1 Place sugar, butter, cream, corn syrup, molasses, vanilla, and salt (omit if using salted butter) in a thick-bottomed 3-4 quart saucepan. Heat on medium to medium low heat and stir slowly with a wooden spoon until the butter has melted and the sugar has dissolved. If you see sugar crystals on the edge of the pan, brush them down with a wet pastry brush.
2 Boil and stir until 240°F: Let the caramel mixture come to a rolling boil, adjusting the heat so that the caramel doesn’t boil over the pan. Continue to stir in a slow figure-eight pattern with a wooden spoon.
Monitor the temperature of the caramel with a candy thermometer. When the temperature of the mixture reaches 240°F (after about 15 minutes or so of boiling), remove from heat and pour into a metal bowl.
Let the hot caramel mixture sit in the bowl until the temperature cools to just below 200°F, at which point you are ready to dip the apples.
3 Prep apples: While the caramel sauce is cooking and cooling, line a baking sheet with either Silpat or buttered aluminum foil.
Insert the sticks (either lollipop sticks, thick wooden skewers, or chopsticks) into the center of the apples through the stem end.
4 Dip apples: When the caramel sauce has cooled sufficiently, working one at a time, dip the apples into the sauce.
Swirl each apple around in the sauce so that the caramel sauce completely coats the apple, except for the very top near the stick.
Pull the apple up from the sauce and let the excess caramel gently drip back into the bowl.
5 Chill: Place the coated apple onto the lined baking sheet. Some caramel sauce will form a little pool at the base of each apple. Refrigerate for 15 minutes.
6 Press caramel up against the sides of the apples: Once the caramel has chilled a few minutes, remove from the refrigerator and press the caramel that has pooled at the bottom of the apples up against the side of the apples.
7 Decorate: If you are using coatings such as sprinkles or chopped nuts, roll the caramel apples in them now. Then return the apples to the refrigerator and chill for at least another hour.
If giving as gifts, after the apples have completely chilled, wrap them in plastic wrap.