Originally published on The Thirlby.
This is a (rather laborious) recipe for poptarts that I make and sell to raise money for a bail fund here in Baltimore. They’re inspired by Kellogg’s Frosted Brown Sugar Cinnamon Pop-Tarts, which I enjoy for nostalgic reasons but am avoiding in support of labor strike. (Edit 12/21/2021: they won!) Two things really stand out in this recipe: the Chinese five-spice powder and the boiled cider caramel. Both give what is otherwise a rather run-of-the-mill apple hand pie a delicately spiced, refreshingly tart kick in the pants. Even if you can’t be bothered to make these, try swapping in some five-spice in your holiday baking this year, and definitely take an hour or two to make some boiled cider caramel. It’s perfect for topping yogurt or oatmeal, blending into frosting, or serving alongside pie à la mode.
Boiled Cider Caramel
1 quart apple cider (use a fresh, raw, unpasteurized local apple cider if you can)
Optional: mulling spices (I like to add a few cinnamon sticks, a couple bay leaves, cloves, and cracked cardamom pods)
2 ½ cups (300 grams) all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons (25 grams) sugar
1 ½ teaspoons Chinese five-spice powder
2 sticks (226 grams) unsalted butter, cold from the fridge, cubed
½ cup ice cold water with a small splash of apple cider vinegar
⅔ cup apple butter, store bought or homemade
½ tablespoon cocoa powder
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon light brown sugar
½ teaspoon cinnamon
Glaze + Assembly
1 egg, for egg wash
1 ½ cups (170 grams) confectioners sugar
2 tablespoons boiled cider caramel
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1-2 tablespoons heavy cream
Dried or candied apple slices
Pour all your apple cider into a medium saucepan. Add your optional mulling spices, bring to a steady boil over medium heat, and allow the cider to reduce uncovered, until it’s about a fifth of its original volume. This should take about two hours, and you should end up with about 1 ½ cups of cider caramel. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature. It should be the texture of a liquid caramel sauce—if it’s too watery, simply return to heat and reduce further.
Once your caramel is cool, transfer to a blender and blend for 30 seconds to whip the caramel. This is an optional but recommended step—it makes for a creamier, more velvety caramel that’s lighter in color. And if you find that your caramel has set into a jelly-like consistency once cooled, blending will turn it back into a (thick) spreadable caramel. This will make more than you need for this recipe. It keeps in the fridge for at least two weeks.
In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, salt, sugar, and Chinese five-spice powder. Whisk to thoroughly combine.
Add cold butter to the flour mixture, toss to coat butter pieces in flour, and work them into the dough with your fingers. Do this by smearing the lumps of butter between your fingers to create large flat coins of butter. The dough is ready when you’re able to squeeze a handful of the flour mixture and it begins to hold together—it will still be dry and crumbly at this stage, like this!
Measure your cold water and add a splash of apple cider vinegar. One tablespoon at a time, add water to the dough and begin to bring it together, using either a fork or the fingers on your dominant hand. How much water you’ll need will depend on myriad factors—the flour you’re using, the weather, and how large your pieces of butter are—so go slowly. Every pie dough is different, but I usually need 6-8 tablespoons. And be gentle! You don’t want to overwork it.
As soon as your dough starts to come together in a cohesive ball—there will still be unincorporated flour in the bottom of your bowl—remove it to your workbench or counter next to the bowl, leaving dry bits behind. Add drops of water to the remaining dry flour in your bowl and combine just until it comes together, and then plop that on your larger dough ball that you set to the side.
Divide your dough ball into two even pieces, shape each into a rectangle, cover with plastic wrap, and chill for at least 30 minutes. You can do this step up to two days ahead of time.
In a small bowl, combine all filling ingredients and stir to combine. Cover and set aside in the fridge until you’re ready to assemble.
Assembly and Bake
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.
Remove your dough from the fridge and allow it to warm up for 5-10 minutes so it’s workable. (You may need more or less time, depending on how long it has been in the fridge.) On your workbench, cut a piece of parchment paper that would fit a 9 x 13 tray and lightly flour. Rolling your dough directly on parchment will make moving your dough to and from the fridge much easier, and will mean you can assemble directly onto your baking tray.
Unwrap one piece of dough and set it onto the middle of your parchment paper. Set the other wrapped piece of dough to the side.
Roll out your dough as evenly and symmetrically as possible to a 10 x 13 inch rectangle, trying to keep the edges and corners as straight and square as possible. Use your hands to square up edges if you need to. If your dough gets too warm and soft, pop it in the fridge to chill for 5-15 minutes.
Once you have a dough sheet that’s about 10 x 13 inches, trim the edges to create a clean rectangle that’s 9 x 12 inches. Measure and cut this into 9 even rectangles that are 3 x 4 inches.
In a small bowl, whisk your whole egg with a sprinkle of salt. Using a pastry brush or your finger, apply a thin layer of egg wash to the entire dough. These rectangles will be the bottom of your poptarts. Using the parchment underneath your rectangles, pull the entire sheet onto a baking tray and let chill in the fridge.
Repeat the rolling, trimming, cutting, and egg washing process with the second piece of dough. Then, using a fork or skewer, poke a series of holes all the way through the dough rectangles to create steam vents. This will be the top layer of your poptarts—only one set of 9 dough rectangles will have these steam holes! Set aside, or move to the fridge if the dough is getting warm.
Pull your first sheet of dough and the filling out of the fridge. Dollop a heaping tablespoon of filling into the center of each poptart bottom. Remove your tops from the fridge if necessary, and layer them over the bottoms. Press lightly around the edges of each poptart to seal in the filling. If a bit oozes, no biggie.
Using the back of a fork, press down and crimp all around the edges to secure the top to the bottom.
Bake at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes, until the edges, top, and bottom are taking on a golden brown color. Let cool for 5 minutes, then move to a cooling rack and cool for a further 20-30 minutes.
Glaze and Decorate
Make the glaze: whisk together confectioners sugar, boiled cider caramel, and vanilla extract. Add 1 tablespoon of heavy cream and whisk to combine. It should be a stiff glaze, but still spoonable, so that you can dollop it onto your poptarts without it running off the edges. If you need to thin your glaze out, add heavy cream by the teaspoon until you achieve the desired consistency. If you take it too far and need to thicken it, simply add a bit of confectioners sugar. Whisk well to ensure there are no lumps.
Place your cooling rack with poptarts over wax paper for easy cleanup. Spoon glaze—about 1-1 ½ tablespoons—over each poptart and lightly spread it around. No need to push it all the way to the edges, it’ll slowly coat the surface.
Top with freshly grated nutmeg, dandied or dried apple slices, flaky salt, what have you. The glaze will harden within an hour, and at that point they can be packed up. If you don’t care about a slightly runny glaze, you can eat them right away.