This morning I was roused from sleep by a little pug burying himself under our bed linens. For the first time in many months the air in our bedroom was chilly. It was such a strong and obvious change, that I shouldn't have been surprised to discover that today is the autumnal equinox - happy first day of fall!
Today is one of two days that (reportedly) have equal portions of daylight and dark (the other being spring equinox). I've been told that it's a good time to evaluate priorities and strive for more balance in life. Since that's a bit overwhelming for me to think about -I fall short in several areas- I'll work on finding balance in my baking; a little victory to help me on the way to balancing other, bigger things in life.
To me, this treat is symbolic of today because it's all about contrast and balance. The crumbly shortbread crust is a nice counter to all that chewy caramel, and a sprinkling of smoked Maldon salt perfectly balances the sweetness.
I got the idea for these caramel bars after making cider caramels for the Etsy blog (see here). It's amazing how similar they taste to apple pie, so naturally I felt inspired to add a crust. After researching a few caramel bar recipes online, I decided to do some experimenting. I have to say, I love the results! These candies taste so much like apple pie.
To get that deliciously strong apple flavor, you'll need to buy a bottle of boiled cider. You can find it at kitchen specialty stores and online at King Arthur Flour. Or, if you're inclined to make your own, a substitute can be made from 2 1/2 cups sweetened apple cider simmered on the stove top until reduced to 1/2 cup. The flavor will be more subtle than the purchased boiled cider, but the caramels will still have a recognizable apple flavor.
Since the caramel is so soft and delectable, these bars need to be kept refrigerated or they will lose their shape. Alternatively, you can wrap the bars individually in wax paper as you would normally wrap caramels, and they can be stored at room temperature.
If you've never used Maldon flake salt before, then I urge you to get a small pinch tin. It's delicious on everything. The smoked variety gives caramel rich, sophisticated flavor. I'm hooked!
Apple Cider Caramel Bars with Smoked Maldon Salt
Yields about 15 bars
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons/141 g unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup/100 g granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
1 egg yolk
1 2/3 cups/210 g all purpose flour
1 cup/210 g unsalted butter
1 cup/220g dark brown sugar
3/4 cup/235g light corn syrup
1 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
1/4 cup/50 g granulated sugar
1/4 cup/80g sweetened condensed milk (not evaporated milk)
1/2 cup/150 g plus 1 tablespoon boiled apple cider, divided
1 teaspoon powdered cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg
Grease a 9x9-inch baking pan and line it with parchment paper so that two edges of the paper overhang the sides of the pan.
In a large bowl, mash the butter, sugar and salt together with a pastry blender or with a fork. Blend in the egg yolk. Blend in the flour until fine crumbs form. Pour the mixture into the bottom of the prepared pan and press it down evenly with your hands. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Farenheit.
Bake the crust for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the edges of the crust are golden brown. Remove from the oven and let the crust cool completely.
To make the caramel, combine the butter, brown sugar, corn syrup, salt, sugar, sweetened condensed milk and 1/2 cup boiled cider in a large pot. Clip a candy thermometer to the side of the pot bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring constantly, until the candy thermometer reads 248 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove from the heat and stir in the remaining 1 tablespoon of boiled cider, cinnamon and nutmeg.
Pour the caramel on top of the shortbread and refrigerate until firm, about 3 hours. Run a thin knife around the outer edge of the caramel and lift the block out using the two overhanging edges of parchment paper. Cut the block into bars or squares using a large sharp knife. Sprinkle with Maldon smoked flake sea salt before serving.
Wrap caramels so that they keep their shape, or keep the bars chilled in the refrigerator.