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Food and drink that has us seeing gold
Perfect fall apples are a prize all on their own, but it’s understandable if they seem even more appealing enrobed in sugary coatings. And we’d make a case that candied apples count as comfort food; although the term generally conjures up images of hearty, warm casseroles dishes, steaming pots, and fragrant baking pans, these nostalgia-inducing seasonal treats tug at the heartstrings as insistently as they tug at the teeth. Whether you prefer racy red candy apples or burnished amber caramel apples, you may be surprised at the long history behind each sweet dessert-on-a-stick.
While you probably don’t think a whole lot about either one until Halloween approaches, candy apples—that is, the kind encased in a high-gloss scarlet shell that cracks under your teeth (and hopefully doesn’t repay the favor)—were actually invented as a Christmas season treat. They’re credited to William Kolb, a Newark, N.J. candy maker, who dipped apples into melted red cinnamon candies to create fetchingly festive objects for a window display all the way back in 1908. He meant to entice people into his shop to buy the actual candies that were his stock-in-trade, and the brilliant glazed apples did attract attention, but people preferred to buy the decorations-cum-confections themselves. So he soon ramped up production and sold thousands of candy apples at five cents apiece. They became popular items all along the Jersey shore, and eventually, throughout the country.
The cheerful crimson shine of candied apples certainly fits in with the Christmas color palette, but now that we’ve come to associate them with Halloween, they just as easily evoke poison apples’ sinister splendor, beautiful enough to tempt anyone, Snow White or otherwise. And since apples come into season in fall, it makes sense that they’d be popular around Halloween, especially once they’re covered in candy (specifically, a mix of boiled sugar, corn syrup, water, and red food coloring that hardens as it cools on the surface of the dipped apples; cinnamon flavoring is often added too, to evoke the original flavor).
It’s possible that candy apples have predecessors in China. The traditional Chinese winter treat bing tanghulu are skewers of tart, tiny, bright red hawthorn berries (somewhat similar to American crabapples), coated in a hard sugar shell that cracks and crunches between the teeth. Legend says they’ve been around since the Song dynasty (960-1279). It’s possible, since, according to “Pickled, Potted, and Canned: How the Art and Science of Food Preserving Changed the World,” a Chinese emperor in the seventh century sent workmen to India, one of the places where sugarcane was first used, “to learn the art of sugar refining.” And “by the tenth century camel caravans were carrying ‘sand sugar’ [granulated sugar, boiled down from sugarcane juice] north through the empty deserts to Europe.”
In Europe, as in China, sugar was initially rare and expensive, and only for the wealthy, but it quickly morphed from medicinally administered substance to something appreciated more for its pleasant flavor—and ability to preserve fresh fruits. English poet John Keats’ poem “The Eve of St. Agnes” (which is set in the Middle Ages, but was published in 1820), mentions “candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd.” The fruits he was referring to would have been either packed in syrup or dried and sugar-coated (think crystallized ginger or candied citrus peel), but the specific mention of apples is interesting—even if it was just the word that sounded best, clearly, the notion of candied apples wasn’t strange.
While apples don’t get name-checked in the 1884 “Boston Cooking School Cook Book,” it does include a general recipe for candied or crystallized fruit or nuts, in which sugar syrup is boiled to the brittle “hard crack” stage and the fruit or nuts are dipped into it while “on the point of a large needle or fine skewer.” Oranges and cherries are suggested for the treatment, so it wouldn’t be surprising if apples were used in the same preparation too—in which case they would have predated William Kolb’s treats by about 24 years, but would have been missing the brilliant red color and the cinnamon flavor of his candy apples, traits which we automatically associate with the term today.
In any case, they were already considered “old-fashioned” by 1956, at least according to this ad for Sealtest’s Candied Apple flavor ice cream:
By comparison, caramel apples are thought to be positively newfangled.
