Saturday, December 15, 2012

Apple Cider Caramels

 Around this time of year, kitchens are filled with Christmas cookies, pies, and mugs of hot chocolate. I always like to give homemade candy as gifts; it's something that nearly everybody likes, and it can be enjoyed a few weeks after it's made, once the cookies and pies are long forgotten. Not that it ever lasts that long...
 My favorite winter drink is spiced apple cider. A big, steamy mug of it is the perfect way to start a cool morning or snowy afternoon. These caramels take everything that's so wonderful about this cozy drink and pack it into a bite-sized square, easy to nestle into decorative tins for gift-giving or slip into your bag for an afternoon treat.
  These apple cider flavor in these comes from several cups of apple cider, which are reduced into a syrupy consistency and made into a creamy candy with a hint of salt that makes them oh-so-addicting. These caramels are just the way I like them - chewy enough to make you take a minute or two of silence to eat them! If you want a slightly less chewy caramel, just cook the mixture for a bit less time than the recipe calls for. Wrap them up in paper, pack them up and make all of your loved ones worship you, or just eat half the pan straight from the fridge. It's okay, I won't judge.
Apple Cider Caramels

4 cups (945 ml) apple cider
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons flaky sea salt, or less of a finer one
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into chunks
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1/3 cup heavy cream
Neutral oil for the knife

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 should take about 35 to 40 minutes. 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 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, 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, 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 (less chewy after sitting for a day), and chewy/firm from the fridge.

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