Updated: December 2, 2012 1:56AM
Taffy apples, with their strange interlude of savory, sweet and tart flavors, dig themselves a necessary spot on autumn menus.
In the wake of apple season, the brisk weather signals the first sign of buxom caramel apples and taffy apples peering out from candy store windows and bakery kiosks.
If caramel and taffy apples were only bite-sized! Our fancy for this fall snack would be much more satisfied.
In an attempt to compress the flavors of a classic taffy apple, countless variations on the dessert have been conceived.
Candies, cookies, cakes and ice cream take partial credit for the reinvention, combining the tartness of green apples with the smooth sweetness of the caramel in an unusual form. With an even more modish twist (and in a portable form that keeps our faces and hands relatively sticky-free), caramel apple bars take the flavor of a traditional taffy apple and marry them to the that of a classic apple pie.
These crumbly bars exhibit more of the flavors of a pie — the spices, the buttery apples sauteed in brown sugar and, of course, the crumb topping complete with a salty medley of oats and nuts. But a gooey layer of caramel — either homemade or prepared — gives us that nostalgic childhood flavor from autumn that we love so much.
Store-bought caramels give these bars a stiffer consistency, while homemade caramels offer a creamier filling, but when baked together with the melange of all of the other flavors, homemade or store-bought won’t make a difference in taste.
Two steps of baking refine these bars — once for the crust and once for the filling. Let the finished bars sit overnight and they’ll slice like a dream in the morning. The warm spice of apple pie is there surrounded by intertwining flavors of caramel and nuts—a perfect autumn treat for lunches and mid-day snacks.
Taffy Apple Bars
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 medium tart (Granny Smith) apples, peeled, sliced, and cut in half
3 tablespoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
Pinch of ground ginger
1 14-ounce bag caramel candies, unwrapped or 2 cups of homemade caramels (about 50)
2 tablespoons heavy cream
FOR CRUST AND TOPPING:
11/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup old-fashioned oats
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup dark brown sugar, lightly packed
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
12 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 large egg yolk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 cup chopped peanuts or pecans
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a 13-by-9-inch glass baking pan with foil or parchment paper.
To make the filling, melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat and stir in the apple slices, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the apples are golden brown and caramelized, about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat.
Meanwhile, prepare the dough. In the bowl of a food processor, combine the flour, sugars, baking powder, salt and cinnamon and pulse once or twice just to blend. Add in the butter pieces and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Pulse in the egg yolk and vanilla, and lastly the oats. Pour onto a surface and knead until a crumbly dough comes together. Transfer about two-thirds of the dough mixture to the prepared baking pan and press down into an even layer. Bake until light golden, about 12-14 minutes.
To make the filling, combine the caramels and cream in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Melt the caramels, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is totally smooth. Remove from the heat and pour the caramel over the top of the prepared crust. Evenly layer the cooked apple slices on top of the caramel. Crumble the remaining dough over the top of the apple slices. Sprinkle the nuts on top.
Bake about 22-25 minutes or until the top is golden brown. Cool completely before slicing and serving.
Adapted from Caramel Apple Crumble Bars, “Annie’s Eats”; Caramel Apple Bars, Betty Crocker, www.bettycrocker.com.