Toffee apple exploded
Last week I was making a dinner inspired by Bram Stoker’s Dracula for Hallowe’en. Truth be told, though, for all that I love Gothic stories and horror movies I’ve never really been into All Hallow’s Eve as an event. Partly this is because it occurs merely a few days before, and has even sometimes come to overshadow, one of my favourite nights of the year: November 5th.
Bonfire Night, Fireworks Night, Guy Fawkes Night, call it what you will November 5th represents an opportunity for the truly primal delights of huge burning fires and the whizzing, banging sparkles of fireworks. It would be a truly cold soul that couldn’t be warmed by the transient delights of a rocket that bursts into sparkling colour high above or a wild, whirling Catherine Wheel spitting out sparks as it spins.
Here in York despite, or perhaps because of, the Gunpowder Plot’s explosives expert Fawkes calling our city home, there hasn’t been a big free public fireworks display in years. Given our lack of both funds and transport to make our way to expensive out of town bonfires or to other cities more happy to stump up the cash to brighten people’s days. Mostly, then, this year we’ve been left to watch people’s own fireworks across the rooftops out of the window. In the absence of a real firework display, I hoped to bring a bit of that same excitement to the kitchen.
Bonfire Night brings a huge mix of sensory stimulation and the traditional foods of the occasion are definitely a part of that. The Gunpowder Plot occurring at just this point where the nights have become darker and the weather significantly colder is very convenient for plenty of evening time for fires and fireworks, but requires hearty and warming foods. I have almost as many fond memories of lots of baked potatoes and sausages as I do of big, blazing bonfires. I wanted something sweet for my culinary tribute to Bonfire Night, though, so I turned to the autumnal staple of the toffee apple.
My first thought when it came to making the humble toffee apple into something a little more special was the age old culinary tactic of “deconstructing” it. Really, though, a toffee apple only has two principal components: apple and sugar. A deconstructed toffee apple would properly just be an apple and a little pile of sugar. Besides, as a firework themed desert you’d really want something that was more “exploded” than “deconstructed”.
My first thought was to make something that involved fire, perhaps flambeing something using Calvados, the apple brandy. Alcohol burns when it is at least 80 proof, which Calvados is, so this would give the toffee apple an impressive bonfire style visual. Incidentally, the “proof” that measures how alcoholic a drink has an appropriately gunpowder theme. In 1700s a drink’s alcohol content was proved by pouring it on gunpowder and setting it alight. When it burnt well it was 100 degrees proof, about 57% ethanol. These days in America, where “proof” seems a more commonly used term, alcohol “proof” is simply twice the alcohol by volume. Calvados has a 40% alcohol by volume content, so should burn, but perhaps not as well as a stronger drink.
My love of popping candy has come up before and it’s fizzing and popping sensations are often used to create “exploding” desserts, so that definitely seemed like something that I could add to make my toffee apple a little more fireworks-y. Popping candy works by releasing carbon dioxide when it gets wet. Typically this is on your tongue, but if it’s in a dish with something wet then it can release all its pop before it ever makes it into your mouth, so perhaps wouldn’t work so well in something that involved alcohol as well.
Considering this, I decided to separate the two elements of the dessert into a bonfire shot served with a firework dessert. Starting with the apple, then, I stewed chunks of sweet, crisp apple in butter and golden caster sugar and caramelised them with a little cinnamon.
I wanted to add a hard caramel element to the apple, so decided to make little chunks of praline. Made from caramelised sugar and almonds, praline dates back to the 1600s, the same era as the Gunpowder Plot, when it was made in the kitchens of the Marshal du Plessis-Praslin, after whom the confection was named.
Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat in her epic History of Food gives a rather charming, if possibly apocryphal, origin story for praline. According to Toussaint-Samat, du Plessis-Praslin’s officer of the table Lassagne, no relation to the pasta, discovered his children in the servants’ quarters caramelising almonds stolen from the kitchen. “The wonderful odour emanating from the spot where the little cooks were at work gave away their guilty secret and its delicious results,” Toussaint-Samat writes, “His mouth watering, Lassagne promised to keep quiet in exchange for some of the sweetmeats. He perfected the recipe and took it to the court of Louis XIII.”
On top of the chunks of caramelised apple and crunchy praline I wanted something to add smoothness. As I wrote a couple of weeks back, apple is great when combined with ice cream, so that seemed the perfect addition here. In a different way of using the caramel element of the toffee apple, then, I made an ice cream from caramelising sugar and mixing it with vanilla and cream.
Flavourwise, the caramelised apple, almond praline and caramel vanilla ice cream would make a fitting toffee apple-esque combination, but it kind of lacked the element of unnecessarily spectacular decoration that evokes fireworks. I decided, then, to suggest the exploding webs of sparkling light in a firework with yet another use of caramel: spun sugar. It’s a technique that I have never really used before, but I’ve seen it done. I melted a saucepan full of sugar until it made caramel and then used the back of a fork to flick strands of it over a knife steel. Using this method I made a wiry spun sugar nest that could sit atop my toffee apple confection to suggest the “exploding” aspect I wanted.
There was still a little something missing, a little extra sparkle and bang. Bonfire night is a multi-sensory experience, a great firework brings the loud bang of an explosion, a whiff of gunpowder and the sight of colours and glitter spraying across the sky. I wanted my toffee apple dessert to convey all of this.
Bonfire Night comes close enough to Christmas that Christmas crackers are already in the shops, but far enough away that they are being sold cheap. This gave me an idea to use the fun and the slightly explosive aspects of the Christmas cracker for something like a firework: the cracker snap bringing the bang and that brief smell of gunpowder, the tearing open of the cracker itself raining the toppings onto the apple.
So, I bought some half price Christmas crackers and cut them open, removing the snaps and using the tissue paper hats to make little paper sachets with the cracker snap attached (something that required a fair bit of assistance from Professor Plum).
For the firework topping I returned to the idea of popping candy. To mix with this, though, I wanted a little extra fizz and colour, so I made a sherbet from freeze dried raspberries, icing sugar, bicarbonate of soda and citric acid. This I mixed with the popping candy and some edible glitter to give it some shine and sparkle and added a spoonful of this to the little tissue paper crackers.
This, then, was my firework themed dessert, which I served with a shot of Calvados and raspberry gin liqueur, in order to pair with the raspberry sherbet topping. I hoped that heating the Calvados would allow it to go up in flames as impressively as a real bonfire. It didn’t, despite tasting enormously alcoholic the shot only burned incredibly fleetingly.
As for the “toffee apple”, it looked good and the cracker gave it both a bang and, thanks to the sherbet and popping candy topping, a lot of fizz. Apples, sugar and ice cream is always going to be a winner, but the many different forms of sugar and caramel involved made this just a little too sickly sweet. Kind of like a real toffee apple, then.
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: I’ve got a sweeter tooth than Colonel Mustard, I guess, because I didn’t find it too sickly, but I do think this needs a few more goes before it’s completely coherent. The ice cream needed longer to set, the paper twists had a bit too much sherbert, the sugar work went soft and the alcohol didn’t light. It sounds like a catalogue of errors, but actually it came very close – the tweaks needed are tiny, really – and I hope we have another go next year.