Granny made fudge every year at Christmas – the real kind from the back of the Hershey’s Cocoa box. The kind that requires you intuit such things as when you achieve “soft ball stage.” The kind that requires you to beat it by hand with a wooden spoon until it yields in unglossy submission. The kind that you put out on the screened porch in the cold so it can set.
Now I love ambrosia, and Lane Cake, and the fruit cake cookie, but as far as I’m concerned fudge has always been and always will be the ultimate in Christmas treats.
The first Christmas I was on my own, I was a little homesick and a lot lonely, so I thought I’d cheer myself up by making a big old batch of Granny’s fudge. After all, Granny had made it look so easy…boil, drop, beat, set…how hard could it be? Suffice it to say, my “fudge” made a nice ice cream topping, even though it refused to set no matter what I did.
So began my obsession with Christmas candy – the making really more than the eating. Over the years every Christmas I have made, and still make, fudge (chocolate, peanut butter, with nuts and without), pralines, divinity, bourbon balls, and saltine cracker toffee. I also try to add a new recipe into the mix every year just for the sake of variety. This year will be salted pretzel caramels.
Every year too, as I stand over the stove stirring a pot of roiling sugar, waiting, waiting, waiting for it to get just right, I think of all the things making candy
has taught me and swear on a bag of South Alabama pecan halves that I will take these lessons with me throughout the coming year.
1. Things don’t always have to be fancy. In these days of chimichurri, cooking on boards, and bacon on your cupcakes, it is easy to get caught up in the latest trends. However, if you dispense with the notion that you can’t cook it if you can pronounce all the ingredients and take two lowly egg whites, some sugar, and some Karo syrup, you can concoct the most divine morsel you ever put in your mouth. Hence its name – divinity. Divine in its taste. Divine in its simplicity.
2. Patience, Grasshopper, patience. If you want to make pralines, you have to exercise an inhuman amount of patience. Sugar will only caramelize so fast. Crank the fire up to high if you want to, but all you will wind up doing is spending the rest of the day figuring out how to scrub burnt sugar off of your Revereware. You must go slowly. You must stir. You must contemplate the subtle color changes as they bubble up. You must enjoy the process as much as the end result. The praline will not be rushed, nor should you.
3. A little salt makes it that much sweeter. When I first started making candies and desserts in general, I wondered why all the recipes called for added salt. I also heard every nightmare story of getting the salt mixed up with the sugar and adding too much. Anyhow, it turns out that a little saltiness just enhances the sweetness within, a fact which I am ever so glad Husband appreciates.
4. Sometimes you just have to follow the rules. Now it may come to a surprise to some of you, but I have, in my life, been known to test a boundary, question an authority, and deny the snake oil. When it comes to making candy, though, it is highly recommended that you follow the letter of the law absolutely and without question. Without question! If the recipe says cook that sugar water until it reaches 270°, don’t even think about stopping at 269°. Squint through the steam at that candy thermometer until you think your eyeballs will drop out, but don’t be tempted to hedge it even a little bit! And it will take FOREVER for that thermometer to creep up to the right temperature, hence Lesson #2 above.
5. Don’t forget the nuts. Plain fudge is good; fudge with walnuts is great! Without one perfect pecan half on the top, divinity is just a malformed marshmallow. Pralines without pecans? Unthinkable. How boring and drab our lives would be without the nuts. Appreciate them. Love them. Embrace them for the variety they bring.
Over the years, I’ve had plenty of successes and just as many failures. Miracles and disappointments. Blessings and calamity. And I’ve come to realize that making candy is about as close to meditation as I will ever get. But what joy it is to block out the world and watch the slow transformation of separate parts into a whole and contemplate the joy that can be derived from only the simple, the sweet, and the slightly nutty.