Top Cook takes the treat in 'trick or treat' very seriously

STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Cherry Hill attorney June MacCarthy, making apples dipped in homemade caramel with her kids, Abigail and James.
STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Cherry Hill attorney June MacCarthy, making apples dipped in homemade caramel with her kids, Abigail and James.
Posted: October 18, 2013

CARAMEL apples are a staple of the Halloween season, but Cherry Hill resident June MacCarthy goes a step beyond the well-known "recipe" of unwrapping and melting bagged caramels.

"If we are going to eat treats, I like to know what the ingredients are instead of a bunch of chemicals I can't pronounce," MacCarthy said.

MacCarthy has taken cooking classes with her 9-year-old daughter, Abigail, at Haddonfield's In the Kitchen Cooking School. That's where they learned to make caramel from scratch. Having sampled its lighter, buttery taste, why go back to processed?

The main trick, MacCarthy noted, is to use a heavy-bottomed, high-sided sauce pan to cook the caramel slowly and evenly, and to keep it from boiling over. A candy thermometer is a must, too, so that the candy reaches the exact temperature for setting up.

Speaking of temperature, this liquid gets extremely hot. MacCarthy makes sure kids are several steps back from the stove. She shields her stirring hand with a glove oven mitt and uses a long-handled spoon.

This Halloween, mother and daughter will make candy corn on their own using a recipe that they found on a website.

"It's basically just a fondant recipe that is divided into the three colors and rolled together" MacCarthy said, with a confidence gained from the foundation techniques learned in the cooking classes, where the pair also made nonpareils and truffles.

Another Halloween project this year will be homemade, pumpkin-shaped marshmallows. They will experiment with cookie cutters or silpat ice-cube molds to make the pumpkins.

But MacCarthy's isn't just a candy kitchen.

Oatmeal cookies from scratch are often on the menu. MacCarthy adapted the standard recipe on the oatmeal box to include dried fruits, nuts, candy and a glaze. (See her recipe at

MacCarthy works full-time as an insurance defense attorney in the Haddonfield office of Thomas Paschos & Associates. During the school year, she leaves early to pick up the kids (she and husband Jim also have a 7-year-old son, James), then gets back to work after the children go to bed.

Given her schedule, she might be forgiven for ordering pizza every night. But "cooking is what I like to do," she said.

Planning family meals, MacCarthy often sketches out a week's worth and does much of the prep work on Sunday. If two recipes call for chopped onions, she'll prepare enough for both and store it in the refrigerator.

She often cooks a pork shoulder and uses that for several different meals. The Crock-Pot is also a go-to on busy weeknights. MacCarthy cuts the vegetables the night before (except potatoes, which she does in the a.m. so they won't discolor).

The kids help as much as time permits. Abigail and James even have their own knives, which they use under supervision.

"If they are helping [prepare a dish], they are more likely to try it," MacCarthy reasons.

Joy through several generations

Among her favorite cookbooks is an older edition of The Joy of Cooking, passed down from her mother, that has favorites that she grew up on. Her grandmother used to make its German Potato Salad every July Fourth. Her father made the peanut-butter cookies at Christmastime; MacCarthy still does.

For more contemporary cuisine, MacCarthy likes Jaimie Oliver's Cooking At Home because it is based on what he grows in his vegetable patch.

MacCarthy also views gardening as an extension of cooking and a way to interest her kids in eating what they grow.

"Anything I can do to get them to eat vegetables," she said.

MacCarthy's efforts to interest her kids in whole foods cooked from scratch seems to be working. James is looking forward to when he'll be old enough to come to cooking class with his mom and sister.

This recipe can be used as a dip for apple or pear slices. And the caramel can be prepared two or three days ahead, stored in the refrigerator and reheated.


8 large firm, tart apples such as Granny Smiths

8 wooden Popsicle-type sticks or heavy skewers

1 3/4 cups sugar (use brown sugar for a darker caramel)

3/4 cup light corn syrup

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt

1 3/4 cups heavy cream

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 cup chopped peanuts or other nuts (optional)

Line a baking sheet or pan with parchment or a silpat sheet.

Prepare an ice bath in a bowl big enough to fit the bottom of a large (6- to 8-quart), heavy-bottomed saucepan (fill bowl halfway with cold water and ice). Set aside.

Wash apples in hot water to remove wax coating. Dry thoroughly. Remove stems and insert a stick in the bottom of each apple. Place on a baking sheet until ready to dip.

In saucepan, heat sugar and corn syrup over medium-low heat, stirring gently until sugar dissolves. Continue to heat and stir until the mixture begins to turn a coppery amber color. Add cinnamon and salt. Add butter, stirring constantly, then slowly add cream.

The mixture will bubble; continue stirring carefully until the mixture reaches 240 degrees on a candy thermometer (thread to soft-ball stage), about 15-20 minutes.

Remove from heat and dip bottom of pan into ice bath. Let pan chill in ice bath until bubbles have subsided, approximately one minute.

Remove pan from ice bath and stir to incorporate chilled caramel from bottom.

Dip apples in the mixture one at a time and coat approximately three-quarters of the way up the sides. Pull the apple straight out and let the excess caramel drip into the pan for 10 to 15 seconds.

Flip, allowing the caramel to run toward the stick and set slightly. If using peanuts, flip stick-side up again and roll in nuts. Place on tray.

Repeat with other apples. If the caramel starts to get hard, reheat over low heat, stirring constantly.

Refrigerate apples until set, about 10 minutes. Caramel apples can be stored in the refrigerator for up to two days. Makes about 8 large, or 12 to 15 smaller apples.

Source: Adapted by June MacCarthy from and The Liddabit Sweets Candy Cookbook, by Liz Gutman and Jen King.

Lari Robling is the author of the cookbook Endangered Recipes: Too Good to Be Forgotten. Nothing makes her happier than championing the home cook. Follow her on Twitter @larirobling.

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