Before writing this post, I had never had a candy apple that I enjoyed. In the past, I had been drawn in by their glossy, hypnotic-red exterior—and inevitably ended up disappointed by a mealy, sub-par apple, wiping shards of sugar off of my nose.
But apples are amazing right now! And sugar is definitely good, always! So why is their union so consistently lackluster, artificial-tasting, and downright bad?
Answer: It doesn't have to be. Not if you source some top-notch apples and coat them lightly in melted, spiced sugar (and maybe even roll them in salted nuts or seeds, if you're over the top like that).
Candy apples that taste as good as they look Photo by Julia Gartland
When developing this recipe I sought out petite apples, a little bit smaller than a tennis ball, so that one could bite into them without having to unhinge their jaw. (The apple varietals I used were Spitzenberg and Empire, but any firm, slightly tart apple will work well.)
I flavored the sugar shell mixture with cinnamon oil (which has a much stronger kick than ground cinnamon and blends seamlessly into the melted sugar) and a shake of cayenne pepper, for spice. Finally, I went a bit over-the-top by rolling the bottoms of my just-dipped apples into roasted, salted pepitas. If you're not feeling that ambitious, they will still look—and taste—lovely without this extra step.
The only (slightly) tricky part of this recipe, besides hunting down small apples, is melting the sugar; you want to heat it to the hard crack stage so that it sets hard and shiny. The hard crack stage happens between 300 and 310°F (read all about sugar melting and caramel chemistry here), so the easiest way to get there is to use an (accurate) candy thermometer. However, if you don't have a candy thermometer, you can try the ice water method, though it won't be as consistent.
To use the ice water method, set a bowl of ice water and a clean spoon next to the stove before you begin melting the sugar. When the candy mixture has been bubbling for about 10 minutes, spoon about a teaspoon's worth into the ice water. When it forms hard, brittle strands that break when you try to bend them, the sugar is at the hard crack stage.
Once this happens, you've got to work quickly, lest your efforts turn to caramel (in which case you'd have very different apples): Take the sugar off the heat, stir in the cinnamon oil, cayenne, and food coloring (if using), and dip in the apples, rolling them around to coat. Immediately stamp and roll the bottoms of the sugared apples into the pepitas, if using. Let the finished apples set for a few minutes until sugar is completely hard. Serve as-is for a more "authentic" candy apple-eating experience, or slice into wedges. Convert everyone around you to the candy apple cult.