brain when salty and sweet are triggered at the same time. So with that said, I don’t think we can really call ”salty sweet” a fad along the lines of cake pops or macaroons but rather, simply science. Because unlike fads, salty sweet’s culinary phenomenon status and famous implementations are not due to trashy television hype but our ingrained systems of pleasure. Yet, I cannot help but think, will people get fed up with the publicity, get tired of feeling like they’re jumping on the bandwagon with what they eat for dessert. Will salted caramels ever become unpopular sending the likes of Artisan du Chocolat into bankruptcy? Or, is the flavor combo here to stay?

Well I like to think the latter because personally, I cannot get enough of the “oh so wrong but oh so right” sensation on my tongue whenever these flavors collide. So, I WILL keep baking up that combo. Call me what you like; call me a poseur, an obsessed fan, a copycat, or an infringer upon food fads, I don’t care. But, do not call me a failure when I make my desserts because if you could come over right now and try the salted caramel with butter pecan ice cream I have sitting in the freezer right now, I’d have you screaming and jumping up and down like an obsessed fan. You may even wait 60 minutes in line for a scoop. I wouldn’t doubt it.

This ice cream is so unreal, I suppose partially because it is homemade and as far as I’m now concerned that’s the only way to go. But apart from that, it’s flavor is so joltingly different, so unique and contrasting to what your used to that you. You can’t help but digging in for bite after bite with that ever-lingering question in your mind saying, what is it about that ice cream that is sooo good? Well, it’s the salty sweet my friends. It's the deeply caramelized sugar, cooked just to the point where it has a slight burnt taste, but one that you actually enjoy, like toasted marshmallows. It’s the salt, imbedded throughout, that hits you in the back of the tongue just after the sweet registers, creating this dueling tap-dance of tastes in the mouth. But then, there’s also those toasted pecans, enrobed in salted butter, that add body and crunch and, like the caramel, a deep smoked flavor.

It kind of satisfies everything you could ever want in one bite. It’s refreshing in the summer but I’d imagine it would be absolutely comforting in the fall and winter by itself or plopped on top of warm apple pie. Because oddly enough, the rich buttery caramel flavor brings warmth to the cold ice cream, yet another pleasing contrast to this dessert. I wish is could have a self-replenishing stock in the freezer because I don’t want it to end. But no fear, another batch would only be an hour of work and a quick churn away. May salty and sweet never die.

Salted Caramel Ice Cream with Butter Pecans
Ice cream recipe by Jeni Britton Bauer
makes 1 quart

The recipe is a little daunting because there is a quick meander into the world of candy making and cooking sugar. But it just involves a good read of instructions, proper preparation of ingredients, and a quick hand. Never fear, just go for it and if you’re confident, it should turn out great.

For the pecans
1½ cups pecan halves
1½ Tbs. melted butter
1/8 tsp. salt

For the ice cream
2 cups whole milk
1 Tbs. plus 1 tsp cornstarch
1½ oz softened cream cheese (3 Tbs)
3/8 tsp. sea salt
1¼ cups heavy cream
2 Tbs. light corn syrup
2/3 cup sugar
2 tsp. vanilla extract

First prepare the pecans. Mix the pecans with the melted butter and salt and mix to coat evenly. Lay them on a sheet pan and toast in a 350-degree oven for 8-10 minutes. Let them cool completely and chop into small pieces. Set aside.

Now prepare the ice cream. Mix 2 Tbs. of your milk in a small bowl with the cornstarch until you have a slurry and set aside. Mix the cream cheese with the salt in a large bowl and whisk until smooth. Mix the heavy cream with the corn syrup in a Pyrex liquid measuring cup with a pouring spout. Finally prepare an ice bath in a large bowl.

Pour the dry sugar in a large saucepan and set over medium heat. Have a heat-resistant spatula ready. Watch over the sugar and when you start to see the melted sugar underneath spouting out, gently push the dry sugar to the center of the pan to melt. Once completely melted, the color should look like an old copper penny. Continue to heat and gently stir. When the sugar all of the sudden starts to rapidly bubble and send up smoke, remove the pan from the heat and carefully add ¼ cup of the cream and corn syrup mixture, stirring constantly. It will splatter some so be careful. Once incorporated, slowly stir in the rest of the cream.

Once fully mixed, return the pot to a medium high heat and add the milk. If any sugar hardened on the spatula, it will melt into the mixture as it reheats. Bring the mixture to a boil, and let it boil rapidly for 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and slowly whisk in the cornstarch and milk slurry. Return to the heat for another minute, stirring constantly until slightly thickened. Remove from the heat.

Pour the caramel mixture slowly into the cream cheese while constantly whisking so that the cheese is fully and smoothly incorporated. Once everything is added, stir in the vanilla extract. If need be, strain the mixture through a mesh sieve. Pour everything into a large Ziploc freezer bag, seal, and place in the ice bath for 30 minutes, or until fully chilled.

Once chilled, freeze the mixture according to the ice cream maker’s instructions. When the ice cream looks like it is almost done (about 15-20 minutes), add in the pecans and continue churning until just combined. Transfer the ice cream to a container and store in the freezer at least 4 hours before serving.