With Halloween just over, Americans of all ages are staring down a daunting surplus of mass-produced candy. There's nothing wrong with that — for the first few days. I'm not saying I'm above the idea that breakfast can have its own dessert (Dia de los Muertos counts as a special occasion, doesn't it?), but by the end of the week most of us will have had enough, our pumpkin baskets down to the dregs of off-brand jawbreakers and rock-hard Dubble Bubble.
And candy season isn't over. Thanksgiving will distract us with a square meal, but after that it's back to candy canes and red and green M&Ms. There comes a point, at least for me, of Hershey Overload. The first few bites are great, the following ones progressively less satisfying. It's all packaging and color, no richness or depth. I mean, they aren't even allowed to call some of this stuff "chocolate."
We can do better. Making candy at home is surprisingly doable, given a few of the right tools and a modicum of patience. Since most people don't know how simple it can be, you'll easily impress your family and friends. It's a cheap gift, but more than once I've seen expensive new toys tossed aside in favor of a tin of peanut brittle.
Like most types of cooking and baking, candy making has a plethora of associated tools and toys, but truly requires only a few basics:
- A candy thermometer. This is the only essential tool the average cook isn't likely to already own. Candy thermometers are designed to clip to the side of the pot without touching the bottom, and they can withstand higher temperatures than most other food thermometers. Look for one with a range of about 100–400 degrees Fahrenheit. There's no need to spend a lot — mine cost about $15 and works perfectly.
- A heavy pot. Cooking sugar is challenging in that it's very sensitive to changes in heat. There is often only a very small difference in temperature between undercooking and burning. Pots that are too thin on the bottom can heat unevenly, making the sugar more prone to scorching. It's also important that the pot you use have high sides, to minimize the risk of splashing yourself with hot sugar syrup. The stuff is like lava!
- Focus! I've ruined more than one batch of candy due to taking my eyes off the thermometer at the wrong moment, and caused myself much unnecessary pain by handing hot sugar carelessly. If you are used to the relative forgiveness of cooking, the small margin of error in candy making can be frustrating. Take it slow when possible, and don't let your mind wander… but don't give up if you make a mistake. The ingredients are cheap; you can just start over!
This toffee recipe was my first venture into candy making. It took me two tries, but it was more than worth the trouble, and I think all my relatives who received it for Christmas would agree. I've added a few notes that may help you avoid trouble spots.
- 1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup whipping cream
- 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
- pinch of salt
- 12 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Butter for the pan and knife blade
Line an 8×8 pan with aluminum foil, extending it over the sides. Butter the foil (very, very thoroughly) and the blade of a small knife.
Combine the sugar, cream, cream of tartar, and salt in a 3-quart heavy saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with a long-handled wooden spoon to dissolve the sugar, about 3 minutes. Using a damp pastry brush, wash down the sides of the pan twice to prevent sugar crystallization. (Sugar crystallization happens when undissolved sugar crystals get into the syrup, which causes the unstable sugar molecules in the syrup to re-crystallize and ruins the texture.) Add the butter and stir constantly until it melts, about 3 minutes.
Raise the heat to high, attach a candy thermometer, and cook, stirring often, until the mixture reaches 290ºF, about 10 minutes. (This is where I ruined my first batch. Things happen very quickly once the thermometer nears 290º, so don't take your eyes off it!)
Take the saucepan off the heat, quickly stir in the vanilla, and pour into the lined pan. Let stand 5-10 minutes. Using the buttered knife, score into eight rows each way. Cool completely on a rack. Break or cut into pieces along to scored lines and store airtight between sheets of waxed paper. It will keep quite a long time in the refrigerator.