Homemade Candy Answers The Holiday Gift Question

A confession: I didn't preserve one thing this year. Despite the abundance of blackberries in San Francisco's hidden parks, despite rumors of huckleberries along the ridge in some of my favorite haunts across the bridge in West Marin, despite growing up in a small town once known as the apple capital of the world, the produce season slipped by so fast, I barely had time to rhapsodize over the perfect strawberry. I had even less time for pressure canning.

This poses two problems: (1) I love to capture Northern California's fleeting summer in a jar to savor during the winter rains, and (2) I am without my traditional homemade holiday gift.

As I stared woefully at my empty glass jars, the solution came to me: homemade candy.

I rarely eat candy, but there is something inexplicably appealing about melting together butter and chocolate, wrapping it carefully in pretty paper and then presenting the whole package with a flourish. It seems such an old-timey pursuit, too — who has time to make candy from scratch when it's far simpler to buy it? Few of us these days would dream of pouring hot maple syrup onto clean snow a la Laura Ingalls Wilder.

But the secret is that candy is not difficult or time-consuming to create at all. Nor is it too expensive. And most important, it tastes really, really good — far better, in my opinion, than the store-bought kind.

First, you need sugar. A lot of it. Then you'll probably need a good quantity of nuts, most certainly some chocolate, fresh butter and cream, possibly also some dried fruit. You'll need a candy thermometer and a bit of patience — sometimes the hard ball stage takes a while to reach. Yet once it occurs, your creations will tempt the sweet tooth of even the staunchest sugar abstainer. (See a guide to all of the stages below.)

The candy section in the classic Fannie Farmer Cookbook begins with this sentence: "There is no reason except pure pleasure to make candy."

I love the idea of giving holiday gifts inspired by the "pure pleasure" of both the act of doing and the act of savoring. Presents, after all, are not to be taken lightly.

"A gift of homemade candy, made from real cream, butter, fresh nuts, and rich chocolate, is a real and wonderful surprise," Fannie continues. "A lively family can finish off a batch in a day. Everyone enjoys being offered a small rich sweet; it's a lovely indulgence at the end of a good meal."

About The Author

Nicole Spiridakis lives in San Francisco and writes about food, travel and her native state on her blog, cucinanicolina.com. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, chow.com and other publications.

This is not to discount the myriad holiday cakes and cookies, of course. They have their place and are very welcome. But there's something about candy at this time of year.

Candy-making can be undertaken as a solitary pursuit on a chilly afternoon — mix up a pot of hot chocolate with homemade marshmallows if you're feeling fancy — or with a group. Think pulling taffy with a friend or child, your hands well-buttered to stretch it fine, or simply marveling with your family that it's actually possible to "spin a thread" out of sugar and water. Candy-making involves a bit of science, a bit of ingenuity and a bit of elbow grease. When it all comes together, it's a special kind of magic.

I tend toward chocolate of all kinds. I've often made darkly rich truffles as holiday presents, advising the recipients to have only one or two at a time. But when I make up an entire box of homemade candy to give as a gift, I like to create a variety — I'll scatter some sparkling, jewel-toned fruit jellies in between nut clusters and coconut fudge, maybe a few chocolate-dipped mints if I'm feeling ambitious. I'll wrap caramels in brown parchment paper and tie them up neatly with string; I'll consider making saltwater taffy. Get creative with packaging — find old tins and wash and reuse them, and use unbleached or wax paper for wrapping rather than plastic.

Candies can be as easy or as complex as you wish, and I've tried to include some recipes from each end of the difficulty spectrum. Don't worry if they don't turn out to look "perfect" — if the ingredients are decent quality and you take your time, you'll be rewarded with something marvelous.

Another confession: After the pots have been scrubbed (and scrubbed, to get rid of that sticky sugar residue) and stowed away, the kitchen still redolent with the good smells of melted butter and chocolate and cream, I find it almost impossible to resist sneaking little tastes of my homemade treats, no matter whether they're intended for others. Still — that just gives me an excuse to drink another cup of hot chocolate and whip up another batch. This year, I bet my loved ones will hardly miss the applesauce.


Candy Tips

  • Weather certainly plays a role when you're making candy. On a humid day, candy requires longer cooking, and ingredients must be brought to a heat at least 2 degrees hotter than on dry days. "Clear, cool weather is a near-precondition for a large group of confections such as hard candies, glazes, divinities, fondant, nougat and those made with honey," according to the Joy of Cooking. In other words, these early winter days are perfect for candy-making (as long as it's not raining).
  • Always use unsalted butter so you don't oversalt your creations. Also use it to grease the sides of the pan before adding ingredients.
  • A candy thermometer is essential. I've tried to do without, and it was a mild disaster.
  • All candy, once cooled, should be stored airtight. In general, the harder the candy, the longer it will keep (brittles about 2 weeks, caramels about 1 week).
  • Remove hard brittle pieces from a pot, pan or utensils by filling the pan with water, putting in the utensils and simmering the water until the residue dissolves.
  • Candy-making books abound, but my main guides have always been the classics: Joy of Cooking and Fannie Farmer Cookbook. I tend to use a basic recipe and then experiment and add my own variations, but keep it simple and let the good ingredients work their own particular charm.

