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Flicker and spark

When I worked at a theatre company in my teens, one season there was a play that opened with Geroge Gershwin's “Rhapsody in Blue”. I fell for it at first listen, somewhere in between the flirting tumble of notes at the beginning and the arcing rise up the scale before the clarinet cascades in a sigh. It was summer, and the play was a love story. One of my friends had a breathless crush on the production's male lead. One afternoon, the power went out in the theatre, so the show continued by candlelight.

It was all pretty romantic. 

I'm keenly aware of how strange it sounds but when I was trying describe these apple cider caramels, namely caramels spiced with chai masala, strains of "Rhapsody in Blue" kept coming to mind.


Before I lose you entirely, it might be best to try to lay out what we have here. The recipe starts with reduced apple cider, bulked up with sugars and swirled with butter and cream. Then things perk up with a combination of spices; cinnamon, cardamom, clove, and ginger, flinty with black pepper, which taste to me how that Gershwin tune sounds.

Caramel can oftentimes be flat, all sugary heaviness, a dud. These caramels lilt; they flicker and spark. There are highs and lows, deep sweetness, prickling warmth, fragrance and flavour that rolls and develops. They're romance and drama wrapped up in brown paper, and totally worthy of infatuation.

spiced soft caramels

They are soft caramels, not the kind that stick to your teeth and threaten to pull out your molars, but yieldingly-so; they stretch only the tiniest bit when bitten, then relax, supple and dense as you chew. 

We made them by the trayful for gifts this December, in both a straightforward cinnamon version and this fussed up one. They were so popular, I'll be making them into January as well. I am not one for candy, usually, but found it easy enough to make an exception in this case (this being my other). And speaking of ease, these are a cinch as far as candy making goes; some boiling and stirring, then pouring out. Just make sure to keep an eye on the bubbling pot towards the end — when it comes to temperature the caramel will be a smidge lighter in colour than these photographs show, as the shade deepens with the addition of the spices, and even further when the candy cools. 

apple cider caramels spiced with chai masala

And for that ease, you get something stunning. A candy that's interesting yet familiar, and altogether dreamy. Candlelight not required.

Happy new year.



Modified slightly from Deb Perelman and her book The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook (Appetite by Random House, 2012), rewritten by me, except as noted.

Cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, clove and black pepper are fairly standard for chai masala — the mixture used, as you might gather, to flavour masala chai. I think the assortment of spices brings further complexity to the caramels, and works nicely with the apple cider. And, as it's evocative of gingersnaps and gingerbread, the blend matches well with the echoes of the holiday season. While it's not traditional in masala chai, if so inclined, seeds scraped from 1/2 a fresh vanilla bean can be added to the spiced salt.

The original caramel recipe calls for cinnamon alone, so feel free to use 1/2 teaspoon of the ground stuff if that is your preference.

Deb says: Apple cider (sometimes called sweet or “soft” cider), as I’m referring to it here, is different from both apple juice and the hard, or alcoholic, fermented apple cider. It’s a fresh, unfiltered (it has sediment), raw apple juice — the juice literally pressed from fresh apples. It’s unpasteurized, and must be refrigerated, because it’s perishable. In the Northeast, I usually find it at farm stands and some grocery stores. I occasionally find vacuum- sealed bottles called apple cider in the juice aisle, but none of the bottled varieties that I’ve tried has the same delicate apple flavor as the more perishable stuff sold in the refrigerator section.

4 cups (945 ml) apple cider
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger 
1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom 
A good pinch ground clove
A few turns of freshly-ground black pepper
2 teaspoons flaky sea salt, less of a fine-grained one
8 tablespoons (115 grams or 1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into chunks
1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar
1/2 cup (110 grams) packed light brown sugar
1/3 cup (80 ml) heavy cream
Neutral oil for the knife

Bring the apple cider to a boil in a large saucepan over high heat. Continue to boil, stirring occasionally, until transforms into a dark, thick syrup and is reduced to about 1/2-1/3 cup in volume, which should take around 35 to 40 minutes. 

Meanwhile, set out the other ingredients, as the candy comes together pretty quickly at the end. Line the bottom and sides of an 8-inch, straight-sided metal baking pan with a cross of parchment. Set aside. In a small bowl, stir together all the spices with the sea salt. 

Once the apple cider is reduced, remove it from the heat and quickly stir in the butter, sugars and heavy cream. Return the pot to medium-high heat and let it boil until a candy thermometer reads 252°F, about 5 minutes. 

