Is good vegan caramel even possible? This is the kind of question that keeps my lactose-intolerant mind up half the night. One blog I read claimed that smashed figs are the vegan equivalent of caramel (!!!). Trying not to be snide here, but if overripe figs are caramel, I’m the Queen of England.
There is a nice local Northern California company called Sjaak’s Organic Chocolates that does a vegan nuts and chews that let’s be honest, is NOT See’s, but is pretty good considering. I think next to nuts and chocolate (see my post on Cadbury’s Whole Nut), caramel and nuts are one of my most important food groups. Really good caramel is made with both butter and cream — and sometimes also sweetened condensed milk — so I knew I was challenging myself to remove the lactose and still get a toothsome result. Also, candy is a nuisance, (see previous post on pralines). You can’t make it when it’s too humid out, you have to ensure all of your pots and tools are completely sterile (not a bad idea anyway!), and it helps to have a candy thermometer.
Baking is something I have been doing for so long it has become second nature to me. Not the case with candy. I relied heavily on excellent and detailed blog posts from both the GiversLog and OurBestBites.com. Both were dairy-based recipes so I didn’t use their ingredients. I was more indebted to them for techniques and tips. For the recipe, I borrowed Giver’s Log’s idea to incorporate maple syrup (I only use New England Grade B because of my Dad — you can order it from the Vermont Country Store or one of those tiny maple producers) but I skipped the molasses which I have noted in previous posts burns too quickly and tends to take over the flavor of whatever you are making. (A note on maple syrup: Grade B is richer than A and I have nothing against Canadian syrup, I just like to support the small producers in Northern New England who are losing maple season every year to climate change. I have wonderful childhood memories of those sugar maples and it will be sad when they no longer exist.)
Now that I have built the whole thing up so much, I have to confess that I pretty much made the caramel by ear and it worked fine. I tried to follow Giver’s Log’s advice about calibrating my candy thermometer beforehand by putting it in boiling water, but my heaviest pot (a Le Creuset stew pot) was so big, neither the hot water nor the caramel were actually deep enough to get a decent reading. Luckily, after the pralines I made nut brittle, so I more or less just let the caramel boil longer than I had for the pralines but took it off before it got to the brittle stage. I’m clearly a terrible example for this. Please consult the two wiser cooks referenced above for better instructions about that.
Vegan Maple Caramel Apples
6 small apples — washed, dried and chilled in the fridge
6 sticks (I split wooden chopsticks but you can buy sticks or use Popsicle sticks)
1 stick Earth Balance
1/3 cup Grade B Vermont Maple Syrup
1/3 cup dark Karo syrup (you can use light — I only have dark for some reason)
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup almond milk (I used sweetened vanilla)
1 cup chopped, roasted almonds (optional — you can roll your caramel apples in almost anything and/or drizzle chocolate over them afterwards)
Grease some parchment paper if you don’t have a silicon baking mat. I finally discovered a use for Silpat! I have never liked to bake with it (too wobbly) but it is the perfect solution for candy-making. The caramel won’t stick to it — period. Miraculous.
Wash and dry your apples. It’s important to get all of the wax off of them so the caramel sticks. Remove the stems and insert your sticks where the stems used to be. Put the apples in the fridge to further dry and chill.
Smash your nuts (I use a mallet and Ziplock bag), cookie crumbs, or whatever else you are planning to decorate your apples with. Once the caramel is ready, you won’t have much time.
Combine all of the ingredients except the nuts in the biggest, heaviest pan you have and stir, stir, stir. There are competing theories about not scraping down the sides of the pot, lest you disturb the crystals that are forming. I ignored them and scraped and my caramel was fine. Allow the mixture to reach a boil. Here is where you need your candy thermometer. You want the caramel to be between soft ball and firm ball (234 degrees and 248), depending on how loose you like your caramel. I let the caramel boil about five minutes, stirring constantly for fear it would burn, and it was a good dipping consistency after that.
Dip your apples in the caramel, twirling upside down to let it run down. Be super careful not to burn yourself. This process had me wishing they still made asbestos gloves for cooking! Put the finished apples on your Silpat or greased parchment. Wait a few minutes before rolling in nuts but don’t wait too long or they won’t stick.
I poured the leftover caramel directly onto the Silpat and added nuts. Later, I broke this up and wrapped the pieces in waxed paper. It was seriously delicious.