Candy-making carries a mystique that many folks find intimidating, but there is simply nothing that satisfies a holiday craving like homemade sweets.
We've all heard tales of fudge that wouldn't set or brittle that just would not break, but with a bit of care and a little understanding, comforting confection is easy to achieve.
Employ these few practical suggestions, and you can make sweet bites to share with family and friends this holiday or any day. Who knows? Your candy may become a family tradition.
FRENCH FUDGE fills any candy bowl with classic, creamy goodness.
My grandmother's specialty was divinity, or sea foam candy. She made it often, choosing days carefully after consulting the weather report. If it rained, her candy-making was postponed. If it was dry and clear, out came the old candy pot, spoon and sugar canister.
My mother's specialty is fudge. Chocolate, peanut butter, white fudge studded with red cherries and, her favorite, pineapple. She has a special fudge platter from her high school days.
Yellow roses rim the large, deep dish that came from redeeming Octagon bar soap wrappers.
I am partial to fudge, too. We are always looking for new and unique flavors.
The vote is still out on the carrot and prune fudges we recently tried.
Through practice and advice from others, I've found candy-making easy when three basic tips are followed.
Understanding candy temperatures is key to candy success. Each level of heat is called a stage. The following basic stages describe what to look for while cooking sugar syrup.
Soft ball: 234 to 240 degrees. If a spoonful of syrup is dropped in a cup of cold water, it will quickly form a soft ball that loses its shape as soon as removed from the water. Most fudges and fondants are cooked to this stage.
Firm ball: 245 to 250 degrees. This syrup will form a firm, but pliable ball in cold water. It will hold its shape momentarily out of water. Most divinity and caramels are cooked to this stage.
Hard ball: 255 to 265 degrees. This syrup forms a hard ball, will not lose its shape and can be rolled around on a platter. Most taffy is cooked to this stage.
Soft or light crack: 270 to 280 degrees. This syrup forms brittle threads in cold water that melt when taken from the water. Most butterscotch is cooked to this stage.
Hard crack: 285 to 300 degrees. This syrup forms brittle threads in cold water that stay brittle out of water. Most brittle candies such as peanut brittle are cooked to this stage.
You can test the syrup in two ways. A candy thermometer, which costs $10 to $30, can be purchased at hardware, kitchen stores and large discount stores.
It is the most reliable.
You also can use the old-fashioned cold water method. You'll need a cup of cold water ready as you are cooking the syrup.
As soon as the syrup has boiled at least 5 minutes, drop a teaspoonful of syrup into the cup of water. It should sink to the bottom.
Use your finger to see if it holds shape, cracks, dissolves or spreads.
If you are a novice at candy-making, you should remove the pan from the heat so as not to scorch the syrup while testing it. Be careful not to get hot syrup on your skin.
Controlling sugar crystallization is another key to success. Only a few candies, such as fondant, take advantage of some crystallization. Most candies depend on a smooth syrup.
Keeping sugar crystals from forming on the insides of the pan is accomplished as follows.
Grease the pan, including sides, with a little butter or margarine before putting in the ingredients.
Brush down any crystals that form with a pastry brush dipped in hot water. This can be done more than once during cooking.
Pour the finished syrup onto the work surface (or platter) without scraping the pan to ensure that any crystals formed in the bottom of the pan do not get into the final product. This leaves the pan to be scraped and enjoyed by your helpers.
Having all ingredients and utensils ready is the best way to ensure a smooth candy-making day. These include:
Yields 2 to 3 dozen pieces.
2 cups pecan pieces
1 box (16 ounces) confectioner's sugar
1/4 cup baking cocoa
1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup chopped nuts, optional
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Place nuts on rimmed cookie sheet in single layer. Bake for 5 to 8 minutes until toasted. Remove from oven and cool completely. Butter 9-inch pie plate and set aside.
Sift together sugar and cocoa. Set aside.
Place cheese in top of double boiler. You can make a double boiler by placing a saucepan inside a larger pan with 1 to 2 inches of water. Bring water to boil in bottom pan. Stir cheese until completely melted but not bubbly. (Do not let cheese cook.) Remove pan from heat.
Stir sugar/cocoa gradually into cheese. Add vanilla and nuts.
Transfer fudge to buttered pie plate. Let cool completely. Cut into bite-size pieces.
Store candy tightly covered in refrigerator.
Children can make this in no time.
Yields about 2 1/2 dozen pieces, depending on size.
1 12-ounce package semisweet chocolate chips
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup chopped walnuts or pecans, optional
Line 9- or 10-inch square pan with wax paper. Set aside.
In large, microwave-safe bowl, place chocolate chips, milk and salt.
Microwave on medium for 1 minute. Stir mixture. If chips are not completely melted, cook for 1 more minute.
Remove bowl from microwave and set on towel or hot pad.
Stir in vanilla and nuts. Pour fudge into prepared pan.
Use butter knife to smooth top. Chill in refrigerator until fudge is firm.
Turn pan upside down over cookie sheet or cutting surface.
Remove wax paper. Cut into squares.
This is a sweet medley of candy favorites.
Yields about 1 to 1 1/2 dozen candies.
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup evaporated milk
1 tablespoon white corn syrup (white Karo)
1 package (6 ounces) chocolate chips, semi-sweet or milk
1 cup chopped walnuts
1 cup miniature marshmallows
In heavy, 2-quart saucepan, mix sugar, milk and corn syrup. Bring to boil over medium heat.
Stir constantly, boil 2 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in chocolate chips until melted.
Let cool 10 to 15 minutes. Add nuts and marshmallows.
Using 2 spoons, drop candy by spoonful onto wax paper-lined cookie sheets.
Chill until set.
Store in airtight container at room temperature.
Excerpted from GRIT, Celebrating Rural America Since 1882. To read more articles from GRIT, please visit www.Grit.com or call (866) 624-9388 to subscribe. Copyright 2009 by Ogden Publications Inc.