It's the perfect gift, as Fannie Farmer's classic cookbook states: "Homemade candy, made from real cream, butter, fresh nuts, and rich chocolate, is a real and wonderful surprise." And it's easier than you might think to whip up caramels, toffee, brittle, fudge and other treats.
A confession: I didn't preserve one thing this year. Despite the abundance of blackberries in San Francisco's hidden parks, despite rumors of huckleberries along the ridge in some of my favorite haunts across the bridge in West Marin, despite growing up in a small town once known as the apple capital of the world, the produce season slipped by so fast, I barely had time to rhapsodize over the perfect strawberry. I had even less time for pressure canning.
This poses two problems: (1) I love to capture Northern California's fleeting summer in a jar to savor during the winter rains, and (2) I am without my traditional homemade holiday gift.
As I stared woefully at my empty glass jars, the solution came to me: homemade candy.
I rarely eat candy, but there is something inexplicably appealing about melting together butter and chocolate, wrapping it carefully in pretty paper and then presenting the whole package with a flourish. It seems such an old-timey pursuit, too -- who has time to make candy from scratch when it's far simpler to buy it? Few of us these days would dream of pouring hot maple syrup onto clean snow a la Laura Ingalls Wilder.
But the secret is that candy is not difficult or time-consuming to create at all. Nor is it too expensive. And most important, it tastes really, really good -- far better, in my opinion, than the store-bought kind.
First, you need sugar. A lot of it. Then you'll probably need a good quantity of nuts, most certainly some chocolate, fresh butter and cream, possibly also some dried fruit. You'll need a candy thermometer and a bit of patience -- sometimes the hard ball stage takes a while to reach. Yet once it occurs, your creations will tempt the sweet tooth of even the staunchest sugar abstainer. (See a guide to all of the stages below.)
The candy section in the classic Fannie Farmer Cookbook begins with this sentence: "There is no reason except pure pleasure to make candy."
I love the idea of giving holiday gifts inspired by the "pure pleasure" of both the act of doing and the act of savoring. Presents, after all, are not to be taken lightly.
"A gift of homemade candy, made from real cream, butter, fresh nuts, and rich chocolate, is a real and wonderful surprise," Fannie continues. "A lively family can finish off a batch in a day. Everyone enjoys being offered a small rich sweet; it's a lovely indulgence at the end of a good meal."
This is not to discount the myriad holiday cakes and cookies, of course. They have their place and are very welcome. But there's something about candy at this time of year.
Candy-making can be undertaken as a solitary pursuit on a chilly afternoon -- mix up a pot of hot chocolate with homemade marshmallows if you're feeling fancy -- or with a group. Think pulling taffy with a friend or child, your hands well-buttered to stretch it fine, or simply marveling with your family that it's actually possible to "spin a thread" out of sugar and water. Candy-making involves a bit of science, a bit of ingenuity and a bit of elbow grease. When it all comes together, it's a special kind of magic.
I tend toward chocolate of all kinds. I've often made darkly rich truffles as holiday presents, advising the recipients to have only one or two at a time. But when I make up an entire box of homemade candy to give as a gift, I like to create a variety -- I'll scatter some sparkling, jewel-toned fruit jellies in between nut clusters and coconut fudge, maybe a few chocolate-dipped mints if I'm feeling ambitious. I'll wrap caramels in brown parchment paper and tie them up neatly with string; I'll consider making saltwater taffy. Get creative with packaging -- find old tins and wash and reuse them, and use unbleached or wax paper for wrapping rather than plastic.
Candies can be as easy or as complex as you wish, and I've tried to include some recipes from each end of the difficulty spectrum. Don't worry if they don't turn out to look "perfect" -- if the ingredients are decent quality and you take your time, you'll be rewarded with something marvelous.
Another confession: After the pots have been scrubbed (and scrubbed, to get rid of that sticky sugar residue) and stowed away, the kitchen still redolent with the good smells of melted butter and chocolate and cream, I find it almost impossible to resist sneaking little tastes of my homemade treats, no matter whether they're intended for others. Still -- that just gives me an excuse to drink another cup of hot chocolate and whip up another batch. This year, I bet my loved ones will hardly miss the applesauce.
- Weather certainly plays a role when you're making candy. On a humid day, candy requires longer cooking, and ingredients must be brought to a heat at least 2 degrees hotter than on dry days. "Clear, cool weather is a near-precondition for a large group of confections such as hard candies, glazes, divinities, fondant, nougat and those made with honey," according to the Joy of Cooking. In other words, these early winter days are perfect for candy-making (as long as it's not raining).
- Always use unsalted butter so you don't oversalt your creations. Also use it to grease the sides of the pan before adding ingredients.
- A candy thermometer is essential. I've tried to do without, and it was a mild disaster.
- All candy, once cooled, should be stored airtight. In general, the harder the candy, the longer it will keep (brittles about 2 weeks, caramels about 1 week).
- Remove hard brittle pieces from a pot, pan or utensils by filling the pan with water, putting in the utensils and simmering the water until the residue dissolves.
- Candy-making books abound, but my main guides have always been the classics: Joy of Cooking and Fannie Farmer Cookbook. I tend to use a basic recipe and then experiment and add my own variations, but keep it simple and let the good ingredients work their own particular charm.
Candy-making is defined by stages, which concerns the syrup that forms when you heat the sugar. Stages range from the thread stage, which occurs beginning at 230 degrees, when a bit of the sugar syrup is dripped from a spoon to form a thick thread, to the hard ball stage, which is when the syrup can be formed into a hard ball when pressed together, to the hard crack stage, which is when the syrup becomes brittle and crackable. Caramelized sugar occurs after a delicate dance of trying to melt the sugar until it becomes liquid and dark golden but just before it burns -- you definitely will have to start again if the sugar burns, I've learned from experience. The stages, adapted from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook:
- Thread: 230-235 degrees. The syrup makes a 2-inch coarse thread when dropped from a spoon.
- Soft Ball: 235-240 degrees. A small quantity of syrup dropped into chilled water forms a ball that does not disintegrate, but flattens out when picked up with the fingers.
- Firm Ball: 245-250 degrees. The ball will just hold its shape and will not flatten unless pressed with the fingers.
- Hard Ball: 250-265 degrees. The ball is more rigid but still pliable.
- Soft Crack: 270-290 degrees. The ball will just hold its shape and will not flatten unless pressed.
- Hard Crack: 300-310 degrees. The syrup separates into threads that are hard and brittle.
- Caramelized Sugar: Occurs at 310 to 338 degrees. Syrup will turn dark golden. At 350 it turns black, which means it has burned (and will taste bitter) and you'll have to start again.