Candy Land: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Thermometer

I love to make candy.

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Why yes, I did make the toffee.

This love stems from a couple of things, but I’ll have to admit that the main reason is plain ol’ ego massage. It is easier in my opinion than baking, but much, much more impressive. I invite you to test this theory out. You’ll be fair drowning in compliments, you candy-wizard, you.

But first! The obligatory tie-in:

When I was a kid, my oldest sister and I were staying together for the night by ourselves. I honestly can’t remember why, but she was 16 and cool, while I was 11 and desperately seeking approval. Turns out this time around she was willing to deign to my request, because my cool teenage sister drove me to  Blockbuster (so dated) to rent Happy Gilmore. Naturally, we decided to make fudge. We scoured my mom’s recipes until we found the one that seemed the easiest.

This was our first mistake. While making candy isn’t’t actually hard, the recipe should be complicated enough to make you cringe at first glance. Which leads me to my first rule:

When making candy, always follow the recipe exactly.

Candy making is a science- it’s all about creating crystal structures.

It's complicated, okay?

It’s complicated, okay?

If the recipe says use a clean bowl, use a clean bowl. If the recipe says do not stir, do not stir. If you have a  itchy creative trigger finger, try adding flavorings or spices to the candy, swap out packaging, use different nuts, etc. Just leave the directions alone.

Now, my sister and I learned to have our mise en place from our mother, who is a very organized lady. We quickly rounded up our powdered sugar, cocoa powder and the like and got cracking. We dumped everything in a bowl and got to the next step of the recipe – “MW for 2 min.” MW? Eleven year old me was mystified. My sister didn’didn’t fare better. Google wasn’t really a thing, nor texting mom to get an answer, so we went with our gut. “’Mix Well’?” I ventured. So we beat the crap out of it for two minutes in my mom’s Kitchenaid mixer.

See, we had never made candy before, so we didn’t know that MW stood for “microwave.” I would not really recommend making candy in the microwave because it’s too hard to control the temperature. Even so, if my sister and I had microwaved our concoction it would have at least had some semblance of fudge. What we ended up making resembled a dense chocolate frosting. Not horrible, but not fudge.

This brings me to my second rule:

Buy a good thermometer.

Martha knows all.

Martha knows all.

As I mentioned before, candy is more about science than cooking. Using a thermometer is easier and much more idiot-proof that using the old “soft ball” and “hard crack” methods.

I use a Martha Stewart-brand digital probe. It is nice because I can set it to alarm when it reaches the appropriate temperature. Buy any candy thermometer that makes you happy, but I would not recommend trying any of my candy recipes without an actuate thermometer. Not unless you are an absolute master of candy testing.

If you follow those two rules, the whole world of candy awaits you! Don’t worry, Blogland, I will walk you through your first go:

This is the goal.

This is the goal.

Emeralds and Ampersands’ Old Fashioned Fudge

2 cups white sugar
½ cup cocoa powder
1 cup milk
4 Tbsp butter
1 tsp vanilla extract, or substitute desired flavor

Grease an 8×8 pan with butter or shortening. Fudge tastes better when it is in your mouth and not stuck to the pan =]

Combine sugar, cocoa powder and milk in a medium saucepan. Ere on the larger size, as this mixture will expand as it cooks. Stir to combine. Bring the mixture to a boil stirring constantly. Once mixture comes to a medium boil, reduce heat to simmer, remove the spoon and add the thermometer. DO NOT STIR. Let that bad boy bubble away until it reaches 238 degrees F (the soft ball stage).  This will take some time, so be patient.
Remove from heat and allow to cool to 110 degrees F.

As mixture cools, wet a pastry brush or paper towel with water and wipe out any residual sugar crystals hanging out on the side of the sauce pan. These little crystals can fall into your finished fudge and create that grainy texture sometimes found in homemade fudge.

Once mixture has cooled, add butter and vanilla. Using a clean spoon (because we don’t want any stray sugar crystal sneaking in), beat mixture until butter is well integrated and fudge has lost its sheen. Give it what-for, because under-beating results in runny fudge, which is not delicious (as a sidenote, don’t give yourself a beating blister like I did, because it is both painful and embarassing. Double ouch).  Legend has it that this is where you would put nuts if you wanted to, but I’m not into nutty fudge.

Fudge in all it glory

Fudge in all it glory

Pour it into your greased pan and cool. Cut into squares with a sharp knife. You can now wrap them individually in plastic wrap or waxed paper to keep them fresh – or just eat it all. I don’t judge.

I know that sounds scary but in actuality it’s really just a lot of standing around. Scout’s honor.

If you’ve mastered fudge, give toffee a try. It’s just a simple and there’s no beating. When I made it I substituted hazelnuts for almonds because hazelnuts are God’s gift to the world. When the pecans on the counter were crying out to become chocolate turtles, I used this caramel recipe. I like this one in particular because the blogger gives you a lot of customization ideas.

Not a grainy piece in site

Alright, friends, it’s just in time for Christmas! Who’ll be giving out homemade candy this year?