In this modern-day-take-it-out-of-the-freezer-and shove-it-in-the-microwave world, we often lose sight of what real food tastes like. Not too surprising, when you look at the ingredient lists on most prepared foods. Many so-called foods have more chemicals than food ingredients. I figure if you can’t even pronounce half the ingredients, you shouldn’t rely on it as a major food source. On the other hand, just think about beef stew or chili simmering slowly through the day, ready to warm the cockles of your heart – not to mention your cold hands – come dinner time. Or home-made breakfast burritos or Cornish pasties, stored in the freezer for those mornings when you can barely find the kitchen, let alone think up a menu.
Almost everyone has a sweet tooth. In medieval times, honey was the source of sweet treats, typically combined with fruit, ginger or other spices (assuming you had the wherewithal to procure said spices). Dates were another potent sweetener and dried dates kept very well. But for most people, fruit – either fresh or dried – was about as sweet as a treat got.
Sugar – known as “white gold” – made its way onto European plates after Columbus took his little jaunt in 1492. By the 1500s, Europeans were hooked. To support their sugar habit, slavery became the norm in most areas where sugar cane could be grown. Even then, sugar was still very expensive (it was even taxed in England until 1874), and considered a treat. Sugar and its byproducts like molasses were used only for special occasion cooking. Christmas was one time when the cooks in the family rolled up their sleeves and produced a bevy of sweet treats usually only seen once a year.
When you read the recipes below, remember that they didn’t have electric mixers – all that beating was done by hand. Prior to 1850 and the first commercial mill for making powdered sugar, they also had to powder the granulated form by hand. Since the resulting confections were so expensive, kids were lucky to get one piece at a time, and with the larger families more common in earlier days, the sweeties were usually gone by New Year’s Day. Here are several classic Christmas candy recipes. Never make candy on a humid or rainy day – you are courting recipe failure.
Molasses Taffy (probably dates from the mid-1800s)
2 cups sugar
1 cup molasses
1/4 cup water
2 teaspoons white vinegar
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
Lightly grease a baking sheet. Bring the sugar, molasses, water, and vinegar to a boil in a saucepan over medium heat. Cook and stir until a small amount of syrup dropped into cold water forms a rigid ball. Remove from heat and stir in butter and baking soda. Pour the mixture onto the prepared baking sheet. Allow to sit until cool enough to handle, 10 to 15 minutes. Once cool enough to handle, grease your hands with butter, fold the taffy in half and then pull to double its original length. Continue folding and pulling until the taffy has turned golden brown and is too stiff to pull anymore. Cut the taffy into bite-sized pieces, and wrap in waxed paper. Store in an airtight container.
Chocolate Fudge (probably late 1800s)
2 3/4 cups sugar
4 ounces unsweetened baking chocolate, chopped
3 tbsp unsalted butter plus more for greasing pan
1 cup half-and-half
1 tbsp light corn syrup (our great-grandmothers didn’t have corn syrup, which was invented in 1902. They made a sugar solution from 1 ¼ cups granulated sugar dissolved in ¼ cup hot water – but I won’t tell if you cheat and use Karo!)
1 tbsp vanilla extract
Grease an 8 by 8-inch pan with butter. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the sugar, chocolate, 1 1/2 tablespoons of the butter, half-and-half and corn syrup. Over medium heat, stir with a wooden spoon until sugar is dissolved and chocolate is melted. Increase heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover and simmer for 3 minutes. Remove the cover and cook to the soft ball stage – a teaspoon of candy dropped in cold water forms a soft ball. Remove from the heat and add the remaining butter. Do not stir. Let the mixture cool for 10 minutes. Add vanilla; mix until well-blended and the shiny texture becomes matte. Stop beating immediately when it reaches this stage. Pour into the prepared pan. If you have a lot of air bubbles, you can give the pan a firm rap or two on the counter to pop the bubbles. Let sit in cool dry area until firm. Wrap cut pieces in parchment paper and store in an airtight container or sealable plastic bag. Fudge stored at room temperature can last from seven to 14 days. Fudge can also be stored in the refrigerator wrapped and in an airtight container for two to three weeks.
Divinity Candy (somewhere between 1900 and 1915; my hubby’s favorite)
2 egg whites, at room temperature
2 & ¼ cups granulated sugar
½ cup water
½ cup light corn syrup (see note for Fudge, above)
⅛ tsp salt
½ cup chopped nuts (pecans are traditional)
1 tsp vanilla extract
Line a large cookie sheet with parchment paper and set aside. In a large saucepan, heat together the sugar, water, corn syrup and salt. Cook on medium heat, stirring occasionally, for about seven to 10 minutes or until a teaspoon dropped in cold water forms a hard ball. At the five-minute point, beat the egg whites on high speed using an electric mixer or stand mixer until stiff peaks form. VERY slowly beat the hot syrup into the egg whites. It should take you at least two minutes. Continue beating the mixture until it’s no longer glossy and it holds its shape, about six to 10 minutes. Stir in the chopped nuts and vanilla extract until combined. Drop rounded tablespoonfuls of the divinity mixture onto the parchment-lined baking sheets with buttered spoons. Allow the candy to set at room temperature until dry to the touch and no longer sticky. Once set and dry, you can keep it at room temperature for up to five days in an airtight container. (I once lost some for two months in an airtight container and hubby said it tasted just fine.)
Mashed Potato Candy (this is a Depression-era recipe)
1 small russet potato, peeled and sliced
6-8 cups powdered sugar
2/3 cup peanut butter (I use almond butter since I’m allergic to peanuts)
Place potato in a small pan and cover with water. Cook until very tender. Drain and place in a large bowl. Use a hand mixer to beat the potato until it is lump-free. Add 4 cups of powdered sugar and beat until mixed well. Continue to mix powdered sugar in 1 cup at a time until thick. (It should have the consistency of putty or cookie dough. Place on a large piece of waxed paper that has been lightly coated with powdered sugar. Sprinkle some more powdered sugar on top.
Roll potato mixture out into a 1/4-inch thick rectangle. Spread evenly with peanut butter. Starting at a long side, roll up tightly like you would cinnamon rolls. Wrap in wax paper, cut in half and place both pieces in a large ziptop bag. Refrigerate at least 30 minutes or until ready to serve.
Remove wax paper and cut into 3/4-inch slices.
Caramels (the original candy was created sometime before 1725, when the Spanish used the name caramello to describe the darkened, crystallized sugar; somewhere between 1650 and the mid-1800s, someone added milk or cream)
1 tablespoon plus 1 cup butter, divided
2 cups sugar
1-3/4 cups light corn syrup (see note in Fudge, above)
2 cups half-and-half
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup chopped pecans, optional
Line an 11×7-in. pan with parchment paper; grease with 1 tablespoon butter and set aside. In a large heavy saucepan, combine the sugar, corn syrup and remaining butter. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly; boil gently for four minutes without stirring. Remove from the heat; stir in cream. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring constantly, to soft-ball stage.
Remove from the heat; stir in vanilla and optional pecans. Pour into prepared pan; cool. Lift from pan using parchment paper and cut into squares. Store at room temperature.