Immediately remove the caramel from the heat. Add the spiced salt mixture, and give the caramel several stirs. Pour the caramel into the prepared pan and set it aside to cool; around 2 hours at room temperature, or faster in the fridge. Once the caramel is set, use the parchment paper sling to transfer the block of candy to a cutting board. With a well-oiled knife, cut the caramel into 1-by-1-inch squares. Place the cut pieces onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and place in the fridge for 10 minutes before wrapping. Once firmed up, wrap each in pieces of parchment or wax paper, twisting or folding closed. 

The caramels will be soft at room temperature, or can be kept firm in the fridge. They'll last about two weeks, either way. 

MAKES 64 candies. 


First photo taken from my Instagram. For those who asked about the recipe, this is for you. I hope you enjoy them. xo!

Reader Comments (33)

Oh yum, LOVE your addition of the spices. Happy New Years to you love xx

December 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEmma

What a fabulous recipe! Have the happiest of New Years. All the best in 2013!

December 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKatrina @ Warm Vanilla Sugar

Wow, they are just gorgeous! What a great gift.
Happy New Years!

December 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterIzy

Another caramel recipe to add to my repertoire...although at this point I might have to save this one for next year after all of the caramels I've indulged in thus far! I LOVE Deb's Apple Cider Caramels, and have made them about four times already since seeing them on her blog (to my credit, I did give most away). The last time I made them I thought about adding some spices, but wimped out at the last moment. Thanks for the inspiration!

December 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKay

These look amazing! I love the addition of the spices.

December 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSarah

This sounds so delicious! A quick question: I have a bottle of boiled apple cider that I bought from King Arthur Flour. Do you think I could just heat up 1/3 cup of that and then proceed with the recipe?

December 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterIrishJenn

They sound so wonderful. I don't make or eat caramels very often but a good one is hard to beat. Happy New Year xx

December 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterY

Wow, these are almost exactly like the caramels I have been making lately! And yes, they are ever so delicious. I have been using a couple of vanilla beans in them, the Teavana Maharajah Chai (toasted and ground), a hit of Brach's raw apple cider vinegar at the end, and pink Himalayan salt to finish. Holy hell, I can't stop, I'm going to eat another one right now. My dentist is going to love me.

January 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNatalie Webb

Happy New Year! Apple cider caramels sound simply divine. Such a classy start!

January 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJocelyn (Grandbaby Cakes)

Thanks Tara - My mother-in-law adores caramels - can't wait to make these for her upcoming birthday!

January 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPrairie

You've sold me - I am terribly romantic, and everything I just read put a spell on my heart. 'They flicker and spark'. Lovely.

January 1, 2013 | Unregistered Commentersarah

I have never made caramels, but these sure do look like ones to try out. What a brilliant idea with the chai and cider!

January 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPaola @gnom-gnom

Tara, I love your description of these caramels. It's simply magical. I feel like everyone's been talking non-stop about these and I love how you added some spices. These are on my to-do list for 2013. Happy New Year! xo

January 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKasey

mmm I love love love your description of these! I haven't made candy before, but these -- yoooo.

January 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAllison

These caramels sound so unique and fun to make! I love the cider and chai flavor to make such a different take on caramel!

January 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJulia

oh wow, these look amazing and perfect for my first foray into sweet making. Happy new year!!

January 3, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdervla @ The Curator

so delicious!

January 4, 2013 | Unregistered Commentersunday

Wow, I am totally sold on these. Your description of them has my mouth watering

January 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie

Happy new year, Tara. I have mixed feelings about caramels (you're right, most are duds) but these look and sound spectacular.

January 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKathryne

I'm not huge into making candy, but your musical description of these caramels has me hooked. Looks like I need a candy thermometer!

January 6, 2013 | Unregistered Commenteremiglia

I've seen these floating around but it's your lovely description that has me most pining for them. Lovely.

January 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAshley

Oh my gosh, these look amazing!!!

January 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

YUM! these look amazing! i'm a big fan of caramels! never thought about adding in apple cider! A must try recipe! thanks :)

ps. love ur photos!

January 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBonnie

Hello Tara!

I was interested in asking you about your photos, is there an e-mail address I can use to contact you? Thanks!

January 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAmarin

Thanks for this great recipe. Now I know how to do some caramel. Gonna try this one out and add this as my first ever caramel recipe. Hope you can visit my delicious Filipino food blog. I'm still making it more impressive though.

January 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterFilipino Food

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