Friday, December 28, 2007

Christmas Part 3: The Candy

When I was little, I enjoyed dessert making. I used to bake a lot of cookies. That's mainly because making cookies from a recipe was not too hard. You just do whatever the directions says and, soon, you end up with a bunch of cookies. Just mix some stuff up in a bowl, spoon out some blobs, and then bake said blobs according to the instructions. Nothing real complicated. There might be some butter creaming involved at the beginning, but that's about it. And even if you're off a little, what you end up with is way better than Chips Ahoy. I would even venture into pies and cakes once in a while. I liked recipes that had easy to follow instructions as well as some room for error. And no complicated techniques. Just mixing and scooping.

So when I'd see cookbooks with pictures of interesting looking candies, I'd take a look to see if it was something that I could do. But the mere mention of a candy thermometer destroyed any hopes I had of even attempting it. I was very much intimidated by the candy thermometer. Candy making just seemed like some crazy mad scientist ritual with terminology that didn't make any sense. What in the world does hard crack mean? And what would happen if the thermometer got fogged up and I couldn't tell if it's on soft ball or hard ball? What if the temperature shot up too quickly and I was too slow to do anything about it? It all seemed way too...dangerous. I didn't want to deal with it at all, even if it meant not being able to make my own caramels.

Looking back at it now, I think that my main problem was that I didn't understand the science behind basic candy making. If I had, I think I really would've enjoyed it. Well, thanks to my favorite food show, Good Eats, I've learned a little bit about what goes on when you cook a sugar solution. And, you know what? It's really fascinating. And knowing things like what will happen to my candy if I let it cook too hot or if I don't add corn syrup makes me a lot more comfortable. If something goes wrong, I'll probably be able to figure out what to do about it next time because I understand what's happening when the candy is cooking. Also, using modern recipes that say '240 degrees' instead of 'soft ball' makes me much more at ease. So now I know what bazillions of other Christmas cooks have known for years. Candy making is really easy, and it's pretty fun too.

This year, I made 2 different candies. One was the chocolate marshmallows that I had made earlier in the month. They turned out really well, so I made a bunch more. The other candy that I made was my toffee. A long time ago, a guy that I worked with brought some toffee in that his wife had made. It was some of the best candy that I'd ever had. Kind of like Almond Roca. But way better. I asked him if he could get the recipe for me, and he did. It took me a while before I actually tried making it (afraid of candy thermometers and all). And even when I did try it, it took some modifications to the recipe for it to come out right. Anyhow, what I have now is a recipe that I make pretty much every year at Christmas time. I make big batches of it and give it out to our friends. Everyone seems to love it, so I keep making it.

Here's the recipe in case you're interested:

1 cup unsalted butter

1 1/3 cups sugar

3 Tbl water

1 Tbl corn syrup

1 cup chopped walnuts

11 oz Hersey milk chocolate

1 cup finely chopped walnuts

1) Line a 13"x9.5"x2" pan with aluminum foil. Set aside.

2) Melt butter in a large saucepan.

3) Add sugar, corn syrup, water. Cook on medium high, stirring occasionally, to 280 degrees.

4) Take saucepan off burner. Quickly stir in chopped walnuts (NOT the finely chopped ones), and spread into the pan that you lined with aluminum foil.

5) Let pan cool about 10 minutes.

6) While you're waiting for the pan to cool, melt the chocolate. I do this by breaking it up into pieces and putting it in the microwave. Microwave it at half power in 1 minute intervals. Check after each interval to see if the chocolate is melted.

7) Lift cooled candy out of pan and place on flat surface.

8) Spread top with half of melted chocolate. Sprinkle with half of the finely chopped walnuts.

9) Place a piece of wax paper over the candy. Put an upsidown cookie sheet on top of the wax paper. Carefully flip the whole thing upsidown so that the cookie sheet is right-side-up with the candy in it.

10) Spread the rest of the chocolate on top of the candy. Sprinkle the rest of the finely chopped walnuts on top of the chocolate.

11) Let sit in a cool, dry place or refrigerate until chocolate has firmed.

12) Take a big knife and cut it up into squares like a checkerboard.


Make sure you use butter, not margarine.

Pyrex pans work well.

You will need a candy thermometer.

Don't store in refrigerator.

If the toffee is too hard, you probably cooked it too long.

If the toffee doesn't have a nice carmelized taste, you didn't cook it long enough.

280 degrees has worked well for me, but you can move it up or down a bit to suit your tastes.


Up next, Christmas Part 4: Heroscape Deals and The Crazy Lady at Fred Meyer's

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