Halloween is a big deal in Ireland. We don’t celebrate Guy Fawkes’ Night (for obvious reasons in Northern Ireland) but the Irish have been holding a celebration around this time since Celtic times when Samhain was the equivalent of New Year. The date merged with the Christian All Souls Day and All Hallows’ Eve to become Halloween. Traditionally the time when the link between the world of the living and the dead was closest, it is a time of supernatural feeling and rememberance of those passed on. Irish and Scottish emigrants to America took the traditional Halloween customs with them and those have been exported back across the Atlantic to the less spooky-minded folk of England in recent times.
As kids growing up in Belfast, Halloween was a big deal. Half term always fell around this time and we were off school to celebrate with a variety of traditions from a turnip lantern and full on costumes, trick or treating, apple bobbing, indoor fireworks (anything more explosive was banned) and a rich array of seasonal foods. Our mum made her legendary apple dumpling most years, steamed in a cloth, complete with silver coins for luck and it was also the time of year for barmbrack. But we also got in another one of our five a day with a toffee apple or two.
Wrapped in cellophane, these twinkled and crinkled in the run up to the big night and produced a fantastic crunch when we were finally allowed them. Sharp shattering toffee, softened but crunchy apple and a burst of tangy juice, these got eaten faster than any other apple in the year. These are the taste of childhood to me and I haven’t eaten one for years. Could I make them a touch more adult while keeping the memories?
One of my favourite things I’ve made all year was the Salted Caramel Butter Ice-Cream and thinking back on it inspired me to add a salted twist to toffee apples. It was the perfect time to use the Halen Môn Vanilla Sea Salt I’ve been hoarding for a while and make them salt sweet perfection. I got some lolly sticks off Ebay and stocked up on English apples at Brixton Farmers’ Market. I was ready to heat sugar to scary temperatures…
First up, scald your apples with just boiled water to take off any waxy coating they might have. Dry them completely and push the sticks into them firmly. Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper and heat in a small pan:
225g golden granulated sugar
about a heaped tablespoon golden syrup
1 tsp vinegar (I used cider)
1 tsp sea salt
Melt everything, bring to the boil and then get it all to the hard crack stage or approximately 150C. A sugar thermometer is a godsend here to make sure you don’t go over. Take the pan off the heat directly at this point and add in some red food colouring to get that proper candy apple red. I used a teaspoon of powdered colouring and I’d hazard a guess at the same of liquid. Natural isn’t the look we’re going for.
Keep the toffee molten and very liquid, putting back on a low or residual heat if needs be. Tilt the pan to one side to get the toffee as deep as possible and roll your apple in it, coating as high up as you can. Allow the excess the drip off into the pan and then set on the lined tray. Repeat until you run out of toffee. I got 6 small apples out of this, but probably could have done 8. Dollop any leftovers onto a tray to set like toffee and cover with chocolate or make spun sugar baskets or add a dash of bicarb for a cinder toffee-esque treat.
The toffee will set almost instantly on the apples and on the pan. Fill it with water and bring to the boil to save hours of soaking and scrubbing. Admire your handiwork and feel smug that you have not burnt yourself or the sugar. Then get stuck into a toffee apple as soon as possible.
They tasted exactly as I wanted. The flavour and feel of childhood but with a tiny tinge of adulthood from the salt. There was just a hint of vanilla, almost like a waft, rather than a flavour. You could add essence if you wanted a more defined taste. I scarfed mine in the same record speed as I used to, revelling in the soft apple and the shimmering crunchy toffee. I wrapped the remaining ones in cellophane and hoped fervently that no one called to trick or treat so I could eat the lot…