As their name suggests, buttery caramel apples are dipped in rich, amber robes of sweet, creamy caramel, which sets up fairly firm and chewy—still a potential danger to your dental work. They’re often given another layer of toffee, chopped nuts, or candy to further gild the lily (or apple). Allegedly, these treats weren’t invented—or at least weren’t widely popularized—until the late 1950s, when a Kraft Foods employee, Dan Walker, experimented with leftover Halloween candy. He found that melting his employer’s soft caramel squares and dipping apples-on-a-stick in that golden goo was totally delicious. That’s the oft-repeated origin story anyway, but in fact, they existed in some extremely similar form long before that.
For instance, the 1920 edition of “Rigby’s Reliable Candy Teacher” includes a rather uninspiringly named “Apples on Stick” recipe that instructs you to “Take small apples and stick in each one at the top, a small wooden skewer, such as butchers use to pin roasts. Now cook a batch of Molasses Taffy [that recipe, also in the book, calls for six pounds of sugar, four pounds of corn syrup, two ounces of Nucoa Butter—a type of coconut oil-based margarine first marketed in 1917—a pound of regular butter, a quart of “good New Orleans molasses,” and a quart of water] to 280 degrees…then dip the apple in the hot batch so as to cover it completely. Let the surplus syrup drip off, then stand them on the slab until cold.”
Since that temperature falls within the “soft crack” stage, the texture of the coating would presumably be similar to saltwater taffy, rather than “hard crack” toffee, peppermint, or other hard candy—and candy apples. So, it’s plausible that candy makers may have offered caramel apples (though not necessarily by that name) since at least the 1920s.
Chicago’s Affy Tapple company claims that they produced “the first caramel apple created in the United States” in 1948, about a decade before Dan Walker of Kraft started tinkering. Unfortunately, Affy Tapple didn’t have the national distribution network and advertising resources the larger company did, so Kraft is usually credited with inventing caramel apples, even though (a) they didn’t, and (b) they never actually sold them ready-made. They can be crowned as the inventors of an easy method to make caramel apples at home, and they’ve printed their shortcut caramel apple recipe on the back of every bag of chewy Kraft caramel candies—and included the necessary wooden sticks for dipping—since at least the 1960s. (They also sold Wrapples in the 1970s, which were sort of like edible caramel shrinky dinks for apples.)
In France, candy apples are pommes d’amour, or love apples. In the U.K., they’re called toffee apples. (Certain mortars used in WWI were nicknamed “toffee apples,” thanks to their resemblance to the edible orbs-on-sticks; some sources claim that led to the origin of the phrase “How do you like them apples?”—which you’re now all but contractually obligated to say whenever you see a candy apple display in the company of pun-loving friends, bringing it full circle.)
To further confuse things, caramel apples are sometimes called taffy apples in America. And in Coney Island and surrounding areas, so-called jelly apples are a thing; they’re shiny and bright red like candy apples (and often covered in additional coatings like caramel apples), but are said to be a little softer to the bite and cherry flavored, which would fall in line with several recipes for cherry Jell-O candy apples floating around on the Internet.
Soon after candy apples took off in the early 1900s, they became a popular treat to hand out at Halloween, and remained a favorite for decades, until it became verboten to accept homemade goodies from strangers, due to concerns about hygiene and malicious tampering. But while razors and straight pins inside apples may have mostly been the stuff of stupid pranks and urban legends, there was a listeria outbreak related to caramel apples in 2014, when 35 people fell ill and 7 died.
The contamination was found to be caused by a combination of puncturing the apples with sticks, driving surface bacteria deep inside, and leaving them unrefrigerated for long periods of time afterward, encouraging said bacteria to proliferate. As long as you make sure everything, including your apples, are squeaky clean, and refrigerate any finished sweets you don’t eat right away, you should be perfectly safe.
So if you agree with the old Kraft advertising slogan—”It isn’t autumn without ’em!”—see how to make homemade candy apples and caramel apples for a sweet shot of sugary nostalgia.
Related Video: How to Make Easy Caramel Apple Lollipops
Header image courtesy of Shutterstock.
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