experiments in cooking

Archive for the ‘Candy’ Category

The Science of Making Candy

Two days before Christmas, Chris emailed me a recipe from a co-worker for something called “Glass Candy.” This co-worker had brought some to a work party and he thought it would be something I’d like to make. I’d never tried making candy before, but it looked pretty easy.

I started making the candy after lunch on Christmas Eve. First, I coated a cookie sheet with powdered sugar. Then I combined sugar, water, and Karo syrup in a pot. Then I read the next step: “Boil until the mixture reaches a hard crack about 300 degrees.”

No problem. I had a thermometer. But as I stood at my stove, the sugar mixture already heating to a bubbling syrup, and looked down at my thermometer, I was dismayed to see that it had a maximum temperature reading of 220 degrees. What could I do?

I considered the reference to a “hard crack.”Was “hard crack” an actual candymaking term? I had thought it was just a description chosen by the writer of the recipe, but if were a “technical” term used in candy making, perhaps it held the solution to my problem.

I flipped open my new 2006 edition of The Joy of Cooking to the chapter about candy, where I found a description of how to check the readiness of sugar syrup without a thermometer, using the cold water test. It was followed by illustrations.

Apparently the hard-crack stage occurs between 300 and 310 degrees Fahrenheit. Toffee, nut brittles, and lollipops are all cooked to the hard-crack stage. The hard-crack stage is the highest temperature a cook is likely to see specified in a candy recipe. At these temperatures, there is almost no water left in the syrup.

To perform a cold water test, you drop a little of the molten syrup in cold water. At the hard-crack stage, it will form hard, brittle threads that break when bent.

So! I could check the readiness of the candy without an accurate thermometer.

But, even with an answer in hand, I was nervous. I had never tried anything like this before, and I had no one to show me how to do it right—just a set of illustrations and some reading done on the spot while the pot was boiling.

I used my thermometer to tell me when the mixture has passed 220 degrees. Then I began testing the sugar syrup by scooping a small amount of it on a metal spoon (that I warmed in a nearby jar of warm water) and dropping it into a small bowl of cold water. The first time I did this, the syrup formed a liquid-y thread in the cold water but did not ball up or harden. My cookbook told me that this is called the thread stage.

I tested the syrup several more times. Each time it did something different when dropped in the cold water:

  • Formed a soft, flexible ball that flattened when I removed it from the water (soft-ball stage, 235° F–240° F)
  • Formed a firm ball that remained malleable when removed from the water and flattened when squeezed (firm-ball stage, 245° F–250° F)
  • Formed thick, ropy threads as it dripped from the spoon into the water, then formed a hard ball in the water and did not flatten when removed, although it could be squashed (hard-ball stage, 250° F–265° F)
  • Formed threads and not a ball in the water. When removed from the water, the threads were flexible, not brittle, and bent before breaking (soft-crack stage, 270° F–290° F)
  • Formed hard, brittle threads that, once removed from the water, broke when bent (hard-crack stage, 300° F–310° F)

When the syrup reached the last stage, I immediately added several drops of blue food coloring and about two splashes of anise flavoring. (I was so nervous that I forgot to measure the anise I used, but I’d estimate I used a couple of teaspoons.) Then I poured the mixture onto the prepared cookie sheet and let it cool completely.

When the sheet of candy was cooled to the touch, Chris and I shattered it with the edge of a meat tenderizer and placed the pieces in a glass dish. The candy looked just like pieces of blue glass and tasted like licorice.

Making glass candy for the first time was not as easy as it looked. It’s probably just as well that I didn’t know how nerve-wracking it would be, because I might not have tried it. Now, on the other side of my first candy adventure, I can say that the science experiment of progressing through the stages of cooking sugar syrup using the cold water test was pretty darn fascinating.

I’m looking forward to trying candy again. And I won’t have to do it without a clue as to the actual temperature next time, because my mother-in-law just gave me an old candy thermometer to use, one that most definitely reads up to 300 degrees.


Glass Candy

Powdered sugar

2 cups sugar

1 cup water

¾ cup Karo syrup

Flavoring (peppermint, anise, etc.)

Food coloring

Prepare a cookie sheet by coating with powdered sugar.

Combine in a pot sugar, water, and Karo syrup.  Boil until the mixture reaches a hard crack about 300 degrees.

(Note: if using the cold water test to check the syrup’s readiness, look for the syrup to form, after being dropped in the cold water, hard, brittle threads that break when bent. CAUTION: To avoid burns, allow the syrup to cool in the cold water for a few moments before touching it.)

Quickly stir in desired flavor and food coloring. Note: it probably will take twice as much as you think it should.

Pour onto prepared cookie sheet.  Allow to cool for a bit. If desired, sprinkle top with powdered sugar. (I liked it without the powdered sugar on top.)  Allow to cool completely.

Break apart (the edge of a meat tenderizer works well) and enjoy!

Bringing Back the Fudge of Youth

Some people don’t like fudge. As for me, I don’t have much trouble turning down fudge at a party. I can turn down gourmet fudge at a candy store. I can say no to the fudge that a co-worker brings from home. But I can’t turn down the fudge I grew up eating and learned to make as a kid—my mom’s “five-minute fudge” recipe.

