Featured in our 2017 Christmas Guide
How many times have you longed for the taste of a homegrown tomato in the dead of winter? Longed for the juicy-firm texture, the pleasing aroma, the indescribable flavor of a garden tomato that can never be approached by mass-market imitations? Believe it or not, homemade candy is the same way. If you were lucky enough to grow up in a household with a holiday tradition of candymaking, you’re probably nodding your head right now, muttering, “That’s exactly right.” The rest of you will have to taste to believe how deliciously different your own candy will be.
These are the real reasons to make candy—the taste, the smell, the texture. That, and the fun you’ll have doing it. Making pulled taffy has always gone hand in hand with gathering a few friends or family members in the kitchen, having a cup of hot chocolate, and laughing at everyone showing off their biceps as they pull ropes of taffy. And then, once the candy is done, there’s all that sampling to do. Even if you’re planning to give the candy away as a gift, you won’t be able to resist cutting off a square of Mrs. Bruner’s Boston Cream Candy for yourself. This soft, nutty confection tastes a bit like caramel fudge. I hope these two recipes will help introduce you to the joys of making old-fashioned candy.
Get out a heavy pot and pick a fine, clear day for candymaking
To make candy, all you’ll really need is a heavy pot, a clear space of time, and for many candies, a dry day. Not all candies require that you watch the weather (Mrs. Bruner’s Boston Cream Candy is one that doesn’t), but many (including taffy) must be made when the sky is cloudless and the humidity low, preferably under a high pressure system. Think of the crisp, clear air of a perfect late fall or early winter day; these are the ideal conditions for candymaking. Humidity can prevent your candy from setting up properly, because sugar is hygroscopic—it absorbs moisture from the air. So if you’re cooking the candy on a damp day and trying to evaporate the water, the sugar will thwart your efforts by quickly reabsorbing moisture. Depending on the level of humidity, your taffy may work, but it will ultimately be sticky and gooey.
One more thing—you need time. Although candymaking isn’t physically demanding (well, except for a little muscling of taffy and stirring of sugar syrup), it does require a straight half hour or two.
About the pot: a heavy base helps prevent the sugar syrup from burning, especially important since it will cook for some time. A nonreactive surface prevents discoloration. Also, a wooden spoon is best for stirring.
Finally, for these recipes, I strongly recommend using a candy thermometer. Technically, you don’t have to. The procedure for making both of these candies begins with boiling a sugary solution until it reaches a certain consistency. There are two ways to tell when you’ve reached the desired stage. The first is the old “cold-water test” (where you drop a bit of the cooked syrup into a cup of very cold water and then feel the drop; its consistency indicates what the texture of your candy will be like when it cools). The second, and easier, method is by determining its temperature. The cold-water test, which allows you to feel the texture of the cooled syrup, is actually more reliable than the thermometer, because it takes into account mysterious interactions between humidity, air pressure, temperature (and perhaps mischievous fairies) that a simple thermometer cannot measure. But until (and even if) you feel comfortable with judging candy this way, use a thermometer. Your sugar mixture could continue cooking beyond the point you want it to in the space of time it takes you to do the cold-water test. (For good information on the cold-water test, see The Joy of Cooking.)
Candy thermometers are available in most kitchen shops and many grocery stores. Look for one that has a clip to hold it to the side of the pot: otherwise it will constantly topple over. Before you start cooking, be sure to test that your candy thermometer is accurate by submerging it in boiling water; it should read 212°F. Even a brand-new thermometer can be inaccurate. It’s also a good idea to warm your thermometer under hot running water before submerging it in the hot candy mixture. Once you insert your thermometer, check to make sure that the tip is fully submerged in the candy mixture but not touching the bottom of the pan.
Be prepared and don’t stop stirring
I hate to tell you this, but when a recipe says “stir constantly,” you really do have to stir constantly. Sugar burns, even in syrup form, and burnt sugar will give your candy an unpleasant flavor. More important, stirring the syrup helps form the crystals that will give your candy its desired texture.
Because you must stir most candies constantly once they begin to cook, employing mise en place is important. Roughly translated, have everything where you can grab it fast. Making candy is a bit like having a baby: things go really slow for a long time, and then everything happens all at once. Measure all your ingredients and have them within reach. Butter the pan for the candy or the slab or sheet pan for the taffy ahead of time. Have your pitcher of iced tea (or cup of hot cider) close by, and plan a way to pass the time (if you don’t have friends over, you might want to read).