Candy-Making Stages

Candy-making is defined by stages, which concerns the syrup that forms when you heat the sugar. Stages range from the thread stage, which occurs beginning at 230 degrees, when a bit of the sugar syrup is dripped from a spoon to form a thick thread, to the hard ball stage, which is when the syrup can be formed into a hard ball when pressed together, to the hard crack stage, which is when the syrup becomes brittle and crackable. Caramelized sugar occurs after a delicate dance of trying to melt the sugar until it becomes liquid and dark golden but just before it burns — you definitely will have to start again if the sugar burns, I've learned from experience. The stages, adapted from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook:

  • Thread: 230-235 degrees. The syrup makes a 2-inch coarse thread when dropped from a spoon.
  • Soft Ball: 235-240 degrees. A small quantity of syrup dropped into chilled water forms a ball that does not disintegrate, but flattens out when picked up with the fingers.
  • Firm Ball: 245-250 degrees. The ball will just hold its shape and will not flatten unless pressed with the fingers.
  • Hard Ball: 250-265 degrees. The ball is more rigid but still pliable.
  • Soft Crack: 270-290 degrees. The ball will just hold its shape and will not flatten unless pressed.
  • Hard Crack: 300-310 degrees. The syrup separates into threads that are hard and brittle.
  • Caramelized Sugar: Occurs at 310 to 338 degrees. Syrup will turn dark golden. At 350 it turns black, which means it has burned (and will taste bitter) and you'll have to start again.

Recipe: Coffee-Pistachio Toffee

I came up with this toffee variation because I was remembering Greece — coffee and pistachios being so evocative of that place. Even in December, a piece of this candy reminds me of sipping hot, strong coffee and nibbling homegrown pistachios while looking out over the Mediterranean. It will definitely figure in my candy boxes this year.

Coffee-Pistachio Toffee i i
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR
Coffee-Pistachio Toffee
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR

Makes about 2 pounds

2 cups shelled pistachio nuts

1 cup sugar

1/3 cup packed brown sugar

2 teaspoons instant espresso powder

1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1/3 cup water

1 tablespoon dark unsulfured molasses

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter

4 1/2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped

4 1/2 ounces milk chocolate, finely chopped

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Spread pistachios on a cookie sheet and toast in the oven until fragrant, 5 to 10 minutes, making sure they don’t burn. Cool for 10 minutes, then coarsely chop. Put in a bowl.

In a medium bowl, combine sugars, espresso powder and cinnamon. In another small bowl or measuring cup, combine water and molasses.

Butter a cookie sheet or jelly roll pan. Melt butter in a heavy 2 1/2-quart saucepan over low heat. Add the mixture of sugars, espresso powder and cinnamon, and the mixture of water and molasses, and stir until sugar dissolves.

Increase heat to medium and, using a candy thermometer, cook until thermometer registers 290 degrees, stirring occasionally and scraping bottom of pan for about 15 minutes.

Remove pan from heat, and quickly stir in 1 1/2 cups chopped nuts. Immediately pour mixture onto prepared pan. With a spatula, spread toffee to 1/4-inch thickness. Sprinkle chocolate by generous tablespoonfuls atop toffee, alternating bittersweet and milk chocolates. Let stand for 1 minute to melt the chocolate. Using the back of a spoon or spatula, spread chocolate slightly to coat the toffee. Sprinkle with the remaining 1/2 cup chopped nuts.

Refrigerate until toffee is firm, about 1 hour. With a sharp knife, slice the toffee evenly, or break into pieces.

Recipe: Caramel Corn

This is the perfect snack — I mean gift — for the candy-maker. Tuck the popcorn into clear cellophane bags and tie with a ribbon or two to make a wonderful holiday package. Try a variety of nuts (walnuts are good), or add a pinch of cayenne pepper to mix it up a bit. Be careful, though — this is slightly addictive.

Caramel Corn i i
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR
Caramel Corn
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR

Makes about 12 cups

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/3 cup popcorn kernels

1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter

1 1/2 cups packed light brown sugar

1/2 cup sugar (I use organic raw sugar)

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup salted peanuts

Heat oil with 3 kernels in a 3-quart heavy saucepan, covered, over moderate heat until 1 or 2 kernels pop. Remove lid and quickly add remaining kernels, then cook, covered, shaking pan frequently, until kernels stop popping, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and uncover.

Line bottom of a large shallow baking pan with foil. Lightly oil foil. Melt butter in a 6-quart heavy pot over moderate heat. Add sugars and bring to a boil over moderate heat, stirring, then boil, without stirring, until syrup registers 300 degrees on thermometer, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove pot from heat.

Using a wooden spoon or a heatproof spatula, whisk salt, baking soda and vanilla into sugar syrup, then quickly stir in peanuts and popcorn to coat well.

Immediately spread mixture in baking pan as thinly and evenly as possible. Cool completely, then break into small and large pieces.

