This is a story of summer love. When I was a child, The Great New York State Fair drew all the kids away from the mall for a couple of weeks in August. This is where I fell in love for the first time—with caramel apples. Sweet and chewy on the outside, tart and crisp on the inside. Could there be a better combination of flavors and textures? Not for me.
Fast-forward a few years (okay, many years), and my summer evenings are more likely spent on my porch with a nice glass of Zinfandel. So, you can imagine how intrigued I was when I stumbled upon a recipe for red-wine caramel apples. Brilliant! How had I never thought of this before? But after a little online research I was disheartened to find the general consensus of “the idea is a lot better than the result.” And this was a verdict I wasn’t willing to accept.
I’m a caramel apple purist and enjoy making my own caramel (which really is just about as easy as unwrapping all those little candies). So I started with a basic caramel recipe and replaced some of the standard heavy cream with red wine, which I reduced first. Not only did these coated apples have a beautiful wine-stained color, but the reduced wine deepened the caramel flavor and added a hint of rich fruitiness.
As I sat back and enjoyed my new grown-up treat, I wondered if other spirits could play well with the caramel. I whipped up another batch and subbed in reduced bourbon for the wine. The result was close to heaven—the deeply toasted caramel and vanilla flavors of the whiskey contrasted perfectly with the crisp-tart apple. After a little more experimenting, I found that Amaretto and Frangelico were also great partners for the caramel, enrobing the apples in nutty sweetness. For me, this took caramel apples from carnival treat to sophisticated fare that could please any grown-up taste.
I found that just about any red wine will work here, but bolder is definitely better. Wines such as Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon make a bigger impact on the final flavor of the caramel. Reducing the wine before adding it to the caramel burns off some of the alcohol and really concentrates the flavor.
I tested several different kinds of apples while developing this recipe and most were acceptable, but nothing was quite as good as Granny Smiths. With their distinct combo of crisp and tart, Grannies simultaneously contrast and complement the soft, sweet caramel. Impaling the apples on sticks makes them easier to dunk in the caramel—and gives you a boost of nostalgia.
Sugar is the key ingredient in caramel, and I found that brown sugar gave this caramel more depth, while the corn syrup helped provide a smooth, pliable texture. Use a medium saucepan with relatively high sides here. This is important because you want a pan with high enough sides that you’re protected from the boiling sugar, and you don’t want a pan that’s too wide, or you won’t have a deep enough pool for dunking apples at the end.
This is what separates chewy, gooey caramel from the hard candy stuff. Cream, along with the butter, not only adds richness but also gives this caramel a soft, silky texture. I add only ¾ cup here, reserving ¼ cup for stirring in at the end of cooking.
This is important. An instant-read thermometer or candy thermometer of any kind is really helpful when working with boiling sugar. The sugar mixture must reach, but not exceed, certain temperatures in order to set up properly. (More on that later.) For now, we’re looking for 235 degrees to give this mixture a good head start before adding the wine.
For safety’s sake, remove the pan from the heat before adding the wine. There is still alcohol in the wine and we really don’t want to ignite that along with a pot of boiling sugar. The mixture will bubble vigorously when you add the wine. This is normal. Return the pot back to the heat and give it a stir.
This second boil is important. If the sugar is not hot enough, the caramel will be too thin and run all over when you try to coat the apples. Too hot and it will break your teeth when you try to eat it. In this case, 255 degrees is the perfect temperature for thick, clingy caramel that is still luxuriously chewy.
There are two reasons I save some cream for the end of the recipe. First, I like the texture of the caramel best when a little cream was added at the end to soften and enrich the mixture. But an even better reason is that the mixture has to cool a bit before you start dunking your apples, and this late addition of cream helps speed that process along. I’m impatient, but letting the mixture cool to 200 degrees is key to getting the caramel to coat the apples just right, so a few minutes of waiting is a small price to pay.
Here is the part where the saucepan’s high sides come into play. Carefully tilt the pan to create a pool deep enough to dunk and swirl the apple, coating it almost all the way up to its neck. I like to leave a little naked apple at the top for color contrast. If you find that the caramel is getting too cool (read: thick) as you’re working, simply return it to very low heat to loosen it up. Just don’t let it simmer again or you could damage the texture of your finished product.
Here’s the real trick to getting the caramel to set nicely on the apple and not pool too much at the base as it cools. Hold the apple upside down for about 15 seconds. It’s easy but crucial. This helps keep the caramel suspended as its temperature is dropping, making it harder for gravity to take over when you set it down.
Fall in love.