Spiced Caramel Apple Sauce

You know the flavor contrast you get when you bite into a perfect caramel apple—first rich, creamy, sweet caramel, and then bracingly tart, juicy apple? Add half a dozen spices and that’s what this caramel sauce tastes like.

At first, you think, “Oh yeah, luxuriously rich, wonderfully spiced caramel,” and then POW, the acidity of the reduced apple cider kicks in and your mouth goes, “Hey, whoa, what’s happening here?” I love this double-punch effect.

It’s especially transporting when combined with another quintessential fall flavor, such as sweet corn, pumpkin, pear, peach, or sweetpotato. Whatever you pair it with though must have enough flavor oomph to hold its own with the caramel—or alternatively, the amount of caramel must be moderated to allow the other flavor to share the stage.

Recently, I paired this sauce with Sweet Corn Ice Cream and Gingersnap Crumble. It was so over-the-top fantastic that I was actually a little awed with myself. MauiJim, who usually balks when I present what he refers to as “Weird Ass Ice Cream,” claimed he would take only one bite and then proceeded to devour the entire bowl. (And yes of course that recipe will post next.)

So just like Grandma Mary always used to do when she made an especially awesome dish, I pranced around the kitchen for a while, arms swaying overhead, chanting, “I’m a genius, I’m a genius.” I know she is smiling.

Technique Note   The pictures show an early test in which I toasted the spices lightly and then built the caramel sauce on top of them. That approach works, but the spices are prone to burning and the process is a bit awkward, with no appreciable benefit. So in later tests, I reverted to my tried-and-true method of infusing the apple cider with the spices before making the caramel. The recipe below reflects that approach. It is the method I used for this similar, but completely lean (no cream or butter) caramel sauce: Spiced Apple Cider Caramel Sauce.

Spiced Caramel Apple Sauce

This sauce combines rich, creamy caramel with warming spices and the bracing acid tang of reduced apple cider. It’s seductive; you might want to make a double batch.

1 cup fresh apple cider or juice (preferably organic and not pasteurized or from concentrate)
one 4-inch length vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1 cinnamon stick, broken
1 teaspoon rainbow peppercorns
4 whole allspice
2 whole star anise
1 tiny dried Thai chile 
2 green cardamom pods, crushed slightly

½ cup heavy cream
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces

1 cup sugar
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
½ cup water
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt

  1. In a small saucepan, add the apple juice, vanilla bean, cinnamon, peppercorns, allspice, star anise, Thai chiles, and cardamom. Simmer slowly, partially covered, for about ½ hour, to allow the spices to flavor the cider. Then uncover and reduce to ½ cup. Reserve. Strain the cider just prior to use and discard the spices. The vanilla bean can be rinsed, dried, and reused later.
  2. In a 4-cup glass measuring cup or bowl, add the cream and butter, and microwave for about 1 minute, just until the butter melts. You may need to whisk the mixture briefly. Reserve.
  3. In a medium saucepan, combine sugar, cream of tartar, and water in a small saucepan and set over medium-low heat. Stir constantly until the sugar dissolves and the syrup clears. To prevent crystallization, do not rush this first step; use a pastry brush dipped in cold water to wash down the sides of the saucepan.
  4. When the sugar fully dissolves, raise the heat, bring the syrup to a boil, and stop whisking. Continue heating without stirring until the syrup turns a medium-dark amber color. (An instant-read thermometer will test at 340°, but the visual cue is all you need to rely on.)
  5. Remove from the heat, and immediately and carefully (stand back and use a long handled whisk) pour in the hot cream mixture and ½ cup reduced, strained apple cider. The mixture will sputter and foam up, but the pan should be large enough to contain it. Continue whisking to incorporate the cream mixture and reduced cider, and to dissolve any hard bits of caramel.
  6. Whisk in the salt.
  7. Pour into a bowl (strain if you think it necessary) and let cool to room temperature.
  8. Refrigerate until you are ready to use, and then briefly microwave to rewarm. If necessary, add hot water or apple cider to thin the sauce to pouring consistency.

Makes 1 cup.

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  1. Penny Wolf says

    This sauce would be great on so many things, including just a spoon! Start your morning right with
    cooked apples, greek yogurt, toasted walnuts, and your sauce.

  2. says

    Thank you, Susan! I learned something new as usual around Luna Cafe. I didn’t know you could make caramel without milk. I went back and read your apple cider caramel sauce and now I know more about it. I’m excited because I actually would like to make some caramel sauce and would rather skip the milk. I’m eagerly awaiting the Sweet Corn Ice Cream with Gingersnap Crumble– so funny about your husband’s reaction! If it’s as good as it sounds you really should be proud. And one more thing– I love the way those spices look on the plate! With all those colors, shapes, and sizes like the star anise and the multicolored peppercorns, I’m charmed!
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