I remember my very first caramel apple. It was during grade school, at a friend's Halloween party. A bunch of us spent what felt like forever unwrapping bags of caramel candies, then watched as our friend's mother slowly melted them on the stove-top, stirring as the caramel began to bubble. We took turns dipping our apples in the melted caramel, waiting for the caramel to set up before decorating our creations with candies, sprinkles and nuts. The hardest part was trying to keep the caramel and decorations away from our costumes before trick-or-treating. Looking back, the group of us must have been a sticky mess to behold. But those apples, and the experience, were magical.

From carnivals to fairs, the candy-covered apple is one of those quintessential festival treats and, along with candy corn, a Halloween staple. Take a crisp apple and swirl it with a coating of rich caramel, or dip it in a pot of molten sugar as shiny and red as a new sports car.

And while you can find boutique options at candy counters and gourmet shops, this is one treat that's just as much fun to make at home. You can use some of the terrific local or heirloom apples at farmers markets, and you don't even need a fancy kit.

To make your own candy-coated apples, you really only need a few things: apples, popsicle or other sticks, the ingredients for your coating, a heavy pot and a candy thermometer.

The first thing to do is give your apples a good cleaning. Beyond the natural dirt, you'll need to remove any wax. Even just-picked apples from farmers markets often have a thin coating of wax — a natural preservative — that can make it difficult for sugar or other coatings to adhere properly. Blanch your apples for 10 seconds or so in boiling water treated with a little lemon juice or cider vinegar; the acid in the water will help break down the wax. Wipe the apples clean, then chill them in an ice bath to bring the temperature down so the residual heat doesn't cook the apples.

Caramel apples are probably the easiest ones to make, though nowadays I prefer to use homemade caramel over the packaged candies. Some brands melt well for a nice, smooth coating; others have added ingredients that prevent the candies from melting evenly, making for a chalky, rough coating. Not to mention, you can make your own caramel from scratch using just a handful of ingredients in about the time it takes to unwrap a bag of store-bought candies.

Making your own candy apples requires nothing more than cooked sugar, flavoring and a little food coloring. That, and a candy thermometer. Cooking sugar is a science, and you can't just eyeball when you think the sugar is done; it needs to reach the right temperature — whether you're making candy or caramel apples — for the final coating to have the proper consistency.

Recently, I tried making candied apples using nothing more than maple syrup. Simply cook a pot of syrup until it reaches 248 degrees, or "firm-ball" stage. Simple as this sounds, give yourself plenty of time. It takes about an hour for the syrup to gently boil to the right temperature, and you'll want to keep the heat low enough so the syrup doesn't boil over and burn. Once the sugar is ready, there are two ways to candy the apples. Dip them straight into the hot syrup for a glossy, toffee-like coating similar to the maple candy known as "sugar on snow." Or cool the syrup for a few minutes, then whisk it until it becomes opaque, before coating. The latter coating is similar to the molded candies you often find at East Coast stores shaped like maple leaves.

Another advantage to making your own caramel and candy apples is that the results are so elegant that you don't need all the extraneous toppings and decorations. Keep them for cookies — or costumes — and let the apples stand on their own.

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Candied Apples

1 hour. Makes 6 to 12 candied apples, depending on size.

Butter, for greasing the baking sheets

3 cups sugar

2/3 cup corn syrup

1 cup water

About 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

¼ teaspoon cinnamon oil or extract, if desired

Red or other food coloring (preferably gel coloring)

Apples, cleaned of dirt and wax, and fitted with popsicle sticks or skewers

1. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Butter or grease the paper and set the sheet aside.

2. In a small, heavy pot, combine the sugar, corn syrup and water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Continue cooking until a candy thermometer reaches 290 degrees. Remove the pan from heat and, when the bubbles subside, carefully stir the extract into the sugar mixture. Stir in a few drops of the food coloring.

3. Dip the apples into the mixture, coating on all sides and allowing any excess to drip back into the pot. Transfer the coated apples to the baking sheet to cool completely.

Note: From Noelle Carter.

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Salted Caramel Apples

30 minutes, plus cooling time. Makes about 12 caramel

apples, depending on size.

2 2/3 cups sugar

½ cup water

1 teaspoon corn syrup

1 cup heavy cream

¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons (¾ stick) butter

2½ teaspoons vanilla extract

Coarse sea salt, preferably Maldon, for sprinkling

Apples, cleaned of dirt and wax, and fitted with popsicle sticks or skewers

1. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Butter or grease the paper and set the sheet aside.

2. In a small, heavy pot, combine the sugar, water and corn syrup, stirring until the sugar has the consistency of wet sand. Place the saucepan over high heat and cook until the sugar dissolves and begins to boil. Do not stir the sugar, as this may cause it to seize.

3. While the sugar is cooking, combine the cream and butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Keep an eye on the sugar while you're heating the cream to keep it from scorching. Cook until the butter melts, stirring it into the cream. When the mixture has come to a simmer, remove from heat.

4. Continue to cook the sugar until it darkens to a rich caramel color, 7 to 10 minutes _ the sugar will darken quickly and noticeably and will smell faintly nutty. (For lighter caramel, simply cook the sugar to a lighter color.) Swirl the pan as the sugar darkens to judge the true color of the caramel (the sugar may darken in patches if there are hot spots on the stove). Watch carefully, as the sugar can easily overcook at this point and burn.

5. As soon as the color is darkened, remove the pan from the heat and quickly add the cream mixture in a slow, steady stream. The sugar will bubble and steam as the cream is added; be careful as both the mixture and steam are very hot.

6. Bring the mixture to a simmer and cook just until a candy thermometer inserted reaches 248 degrees. Carefully stir in the vanilla. Remove from heat.

7. Pour the caramel into a heatproof and microwave-safe bowl and set aside until the caramel begins to cool and thicken. You want the caramel to cool enough so the apples have a nice, thick coating as they are dipped, but still warm enough that the excess caramel drips off somewhat easily. If the caramel cools too much, microwave the caramel to warm and thin as needed.

8. Dip the apples in the caramel, coating them on all sides and allowing any excess to drip back into the pot. Transfer the coated apples to the baking sheet, sprinkle with sea salt, and set aside to cool completely.

Note: From Noelle Carter. For a thicker caramel coating, cool the caramel slightly before coating the apples. If the caramel becomes too thick, simply rewarm to thin.

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Maple Candy Apples

1 hour, 20 minutes. Makes 6 to 12 candied apples, depending on size.

1 quart maple syrup

Apples, cleaned of dirt and wax, and fitted with popsicle sticks or skewers

1. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Butter or grease the paper and set the sheet aside.

2. In a small, heavy pot, add the syrup. Very slowly boil the syrup over medium heat until a candy thermometer reaches 248 degrees, about 1 hour. Watch the syrup carefully so it does not boil over the sides of the pot, adjusting the heat as needed to keep the boiling slow but steady. Remove the pot from heat.

3. At this point, you can create two different types of maple candy coating: for a glossy coating similar to "sugar on snow" candy, simply dip the apples in the hot mixture. For a coating similar to molded maple candies, stir the mixture until it begins to crystallize and become opaque before dipping the apples.

4. Dip the apples in the hot mixture, coating them on all sides and allowing any excess to drip back into the pot. Transfer the coated apples to the baking sheet to cool completely.

Note: From Noelle Carter.

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