A gift of candy is an age-old way of expressing love or friendship, whether from a child offering to share his candy bar or a mother making fudge for a special family occasion. An especially sweet expression of sentiment is a gift of old-timey homemade candies flavored with herbs and spices. Remember root beer suckers, ginger hard candies, peppermint kisses, cinnamon gumdrops, and licorice whips? Let one of these old-fashioned favorites melt in your mouth, and you’ll imagine your grandmother’s smile.
Helpful Tips: Candy Hints
Candy dates back at least 3000 years —we know that from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics—and some form of candymaking can be found in almost every culture. It was the Arabs, however, who first cultivated sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum), developed techniques of refining the sap, and made the first sugar-based confections that we know today as candy.
Candymaking was a part of family life in this country in the early eighteenth century; through the Depression and beyond, taffy pulls were a part of growing up. Herbs and spices such as nutmeg, cardamom, cinnamon, mint, clove, mace, and anise were highly prized for their flavor or medicinal value, so they were a natural choice for flavoring candies, which were also a delicacy. Early candymakers either grew their herbs and prepared extracts at home, or purchased them at the general store or from traveling medicine men who hawked their wares from wagons. By the end of World War II, when modern manufacturing techniques made candy readily available and cheap, many families had stopped making their own.
The pioneer candymakers made candy over an open fire in cast-iron or copper pots, usually without a candy thermometer to tell them when the sugar syrup had been cooked sufficiently. Instead, they used the cold water test, dropping a small quantity of boiling syrup into a bowl of cold water; its shape or consistency told them how close it was to being done. Today, a candy thermometer takes the guesswork out of judging when the syrup is done, but the cold water test can be used if you prefer or if you have no thermometer. The chart on page 76 relates the changes in consistency of the syrup to the temperatures at which they occur.
Most candy is essentially sugar that has been boiled with a liquid, and its form depends on the temperature to which the syrup has been boiled. The following are some common types.
Caramel is a high-temperature candy with added milk or fat; nougat is similar to caramel in consistency but has no added fat. Hard candy is a high-temperature candy that can be pulled or shaped into “glass” suckers or lozenges.
Fondant is a mid-temperature candy that is beaten to a smooth, opaque paste that can then be flavored and tinted. It often serves as a base for chocolate-covered or crystallized candies. Fudge combines the properties of caramel and vigorously mixed fondant.
Low-temperature candies are sticky. Jellies are made from sugar syrup and corn syrup thickened by the addition of pectin or starch. Gums combine sugar syrup and edible gums such as arabic or tragacanth.
Herbs and spices that work well in candy include anise, cinnamon, clove, coriander, ginger, lemon verbena, mint, rose geranium, and sweet cicely. They may be used as oils and extracts, dried and ground, or fresh. Oils and extracts of herbs work best for caramels, taffy, and glass candies. Dried and ground herbs work equally well in hard and soft candies, and they confer a “speckled” appearance that can be quite attractive in taffy and nougats. Fresh herbs are recommended for jellies and baked candies such as mint kisses.
When using oils and extracts, moderation is the key. Too much can easily overpower the taste buds. Begin with one or two drops, and then add one or two more if necessary. One to two teaspoons per batch of ground dried herbs and spices will usually produce the desired flavor. You have more latitude with fresh herbs: using a little more or less won’t spoil the batch of candy.
Most modern recipes give precise cooking times, temperatures, and quantities. Older recipes, however, were often nothing more than a list of ingredients with vague or no instructions. They assumed that every woman, even a new bride, knew how to make candy.
The recipes that follow are designed for experimenting. Candy lends itself to personal touches. It is inexpensive to make and, except for some made into fanciful shapes, takes little time. Any failures dissolve away with a few minutes’ soaking in hot water. Kids, teens, and adults alike love to help create homemade suckers, pull taffy, and mold candy.
If you plan a candymaking project that will involve children, think about safety. Spilled or spattering boiling syrup can cause serious burns, so have an adult around to do the actual cooking and pouring of hot syrup and let the kids pull or shape the cooler candy. Have ice water on hand in case of a burn. Maintain an uncluttered work surface, have potholders handy, and keep small children away from the stove. And have fun.
• Farmer, Fannie Merritt. The Boston Cooking School Cook Book. Boston: Little, Brown, 1922.
• Gisslen, Wayne. Professional Baking. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1985.
• Kendrick, Ruth A. Candy Making. Los Angeles: HPBooks, 1987.
• Morse, S. L. Household Discoveries and Mrs. Curtis’s Cook Book. New York: The Success Company, 1909.
• Prichard, Anita. Candy Cook Book. New York: Crown, 1978.
• Rombauer, Irma S., and Marion Rombauer Becker. Joy of Cooking, The American News Company Edition. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1962.
Jennifer Van Norman of Loveland, Colorado, is a freelance food developer and recipe tester. Besides frequent appearances in Woman’s Day magazine, her work is featured on the recipe cards packaged with Perdue chicken.