By Victoria Piccione ’16
As a native New Englander, the end of September and the whole of October have always had a special place in my heart. As much as I love watching the leaves turn and feeling a bit of a nip in the air – at last, an excuse to don cozy sweaters and curl up in soft blankets! – I think it’s really all of the desserts that make fall my favorite time of the year.
I can’t remember a single year growing up when we didn’t pile into the car in late September for our annual apple picking trip. As kids, we used to eat our weight in apples, but the real treat was always the fresh cider doughnuts that followed. A perk of having two younger siblings is that the childhood activities don’t stop even when you cease to be a kid. So last year, once again I piled into the car with my family, we ate (maybe half) our weight in apples, finished the day with cinnamon sugar cider doughnuts, and left with not one, but two half-bushel bags of freshly picked apples.
During the glory days of living in DeWolfe, baking was a weekly occurrence, so it seemed reasonable to bring back a half-bushel of apples for my own use at school. In the beginning, though, I thought I’d been blinded by ambition. Even after making two different kinds of apple crisps and an apple cobbler, it seemed like I hadn’t even begun to make a dent in the apples. Things were going to have to get creative, so I searched my favorite baking blogs for interesting alternatives to the standard apple pie, apple crisp, and baked apples. And thus began my beautiful love affair with salted caramel apple crumb bars.
I only had to make salted caramel sauce once to become completely obsessed. Chocolate chip cookie bars, buttercream frosting, pumpkin bread, I find an excuse to put caramel on and in everything. In these bars, the cinnamon-y, perfectly sweetened apple filling combined with the buttery crust and crumb topping are divine on their own, but the toasty saltiness of the caramel cuts through the apples and makes for a mouthwatering combination.
Though the recipe has three major steps – making the shortbread-like dough, preparing the apple filling, and making the salted caramel – it’s fairly straightforward, and the shortbread is used for both the crust and the crumble on top. Additionally, store-bought caramel would serve just as well. Preparing the caramel first gives it time to cool and thicken, and then preparing the apples gives them time to soak up all the sugary cinnamon-y goodness. The best part of this recipe? Apples are plentiful in the dining hall year-round, so even if you didn’t go apple picking or even if it’s the middle of February, these delicious salted caramel apple crumb bars are only ever a few dhall apples away!
Salted Caramel Apple Crumb Bars
Recipe adapted from Two Peas and Their Pod
Salted Caramel Sauce
2 cups granulated sugar
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into pieces*
1 cup heavy cream, room temperature*
1 tablespoon fleur de sel or kosher salt
(1) Before starting, make sure all of the ingredients are measured and ready to use so that once the caramel reaches the appropriate stage you can add them without hesitation. *Also, it’s essential that the butter and cream be at room temperature; if they are not, when you add them to the melted sugar, the sugar may harden rapidly into a nearly unusable mess that should be delicious caramel sauce.
(2) Heat the sugar over medium-high heat in the bottom of a heavy (relatively big) saucepan. When the sugar starts to melt, start whisking the sugar. The sugar will clump; just keep mixing. Once the sugar is melted, stop mixing and swirl the pan vigorously.
(3) Continue cooking the sugar until it reaches a deep amber color. Watch the pan closely so that you don’t overcook the caramel. If you have a candy thermometer on hand, cook the caramel until it reaches 350°F.
(4) Once the caramel reaches the right temperature/color, carefully add the butter. I’ll usually add one piece at a time and continue whisking vigorously until it’s fully combined. Just keep whisking. Be aggressive with the whisking.
(5) Remove the pan from the heat and carefully pour in the heavy cream, whisking as you pour. Whisk until the cream is incorporated and the caramel is smooth. Whisk in the fleur de sel or kosher salt.
(6) Let the caramel sauce cool in the pan for at least 10 minutes.
Note: this recipe makes a lot of caramel sauce! It can be stored in an air-tight container in the fridge for the next time you make cookie bars or decide to indulge in an ice cream sundae.
For the Apple Filling:
5 cups peeled and diced apples (I use Cortland or Granny Smith)
½ cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
For the crust:
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
To make the Apple Crumb Bars:
(1) Preheat the oven to 375°F. Spray a 9×13-inch baking pan with cooking spray and set aside.
(2) Place the apples in a large bowl. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, cornstarch, sugar, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg. Pour over the apples and mix until the apples are coated entirely. Set aside.
(3) In another large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon. Use your fingertips to incorporate the butter into the dry ingredients until a few small chunks of butter remain.
(4) In a separate bowl, mix the egg and vanilla together. Add into the flour and butter mixture and stir to combine. The dough will be crumbly and a little dry.
(5) Pat half of the dough into the prepared pan. Spread the apple mixture evenly over the bottom crust.
(6) Generously drizzle salted caramel sauce over the apple filling, at least ¾ cup. Crumble the remaining dough over the apple caramel layer and pat gently.
(7) Bake for 40-45 minutes, or until the top is golden brown. Cool completely. Cut into squares and drizzle salted caramel sauce.
Note: You can also find cinnamon and nutmeg where they keep spices in the dhall!