Have you noticed that when it comes to Halloween we very happily stick to tradition? Once a Milky Way lover always a Milky Way lover, eh? You’ll get no complaint from me on this: fill my “Trick or Treat” bag with Hershey’s Miniatures and I’m happy as a clam — and very likely riding the subway next to someone dressed like one.
One of my Halloween traditions is Jack O’Lantern cookies, a tradition that got rolling when I realized my pumpkin carving skills lacked verve.
While it would be fun to regale you with stories of my Halloweens gone by, of bucolic adventures in pumpkin patches, and of coming back home to warm spiced cider after a chilly carouse collecting candy while wearing some brilliantly frightening costume that my Mother made from an old slipcover and a Quaker Oats box, the truth was a bit more…ordinary. I dressed as Yogi Bear in a costume we bought at Woolworth’s. This elaborate costume consisted of a hard plastic mask and a cape made from some scratchy material. Hey, what did I know? I thought it was great. I loved Yogi: he self-identified as being smarter than the average bear. (Everything I know about hubris I learned from Hannah-Barbera.)
Costumes aside, I’ve been trying to think of another holiday where store-bought stuff generally trumps anything you could make at home. Are you going to tell me that you can make candy corn better than the pros? I guess there’s also Easter, the other candy-fixated holiday. I could produce a heckuva Marshmallow Peep if I had to, but I know the real thing is better.
I claim one major and very personal loophole to all of this, at least where Halloween is concerned. I can’t abide store-bought Caramel Apples. Like Tuna Fish Salad, these are something that I must make at home. There are a couple of reasons why: the first is simply that I like a certain kind of apple, and if I am putting my poor, innocent fillings at risk, I like a nice cool, crunchy apple waiting for me on the other side of the caramel. No amount of Caramel can compensate for a mealy sub-par apple. (Apple snob!)
The second is that I can tell when an apple has not been not freshly dipped. The ones you buy in the store have been allowed to sit too long, and the apple sometimes has begun to seep into the caramel, and the caramel may have started to melt a bit. An iffy proposition at best. (Caramel snob!)
There is good news: as recipes go Caramel Apples are as easy as it gets: Insert stick into apple. Melt a bag of Kraft Caramels. Dip apples. (Done.)
For willpower-challenged folk (me), the hardest part is unwrapping the caramels. Physically easy, yes, but try unwrapping the entire bag without popping a few in your mouth. The second hardest part is finding the caramels. I remember a time when bags of Kraft Caramels were everywhere and usually displayed with the rest of the Halloween candy. Lately I find I have to hunt around the supermarket; I can’t find them in the drugstore, my Halloween candy pusher of choice. Ah, the lowly caramel. If Snickers are the George Clooney of Halloween candy, caramels must be Bob Denver.
One hint you may find useful: room temperature apples dip better than chilled apples; the caramel sticks to warm apples in a very smooth, even coat. If you use chilled apples you’ll cause the caramel to firm up too soon. (It does look a little spooky though.) In the picture above, the apple on the left was chilled. The others were room temperature and have the desired smooth, glossy look.
When you’re a kid it seems like you can eat Halloween candy without a worry in the world. While my love of caramel apples has not diminished, every time I take a bite I can’t help but think that I am potentially helping my dentist pay for a really nice beach house. With that in mind, allow me to present Caramel Apples v2.0 (rated M for Mature teeth.)
Let’s start with the presentation: since warm caramel sticks to your teeth less than cold, why not serve Caramel Apples hors d’oeuvre style, sliced, tooth-picked, and accompanied by a small pot of barely warm melted caramels for dipping. (Omit the toothpicks and this is mighty kid friendly too.) I would plop a whole dipped apple in the middle of the tray – mostly for the sake of drama.
And keep in mind that the smooth sweetness of caramel makes it a great delivery system for all manner of flavors. A touch of orange liqueur will give an old friend a citrusy twist, a hint of amaretto will add the merest Italian accent, and a wee dram of Bailey’s Irish liqueur will cause someone to steal the platter, apples and all.
For folks who will miss the crunch of the hardened caramel, might I suggest offering some crushed, sea-salted almonds to sprinkle on the dipped apple slices? (That would be enough to make me steal the entire tray.)
Apologies to my dentist: the beach house will have to wait another year.
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