Recipe: Maple Syrup Caramels

Simple and sweet, though not overly so, these maple caramels are winter to me. Where I live in Northern California, it never snows and rarely dips below freezing, but when I make these candies I think of winter and New England and fires in the fireplace.

Maple Syrup Caramels i i
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR
Maple Syrup Caramels
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR

Makes about 1 1/2 pounds

2 cups brown sugar

1 1/2 cups maple syrup

1/2 cup heavy cream

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

Butter an 8-by-12-inch baking dish.

In a large heavy pan over medium heat, stir together the sugar, maple syrup and cream until the sugar is dissolved. Stir and cook until mixture slowly reaches the firm ball stage, 244 degrees.

Add the butter and stir to melt.

Pour the candy into the baking dish and score into squares as it hardens. Let cool about 3 hours, invert onto a board and cut the squares free along the lines you've cut.

Variation: Sprinkle 1/2 cup crushed, toasted walnuts or almonds into the mixture just before removing from heat.

Recipe: Brown Sugar-Coconut Fudge

This tastes just as delicious without the coconut and walnuts (if you're not a fan), though their inclusion elevates this fudge well beyond the realm of ordinary.

Brown Sugar-Coconut Fudge i i
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR
Brown Sugar-Coconut Fudge
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR

Makes about 1 1/2  pounds

2 ounces good-quality unsweetened chocolate, chopped

2 cups brown sugar

3/4 cup milk

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, in small pieces

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 1/4 cup shredded coconut

1 cup finely chopped, toasted walnuts

Grease an 8-by-8-inch pan.

Combine chocolate, sugar and milk in a heavy pot, stirring well to blend ingredients. Stirring slowly, bring to a boil over low heat. Cover pot and let boil for 2 to 3 minutes. Uncover and wash down the sides of the pot with a pastry brush dipped in cold water, then continue to boil slowly, without stirring, until the syrup reaches the soft ball stage (234 degrees).

Remove from heat, add the butter without stirring, and set the pot aside to cool.

Don't stir until the syrup is lukewarm, about 110 degrees. Add the vanilla, coconut and walnuts and stir without stopping until the mixture loses its gloss and thickens. Pour into the greased pan and mark into squares.

Let cool and firm before cutting into pieces.

Recipe: Cranberry Fruit Jellies

The pectin (rather than gelatin) makes these jellies perfectly suitable for the vegetarians on your gift list. Rolling in sugar after the jellies are cut makes them sparkle — perfect for the holidays, especially when incorporating seasonal fruit.

Cranberry Fruit Jellies i i
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR
Cranberry Fruit Jellies
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR

Makes about 3 dozen candies

3 firm-ripe Bartlett pears (1 1/2 pounds total)

1 (12-ounce) bag fresh or frozen cranberries

1 cup water

3 3/4 cups sugar

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger

2 (3-ounce) packages liquid pectin

Line bottom and sides of an 8-by-8-inch pan with plastic wrap, pressing into bottom and corners of pan to smooth.

Quarter and core pears, then cut into 1/2-inch pieces, leaving peel on. Bring pears, cranberries, water, sugar, butter and ginger to a boil in a 4- to 6-quart heavy pot over moderately high heat, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to low, and simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, until cranberries burst and pears are tender, about 10 minutes.

Carefully transfer hot mixture to a food processor and puree until smooth, about 1 minute. (Mixture will be thick). Force through a medium-mesh sieve back into same pot, pressing on solids with back of a spoon and discarding solids.

Put a plate in freezer to chill.

Bring cranberry mixture to a boil over high heat and add the pectin. Reduce heat to moderate and cook, stirring frequently, until very thick and pastelike, about 45 minutes. To test, remove from heat, then drop a teaspoonful on chilled plate and chill in freezer 1 minute. Tilt plate: Mixture should remain in a firm mound and not run. If mixture runs, continue cooking and stirring and repeat test every 5 minutes.

Remove from heat and immediately pour mixture into prepared pan. Gently tap sides of pan to smooth top and eliminate any air bubbles.

Cool to room temperature, at least 1 hour, then cover surface directly with plastic wrap and chill until firm, at least 2 hours.

Cut into 1/4-inch squares or use small cookie cutters to cut into other shapes.

Recipe: Salted Caramel Nut Brittle

A variation on the classic peanut version, a touch of salt makes this brittle dangerously addictive.

Salted Caramel Nut Brittle i i
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR
Salted Caramel Nut Brittle
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR

Makes about 1 pound

2 cups granulated sugar

1 cup water

1 cup toasted hazelnuts, walnuts, almonds or pumpkin seeds (or a combination) coarsely chopped

1 teaspoon sea salt

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.

Place sugar and water in a medium saucepan and stir to combine. Cook over medium-high heat, without stirring, until mixture starts to brown, about 14 minutes. Gently swirl the pan until the mixture is an even, deep amber color, about 1 minute more.

Immediately remove from heat and quickly stir in nuts and salt. Pour onto the prepared baking sheet, spread in an even layer, and let cool. Once cool, break into small pieces.

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