I remember as a young girl going over to visit my grandparents around Christmas time. You could almost bet that when you showed up, grandma would be in the kitchen making something yummy, and if it was the holidays, that meant candy. Grandma would cook the mixtures and then once cooled enough to handle, the pot would be handed off to my grandpa to sit and beat until it reached the right consistency. We could hardly wait until it was ready to eat, and it didn’t take long for it to disappear. Each grandkid would get a spoonful, and if you were smart, you savored every last bit.
The art of candy making in the home has almost gone to the wayside as we have more access to delicious goodies in the grocery store and have sought quicker, easier ways to curb our sweet cravings. There are now “fast fudge” or “The easiest caramels you’ll ever make” recipes floating around the internet. Now don’t get me wrong, those recipes are great and tasty, however, nothing quite beats that taste of fresh, made-from-scratch, homemade fudge, penuche (or as my family spells it, penoche), divinity, caramels, hardtack, taffy, and hand-dipped chocolates with homemade fondants in the center. While the rest of the world has seen this decline, candy making has long been a tradition in my family and one that I hope to continue.
My great, great, Aunt Max is the one that comes to mind when I think of my family’s homemade candies. While I never had the opportunity to meet her, she was able to pass her skills and recipes on to others in my family. From the stories I have been told, Aunt Max was constantly making candies, no matter the time of year. It was something she loved, and she was able to do it with her friends and family. Nowadays, this is a tradition that my family does around the holidays.
My Aunt Kena was blessed enough to learn the secrets of candy making from Aunt Max. I specifically remember one Christmas when Kena make homemade chocolates for all her neighbors. I would go over to visit, and her kitchen would be coved with rows and rows of different flavored fondants waiting to be dipped in chocolate and placed in cute, individual boxes. This was such a labor of love and I know that her neighbors felt that love when she delivered them. Kena has also been the one to help pass on these recipes and skills to others in our family. I have been lucky enough to make candies with her before and for this article, we got together one more time to help me perfect my candy making skills.
My two favorite candy recipes are for fudge and penuche, so that is what we decided to make together. While made from simple ingredients (sugar and cream mainly), the cooking process can easily be messed up. I’ve come to learn that to make homemade candy, you need incredible arm strength and the patience of Job. Temperatures have to be just right, and you better not under or overcook it, or your candy won’t turn out. Once cooked to the perfect temperature and stage, the boiling hot mixture is poured onto a cold smooth surface magically creating a perfect circle. You then patiently watch and wait for the mixture to cool just enough that you can run your finger over the top without getting scalding hot sugar on your finger. Next, you better hope you have good upper body strength because you are about to beat it until it loses its shine and becomes moldable; and don’t you dare beat it too much or it will be dry instead of creamy. (Note: my grandma used a different method and beat the candy in the same pot it cooked in.)
Needless to say, it is quite a process and can be intimidating to learn. Most of the passed-down recipes are vague and use terms like “eyeball” or “until it is the right color”. If you’ve ever used a passed-down family recipe, you know what I’m talking about, and it is hard to know exactly what the person who wrote it meant unless you have someone experienced teaching you. But that is the beauty of family traditions & recipes, isn’t it?
We don’t make the candies because they are easy. We make them because there is something special about using a recipe that you know your great, great aunt used. There is something special in spending time with a loved one and learning a new skill from them. There is something special about grandkids and nieces and nephews waiting around for their spoonful of fudge or visiting with grandpa as he sits and beats the penuche until it reaches its creamy consistency.
The same can be said for any family tradition. Whatever your family tradition may be, try and keep it going. Teach your family of its history and tell stories of years passed. If you don’t have any traditions, try creating some for your children to pass down. All traditions have to start somewhere. Traditions can evolve as well. We don’t use the exact methods that my Aunt Max or my Grandma did, but what does remain is the love, the stories, and of course, the delicious candy.
I hope you all have a happy and safe holiday season and you remember to enjoy those holiday traditions and the meanings behind them.
Expert Tip #1: When selecting a candy recipe, look for ones who use from scratch ingredients (Sugar, cream, cocoa powder, etc.) Shortcut ingredients won’t give you the same results.
Expert Tip #2: True fudge isn’t simply melted chocolate chips that is poured into a pan. It must be cooked to a high temperature and then beaten to get the fudgy texture.
Expert Tip #3: Cooking temperatures can vary depending on elevation and even weather. When cooking candy, use a candy thermometer and old-fashioned testing methods to make sure you are at the right temperature. Example: cook the candy to the temperature stated on the recipe, but then also test a small amount of it in a cold glass of water to see if it will form a soft ball.
Expert Tip #4: Practice makes perfect. You may mess things up at first, but the more you make it, the better you will be at knowing just the right steps to take or how to improve.
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