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 sure to use a heavy 3-quart saucepan for making taffy. When the syrup comes to a boil, insert a candy thermometer, reduce to a simmer, and cook the syrup to 275°F.
Cool the mixture on a buttered sheet pan or marble slab, occasionally lifting the edges with a spatula and folding the taffy in on itself.
Divide the candy into two or more parts for easier pulling. Here, one person pulls half a batch with buttered hands, stretching the taffy from hand to hand in a rope 1 to 2 feet long.
Fold the taffy back onto itself, twisting the rope as you go. Don’t worry if it seems to fall apart; just keep pushing and folding it back together until you can stretch it into a rope again.
The taffy will begin to get harder to pull and will start to lighten in color. When it’s almost plastic and turns a deep ash blonde, stretch the taffy into ropes about 3/4 inch in diameter.
Cut the taffy ropes into bite-size pieces. Work quickly, as the taffy will stiffen a bit as it sits. Then wrap each piece in waxed or parchment paper.
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.