I used to make that fudge for gifts when I was a teenager. I didn’t have much money to buy gifts, so Mom would give me the ingredients to make fudge, and I’d make up a batch or two as presents for my teachers, my friends, and my aunts and uncles.

The list of ingredients is like Christmas music to my ears—marshmallows, sugar, salt, vanilla, evaporated milk, butter, and chocolate—and nuts, if you like nuts. I do.

Of course, I always saved out some for me. I used to take a couple of pieces of fudge into the dark living room, lit only by the lights on the Christmas tree, and eat it slowly, looking at the tree and daydreaming, sipping a mug of hot tea or washing down the fudge with cold milk.

I took a bite of fudge, and I dreamed.

Some day I will fall in love … some day I will have children of my own … some day I will sit next to my own Christmas tree in my very own house with adoring dogs at my feet and I will be a mature adult full of experience and wisdom. I will be beautiful and thin and funny and people will say, “Oh, what an exhilirating life she must have.”

And I took another bite of fudge.

The years passed. A couple decades of them, actually, which deposited me in the mature, experienced, wise adult life I live today. A life, incidentally, that hasn’t seen much fudge in recent years.

Chris doesn’t like fudge much, and in particular he doesn’t like fudge with nuts in it, so for several years I didn’t make it because it is hard to eat fudge in front of someone who says that pecans taste like hair and make him want to gag. Some years I felt I didn’t have time to make and package a batch of fudge; there is, naturally, not much extra time in the exhilirating, funny life I lead, surrounded by children and adoring dogs, and envied by all. And last year I wanted to make fudge, but I was on a diet (having not remained as thin as I dreamed I would). I could just see myself losing all restraint and licking the fudge spoon and pot like a madwoman, then tearing into the fudge tins and eating all of it myself. So I didn’t make it last year.

But this year, I’ve managed to maintain a healthy weight for ten months, while eating reasonable portions of desserts. As December started, I was confident that I could make fudge, enjoy it, and share it too. And not lick the pot.

Also, I knew the boys would eat fudge if I made it. Jonah and Neeley ask for chocolate every day. I believe Neeley believes chocolate is the first course of every meal, and he gets pretty indignant when I suggest he eat his dinner first.

So I made fudge this December. And I made a lighter version of it; fudge is so rich that you can dial down the sugar and fat a little and still feel the thrill of fudgy indulgence.

Since making the fudge last weekend, I’ve been well behaved. I licked the spoon only once and the pot not at all. I’ve eaten only small portions myself. I shared fudge with the boys (but not the adoring dogs, who are sadly overweight); I shared it with my co-workers; and, if there’s any left this weekend, I’m going to share with the folks who come to our church Christmas program … provided that God gives me the strength to hand over the fudge tin when the time comes.

If self control is one of the assets you’ve developed in your mature, experienced, and wise adult life, make this fudge before Christmas. And if it isn’t, make the fudge anyway. It’s never too late to learn self control. And your kids, if you have them, deserve the chance to dream over a piece of fudge.

Five-Minute Fudge

4 cups mini marshmallows

1 ½ cup sugar (substitute Splenda for ½ cup to ¾ cup of the sugar for a lower-sugar version)

¼ tsp salt

1 tsp vanilla

2/3 cup evaporated milk (skim is fine)

¼ cup butter or margarine

12 oz semisweet chocolate pieces

½ cup chopped nuts (optional)

Combine marshmallows, milk, butter, sugar and salt in saucepan. Stirring, bring mixture to full boil. Boil for 5 minutes over medium heat, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and add chocolate pieces, beating until melted. Do not overbeat. Fold in vanilla and nuts. Pour into greased 9-inch square pan. Chill until firm, then cut into small squares.

Caramel Dipping Sauce – Whatever you do, FOLLOW THE RECIPE

Friday night I got the urge to make caramel dipping sauce for apples. I really wasn’t hungry myself, but I figured Chris would eat some apples and dip; plus, I needed some practice melting caramel because I hope to make caramel apples for a church bake sale next month.

It’s a good thing I practiced, because I learned that once the caramel is mostly melted, if you leave the caramel alone for even a few seconds, it will burn.

Below is a simple recipe for caramel sauce. It’s adapted, based on my experience, from the back of the caramel bits package I bought at Russ’s Market. If you follow it exactly, your caramel sauce should not be peppered liberally with burnt black flakes.

Of course, if you stray and it does burn, you can still serve it to your husband. But I wouldn’t use it to make caramel apples for your church’s bake sale.

Read the entire recipe now—it’s not long, and the instructions at the end are crucial and should be committed to memory today before you actually try the recipe.

Easy Caramel Sauce

1 bag caramel bits (so you don’t have to unwrap a bag of caramels one by one)

2 tablespoons of water

½ tsp vanilla

Pour the caramel bits into a small or medium saucepan. Add the water. Melt the caramel bits on low-medium heat, stirring constantly. When they are mostly melted, stir in the vanilla. When the caramel is completely melted, remove it from the heat. DO NOT WALK AWAY TO USE THE RESTROOM, WATCH A COMMERCIAL, OR EXTRICATE YOUR KID FROM HIS PAJAMA SHORTS OR TRASHCAN OR OR WHATEVER HE HAS GOTTEN STUCK IN.

Use warm or refrigerate.

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