Sunday, November 1, 2009

Candy Virgin No More!

While organizing my pantry the other evening, I noticed a long forgotten bag of white sugar. Normally I don't use white sugar (flavor per calorie ratio is too low), but a while back I became infatuated with sugar sculpting and bought a bag. I've never made candy before, and my new hobby of sugar sculpting never got off the ground, but for some reason on that night the bag of white sugar called to me. And I said, "Yes, Sir!"

Not even food is above changes in fashion, seasons, and trends. Therefore, in tracking down some great candy know-how, I knew I had to go back in time. A recipe for something as archaic and dietarily precarious as a big chunk of hardened sugar wouldn't be hanging around in any of my newfangled cookbooks. I dug out The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, originally published in 1896, and was soon on my way to becoming a sugar goddess!

Yeah, right! This is what happen:

Candy Attempt #1: Flaky Business

I quickly found the chapter on candy making in the old Fannie Farmer and read the introduction. There was a little more to candy than I originally thought, but it didn't sound hard. After all, Frannie had tons of useful hints!

I measured the ingredients for a half batch of cashew brittle: 1/2 c sugar, 1/4 c light corn syrup, 1/4 c water. I pored them into my sauce pan and stirred. Dissolve the sugar completely before bringing the mixture to a boil, Fannie said, in order to prevent 'sugaring' (crystals that make the candy grainy). Once that occurs, according to Alton Brown on his wonderful program "Good Eats," all you can do is add more water, dissolve, and start the heating all over again.

While dissolving my sugar mixture, I began to realize that the syrup was full of tiny black flakes! Either the sugar was scraping off my pan's coating or there was something burned to the bottom of it. The mixture wasn't salvageable. Down the sink.

Candy Attempt #2: Burn, Baby, Burn!

Again I measured sugar, corn syrup, and water, into a bowl this time, and began to stir. When the sugar was finally dissolved, I pored it into my freshly scrubbed pan and turned on the heat. Fannie tip #2: I covered the mixture when it came to a boil, allowing the condensation to wash any undissolved sugar off the sides of the pan. A single undissolved sugar granule can start the dreaded 'sugaring' chain reaction. Yeck!

2.5 minutes passed. I took off the lid, and washed down the sides of the pan with water and a pastry brush (again, to protect against sugaring), managing to burn my hand in the process. Then I took the candy's temperature. I was looking for 290F. The thermometer read 265. So far so good.

As I stood there, however, something began to happen. The candy on the left side of the pan started to darken. Some caramelization, that's good. But then it got darker, and fast! I flicked on my electronic thermometer and jammed it into the candy. 315!

I killed the heat, and I cooled and tasted a strand. Burned.

I tried to make the best of it by using the opportunity to play with some sugar shapes, creating long fragile threads of candy and beautiful webs of crackling sugar. Fun, messy, and dangerous? I burned myself a couple more times on the hot candy and stabbed my hand on a stray sliver of hardened sugar as I was washing the pan out for Round 3. I started to feel more like I was in a fighting ring than a kitchen.

When the bleeding stopped I got ready to try again.

Round 3: Old Mistakes Die Hard.

This time I vowed to make it right. I measured my ingredients into the pan. No, not the pan! I didn't want any more of those black flecks in my syrup. I dumped the mixture from the pan into the mixing bowl. The sugar finally dissolved, it seemed to take forever, when I saw something in the bowl that shouldn't be there. Little flecks of burned candy had somehow gotten into the new syrup. If a single grain could cause sugaring, these chunks would cause it for sure. Dumped that batch down the sink with its brothers, re-washed the bowl and the pan, and vowed to get it right, for real this time!

Round 4: Blond is Beautiful?

Everything started out fine this time, plus I made a little discovery. If I poured the water in over the sugar before the corn syrup, it didn't take me fifteen minutes to get the granules to dissolve. I patted myself on the back for a minor victory.

I brought the candy to a boil over a more modest flame, covered it, uncovered it, washed down the sides of the pan without getting burned, and checked the temperature. 255, 260, 265, 270. So far so good. No signs of burning. 275, 280, 285, 290. No signs of burning.

No signs of browning either. Without browning the candy wouldn't have that lovely caramel taste that comes when anything gets browned and caramelized. I decide to push the temperature up into the highest reaches of the hard crack stage (a term for candy that has reached a temperature of 290F-310F).

295, 300, 305, 310.

I start to panic. The candy shouldn't go any higher. 315F burned the last batch, but this one's still pale as a winter moon.

No, I said to myself. There will be candy! I poored the anemic mixture down over the salted cashews that had been waiting all this time and left the candy to harden. The result: a mild but mostly flavorless candy. Many of the nuts didn't stick all that well and broke lose when we cracked the cooled candy.

I was out of salted nuts at that point, but I was not defeated. I would rise again! I gird myself for one more go. And this time, I would get it right!

Round 5: For Better or Worse.

I spent the next half hour shelling unsalted, roasted peanuts. I would have been done sooner, but my half-starved family kept eating the nuts as I shelled them. (Somewhere in all that mess, I kind of forgot to feed them dinner.)

Finally I had nuts. Unsalted nuts. The recipe called for salted, and I knew salt was important. It makes toffees and brittles pop with flavor. I vowed to toss a few pinches of salt into the hot candy before I poured in the peanuts. I had decided to pour the peanuts into the hot candy and give it a stir before spreading it onto the aluminum foil. Hopefully then the peanuts would stick better than the cashews had.

The result: The cold peanuts dropping into the hot candy cooled the candy too quickly. It turned into a solid lump. I pushed and pushed and stretched. Finally I had a thick, dense, but passable peanut brittle. That was when I remembered the salt.

The salt!

The candy had to have salt. It just had to. I hastily sprinkled the top of the brittle with table salt. The grains just sat on top of the hot candy. They wouldn't sink in. It was the cashews all over again! Using my finger tips, I presses as much salt as I could down into the surface of the candy. For better or worse, that was my peanut brittle.

Finally the fun part came, breaking and tasting. I let my 4-year-old step-daughter have the first break. She sliced open her thumb. The broken sugar edges were sharp as little blades, and they cut right through her baby skin. We washed and bandaged her hand, then we all tried a bite of candy. She bit her lip crunching the thick brittle. Par for the course!

Well, I still haven't made a decent batch of candy. I now realize how far I am from my goal of being a recreational sugar sculptor, and I know why my mother says she nixes any recipe with the words 'candy thermometer' in it. It was intimidating to fail over an over making something that seemed so simple. There were only 5 ingredients!

But I did learn something about myself. Apparently I don't give up all that easy. Is that courage or stupidity? It takes more than just burning me, stabbing me, burning me again several times, and cutting the ones I love to make me quit! I will make candy again! I will spin sugar nets and sticks and strings and it will be fun! Next time, yes next time, I will get it right!!!

Are you up to the challenge? Here's a similar recipie:

Go Forth Fearlessly!