My younger son has been after me to make caramel apples with the apples we picked last weekend. I spotted a box that said "Make 12 Caramel Apples!" in the produce department at Tops, so I thought this would be an easy way to get the job done. I looked at the first step in the directions, which called for milk, so I assumed that was all I'd need. Turns out, I was wrong about a couple of things -- one, it wasn't an easy way to make caramel apples, and two, milk wasn't all I needed.
Before I recount the process, let me just say that I've got some experience in the art of making caramel apples. In my high school and college days, I worked at Six Flags Great America, a theme park north of Chicago. Most of my time there was in the merchandise department, selling souvenirs and other items in themed shops. One popular item was caramel apples, which were usually delivered from outside the park. Once in a while, however, we didn't get a caramel apple delivery, and I had to go to one of the park restaurants to make some. I'd dip each apple in a giant vat of molten caramel, then roll it around and around the side of the vat to get just the right thickness -- too much caramel and it ends up in a pool under the apple. The process took place in the front window of the restaurant, so everyone could watch me at work. If they weren't interested in the caramel dipping, the could have gotten some amusement watching my hair. Standing over that steamy vat made my hair frizz so much that I practically had a 'fro. Imagine that, along with the thick plastic-rimmed glasses that covered half of my face -- I was quite a fox!
Back to the present ... I did the first step -- mixing the mix with 8 ounces of milk. But step number two called for me to add 2 1/2 cups of sugar! I didn't have that much sugar, so I took the mixture off the heat and my husband amiably went to the store to get some. While he was gone, I stewed about the product's poor packaging -- it should say "just add milk and sugar" right on the front. When he returned, I put the mixture back on the heat, boiled it for two minutes, and then added all that sugar. It instructed me to bring the mixture to a boil, then boil until the candy reached the soft ball stage, stirring occasionally.
When I see "candy thermometer" and "soft ball stage" on directions, I always get a little nervous. This kind of candy making just isn't my strength. Well, the mixture boiled and boiled, and I stirred and stirred, but the candy temperature wasn't going up very quickly. I did get a chance to show my son the concept of the stages of candy making, dripping some of the liquid into ice water and forming it into a little ball. Hmmm ... how soft should that ball be? Could my thermometer be wrong? Finally I remembered a recipe I had seen that instructed you NOT to stir, and I stopped. Voila! The temperature went up quickly to to 242 degrees, and I removed it from the heat and allowed it to cool for 10 minutes (per the instructions).
When we started dipping the apple in the caramel, it was apparent that the mixture wasn't deep enough for dipping, so we rolled the apple in the caramel mixture. After a few apples, the mixture became too stiff, so I spread the caramel on the apples with a knife. Then the mixture became too thick for even a knife, and the stuff left in the pan looked like pralines.
The apples look pretty awful -- not nearly as beautiful as the ones I made in my Six Flags days -- and the caramel is so hard that it could pull your fillings out. I hate to let those apples go to waste, so I'm devising a strategy for getting the hard caramel off of them. I'm thinking of microwaving them, scraping the caramel off, then using the apples for applesauce.
If my son talks me into trying this again, I'm going to go my usual route of buying a package of caramels and melting them with a tablespoon or so of water. I always thought unwrapping the caramels was a big pain, but it's nothing compared to the process we went through today.