In the spirit of the holiday season, I have decided to give candy-making one more try this year. It just seems like such a festive undertaking, and I have collected some very pretty containers in the past few years that would be perfect to fill with homemade candy and give away to friends as Christmas gifts.
Unfortunately, I have never been good at making candy. The last time I attempted it was about fifteen years ago and it was a complete disaster. I can’t remember the recipe I was using, but I know that the syrupy ingredients were to be boiled until they reached a mysterious and hard-to-determine stage of hardness. For some reason, I cooked the entire mixture too long and so, once that became obvious, I chose to start all over. Uncertain of what to do with the mess in my pan, I decided without really thinking that a handy option would be the toilet. (I realize now that only an idiot would think that was a good idea.) As soon as the boiling liquid flowed like hot lava into the cold toilet water, it hardened with an audible “thwack!” before my horrified eyes.
Rather than explain another household disaster to my husband, I kneeled down at that toilet for at least an hour gouging the tar-like glob out of the bowl. My youngest was six, and since she had been excited about making the candy, I decided having her help on this project would serve as a good lesson for her. Besides, there was a limit to how far I could jam my hand down the toilet, and she was willing — in fact, anxious — to wedge her tiny hand down to get more of the gunk out. Eventually, we scraped enough of the candy mixture out to avoid having to replace the toilet.
Since then I have done some serious study about the making of candy. I confess to being in awe of those who can correctly gauge the stage of hardness (or softness) a lump of candy mixture is at without use of a candy thermometer. Did you know there are some seven stages of doneness, ranging from the “thread” stage to the “caramel” stage? If you don’t have a candy thermometer, you can use the “cold water test,” in which you merely drop a lump of the candy mixture into cold water and then just feel to determine whether it’s at “soft-ball” stage, the “firm-ball” stage, the “hard-ball” stage, the “soft-crack” stage, or the “hard-crack” stage. The “thread” stage is determined by watching the mixture drop off a spoon while the “caramel” stage is determined by color. It sounds very complicated but I’m determined. However, I will not do the guesswork. I plan to invest in a top-of-the-line candy thermometer. I’m older and smarter.
I only remember my mother making candy once, and that was when I was young, maybe five or six. Mom and a neighbor had decided to make pulled taffy and let us kids do the pulling. Mom’s friend had four children, all of whom joined my older brother and me. I recall there was a large vat of white candy when we kids started pulling. But pretty soon our mothers noticed pretty red candy-cane streaks snaking through the taffy as we manipulated it. The red grew more vivid until they realized that someone had cut his or her hand. I am not sure if we ate that candy or not.
The making of cooked candy is a challenging adventure but it appeals to me as a great holiday tradition. All it takes is some knowledge, some talent, and a little luck. By gosh, I think I’m ready to step up to the plate.