But don’t get too distracted. You’ll discover the mercury in the candy thermometer will hover forever at a certain place. The first time I saw this phenomenon, I thought my thermometer was broken and ran out to buy a new one. Which did precisely the same thing. It sits for minutes and then, right at a critical stage, the thermometer suddenly surges upward. For example, this stalling behavior occurs just before the syrup approaches 240°F when making Mrs. Bruner’s Boston Cream Candy.
Cane syrup is the tastiest molasses for taffy
Molasses terminology is confusing, to say the least. In broadest terms, molasses is a byproduct of refining sugar, a result of plant juices being boiled down to a syrup. Sugar crystals are extracted from that syrup, and the remaining liquid is molasses. The sugar is extracted in three stages, and each stage produces a different grade of molasses. Cane syrup (sometimes called light, fine, grade A, or fancy molasses) has the lightest, most delicate flavor. This is the molasses I like to use in taffy. Grade B, often found in supermarket brands, is less sweet and more darkly flavored. It’s a good choice for baked goods like gingerbread. The last grade is blackstrap, an intense and bitter syrup. But the grading system doesn’t tell the whole story, because the flavor of molasses also depends on the type of plant juices from which it came. These days, molasses is often derived from the sorghum plant. If you like the taste of sorghum, there’s nothing wrong with sorghum molasses. But before sorghum came along, molasses was made exclusively from sugar cane. If you prefer the haunting taste of raw sugar cane, cane syrup is the molasses for you.
Years ago, many large farmers made their own cane syrup. You can still find locally produced cane syrup throughout the South, where it’s drizzled on pancakes, waffles, and biscuits, but it’s hard to find in the rest of the U.S. Fortunately, the C. S. Steen Co. in southern Louisiana is happy to ship their excellent cane syrup. I recommend going to the small trouble of ordering it to make your taffy. Steen’s is even tastier than other fancy molasses because none of the plant sugars have been extracted from its cane syrup.
This might explain why another cane syrup is nice but not quite as flavorful. Lyle’s Golden Syrup (available in grocery stores) is imported from Britain. It too is a product of sugar cane, yet it has a much lighter flavor than Steen’s. It’s still fine to use in the taffy recipe; try substituting an ounce or two of it with grade B molasses from the grocery store to fill out the flavor.
Homemade candies make excellent gifts
Mrs. Bruner was in her 80s when she shared her recipe for Boston Cream Candy with my family. Her family brought it with them from “back East” to Oklahoma Territory when her father began work with the Kiowa tribe. Her candy is one of the few you can make on a damp day, and it takes only about half an hour.
Mrs. Bruner’s is smooth and creamy, a sort of nutty vanilla fudge, rich with butter and caramel flavors. Firm enough to cut into squares, it melts in the warmth of your mouth, a flood of flavor as complex as a fine cognac. It’s so delectable that people who have received it as a holiday present call to ask for it again the next year.
Pulled molasses taffy, on the other hand, is a long-time southern favorite. You pull and twist the cooled syrup until it turns a silky-blond color and hardens in your hands. Unlike the salt-water taffy you find in stores, this taffy is a hard candy. Don’t try to chew it at first—it softens into a caramel as you savor it, so sticky it could pull your fillings out.
This taffy is mellow and buttery, but not too rich; its sweetness is positively addictive. It’s made with cane syrup (which is really fancy molasses derived from sugar cane), so it has gentle echoes of molasses flavor, but none of its sometime harshness. Just be sure to check the sky for clear weather before you decide to make taffy; on the Mississippi farm where she grew up, my mother made taffy on sunny autumn days.
If you live at high altitudes…
Altitude can wreak havoc with candy. Folks who live at sea level needn’t worry about this, but those of us who live in the mountains or high desert ignore altitude at our own peril. The rule is simple: for every 500 feet above sea level, lower the cooking temperature of candy by 1 degree. So if you live at 5,000 feet, and the recipe calls for cooking the syrup until it reaches 240°F, you cook it until it reaches 230°F instead.
You’d think this means it takes less time to make candies at higher altitudes, but unfortunately, it just isn’t so. In fact, your cooking time may be slightly longer. (You know how much longer it takes water to boil? Same thing.). Also, the rule isn’t quite hard and fast; you may find you need to adjust it by a degree or two.