|Salted Vanilla Caramel Sauce and Amarosa apples|
Caramel and Apples. A perfect match.
When I was in elementary school and junior high school, one of my favorite snacks to have after school in the Fall was crisp, tart apple slices with caramel dip. Back then, my brothers and I used to unwrap a massive pile of Kraft caramels, open up a can of Eagle Brand’s sweetened condensed milk (of course there were and are other brands of caramels and condensed milk, but it seems we always used these), and melt them together over a double boiler until the caramel melted completely and combined with the sweetened condensed milk to form a pourable sauce. Great stuff, we were convinced.
Though it’s been a while since I’ve made an afternoon snack out of this combination, I still love the flavor of caramel and apple. There is something about the sticky, oozing, buttery sweetness of caramel that pairs so well with apples (and, well, ice cream and nuts or chocolate cake). I don’t miss the Kraft caramels at all (good thing, as you can’t get them here anyway); even back in Seattle I had graduated from the Kraft caramels of my youth, costing a couple of bucks for a large plastic bagful, to Fran’s dark chocolate gray sea salt caramels (seriously, if you haven’t tried this, treat yourself to some luxury and buy a few – they really are the best), purchased for a couple of bucks each, and far more satisfying.
Nowadays, with Fran’s as far away from Finland as a bag of Kraft’s caramels is, I make my own version of dark chocolate covered gray sea salt caramels every year at Christmastime. My friend and I get together in my small apartment kitchen and get an assembly line going. We’ve gotten a bit better at it: though the caramels don’t match Fran’s in appearance, I dare say that the flavor is right where I/we want it to be.
That doesn’t solve the problem of caramel dip or sauce, though…until I realized with a delayed “Aha!” that with a few adjustments, the sugar mass that becomes caramels in my Christmas treats could, in fact, be made into caramel sauce.
So with a wisdom tooth surgery just around the corner, and the knowledge that I would be eating nothing but cold, smooth food like yogurt and buttermilk and instant oatmeal for a few days, I settled in to make some caramel sauce to match with crunchy Amarosa apples for a new version of my childhood favorite. Yes, I know – I understand the irony of making a sugary treat just before visiting my dentist, but hey, life is about balance, and my balanced life includes the occasional treat.
This sauce is easy. Very easy. It’ll take a bit longer than the Kraft-condensed milk version, but the results are way better and so worth it. Just watch the sugar so that the color doesn’t get too dark. If you fail the first time; try again. You’ll get the hang of it quickly, and you won’t need a thermometer at all. If, once you’ve added the cream, the mixture seems too thick, add a little more cream. Once you chill it, it may be too thick to pour: just heat it up. I like my caramel sauce warmed up anyway when I pour it over ice cream or use it for apple dip. Oh – and for those of you making pumpkin cheesecake, apple pie or chocolate cake for Thanksgiving Day – this is a wonderful addition to the dessert table. Make a big batch and let people go happy pouring this over their dessert.
So here’s to a bit of indulgence. If you’re going to indulge, it might as well be with the best caramel you can find, created in your own kitchen. If you eat it with apples as I did, make sure to pair this with tart, crisp apples rather than sweet, soft ones to get the best contrast in flavor and texture.
Oh – and if you’re looking for a hostess gift, look no further. Put this sauce in a glass jar with a pretty label, and you’ll be making friends and influencing people in no time.
Salted Vanilla Caramel Sauce
2 1/2 cups / 7 dl white sugar
1/2 cup water
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
3/4 teaspoon Maldon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Combine the sugar and water in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Heat the mixture, stirring occasionally, until the sugar dissolves completely. If any sugar crystals stick to the side of the pan, use a wet pastry brush to push them back down into the mixture.
Once the sugar has dissolved, increase the heat to medium-high. Allow the mixture to cook without stirring, until it turns a pale golden brown, about 10 minutes. This means it is beginning to caramelize.
Now begin to watch the mixture closely as it transforms quickly from here. Swirl the pan gently so that the sugar mixture cooks evenly. Continue cooking until the mixture turns a dark reddish brown, smells distinctly nutty and caramel like, and begins to smoke just a little. Remove from heat.
Stir in 1/2 of the cream. The mixture will steam and bubble a lot – don’t worry; this is normal. Once the bubbles have subsided a little, add the remainder of the cream and stir it in until it is completely combined and the mixture is smooth. Stir in the salt and vanilla until thoroughly combined. All the mixture to stand and cool for 15 – 20 minutes.
Serve immediately, or store in a sealed glass container in the refrigerator for 2 – 3 weeks.
Makes about 2 1/2 cups.