Happy December! With warm weather becoming an increasingly distant memory, it’s now the time of year when having the oven or stove on is finally a pleasure in and of itself, rather than a means to an end. The holidays are a time for a particular kind of culinary creativity, sparking inspiration to try our hand at homemade anything-and-everything to share with loved ones. Not to mention indulging our own sweet tooth...quality control is important, after all!

Many of you undoubtedly have holiday candy recipes on hand that have been passed down through the generations. But if you’re an intrepid first-generation culinarian, or you’re simply looking for something new and different, read on for a whirlwind tour of natural candy-making. In the space available, I’ll offer recipes for a few types of candy; for others, I’ll give you an overview of the topic and point you to resources where you can find recipes and more information.

How to Adapt Recipes
What if you have a favorite recipe that doesn’t quite meet your natural foods standards? In many cases, you can substitute natural ingredients without much trouble. If you are trying to avoid the following ingredients, here are some suggestions for alternatives:

Corn Syrup
Many candy recipes include corn syrup. This is not just for sweetness; it also acts as an interfering agent, meaning it prevents the other sugars in the recipe from recrystallizing after melting, thereby creating an undesirable grainy texture in your candy. However, you can use an alternative interfering agent. Acids also serve this purpose, so consider using your regular sugar and adding a small amount of lemon juice, vinegar, or cream of tartar. (Recipes I’ve seen call for anywhere between a drop and a teaspoon.) Be careful if you do this, though, because it causes the cooking time to have a greater effect on the final texture. Another alternative is to substitute honey or molasses for corn syrup. This will, of course, impart a different flavor to your final product, so be sure to factor that into your decision.

Coating chocolate
If you’re going to dip candy, pretzels, or fruit in chocolate, you might encounter a product called coating chocolate, or see a recipe that involves melting chocolate together with shortening. These products are often highly processed or include artificial ingredients. But there are alternatives! You can absolutely use natural chocolate to enrobe your delicacies. If appearance is a secondary consideration, you can just melt the chocolate in the microwave or a double-boiler and go for it. (Stir frequently; especially in the microwave, chocolate can burn in less than a minute!) If you’re going for a professional appearance and want the chocolate to come out shiny and have a nice snap, you’ll need to temper it when you melt it. That extra step is why there are shortcut products on the market, such as coating chocolate, but tempering is worth the extra effort if you desire a natural product. There are several ways you can temper chocolate at home; for a simple method, check out the following website: www.instructables.com/id/How-to_temper-Chocolate/.

Dairy
If you’re vegan or lactose-intolerant, you have options for sweeteners and fats! If you’re looking for a liquid alternative to corn syrup but don’t want to use honey, try maple syrup. For caramels, use coconut milk in place of cream. For chocolate ganache, you can use soy milk or soy creamer. Instead of butter, try vegan margarine or coconut oil.

Maple Sugar Candy
There’s nothing quite like real maple syrup. And if you’re a fan of maple syrup, but don’t want to wait until it’s pancake time, maple sugar candy is a great way to get your fix. That little leaf-shaped melt-in-your-mouth delicacy is made almost by magic. And it’s vegan and gluten-free! You need only one ingredient: maple syrup. It’s hard to get more natural or more simple! You create a basic transformation in that single ingredient. This is hardly a recipe so much as a formula. In a large pot, boil two cups of maple syrup on the stove until a candy thermometer reaches 233ºF. Turn off the heat, and let it cool without stirring until it reaches 110ºF. Stir madly for several minutes until the mixture transforms into a crystalline texture. Pour into molds or roll into balls, and let it set up. Yes, that’s really all! (Adapted from www.care2.com/greenliving/homemade-maple-magic-candy-recipe.html)

Sugar + Dairy: A Winning Combination
With only a slightly longer ingredient list, let’s move on to caramel and toffee. Technically speaking, the difference between caramel and toffee is the moisture content when they are finished cooking. Caramel is usually made with cream, and sometimes additional butter; toffee is often made with just butter, rather than cream. Toffee is more brittle than caramel, brought up to a higher temperature so more of the moisture cooks off.

For a warm and cozy caramel candy, give this a try:

Honey Cinnamon Caramels
Consider using a strongly flavored honey in this recipe, since honey is a featured element. I used a combination of honeys. One of these was Raw Killer Bee honey, a South American honey available at the Willy Street Co-op, described on the producer’s website as comparable to “a stout beer...hints of molasses, with an undertone of cinnamon and cocoa offer a rich complexity of flavor unrivaled by the friendly bumble-bee cousins found here in North America.” You could also use any number of wonderful local honeys.
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup raw honey
1/4 cup water
2 cups heavy cream
2 cinnamon sticks
1/4 tsp. salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Directions:

  1. Prepare a 9x9” square baking pan by oiling the bottom and sides.
  2. In a large pot, combine sugar, honey, and water. Stir to combine, then don’t stir again before adding cream.
  3. Place the cinnamon stick in a small saucepan, and cover with the heavy cream. Heat over medium heat until it just starts to boil, then turn off.
  4. Meanwhile (you can do this while the cream is heating), cook the sugar, honey, and water mixture over medium-high heat until the sugar is fully dissolved and comes to a boil. Remember, don’t stir! If you see any sugar crystals on the sides of the pot, periodically brush them down with a wet pastry brush. The mixture does not need to reach a particular temperature at this point, but let the water boil off, and cook the mixture until it reaches a nice medium-brown color. Depending on the color of your honey, the mixture might be dark to begin with, so it could be difficult to tell when it’s changing color. The good news is that this isn’t too important. The honey flavor will come through regardless; if you let the mixture darken further at this stage, the final product will be more caramel-y. It’s a matter of taste! Just make sure it doesn’t start to scorch (you’ll smell it if it does), and be cautious with your extremities, since the caramel is very hot and very sticky at this point!
  5. Very slowly pour the warmed cream into the sugar mixture, stirring constantly. Be careful, because the caramel can bubble and foam up considerably; pouring slowly will help prevent it from spattering too much.
  6. Attach a candy thermometer to the side of your pot at this point; make sure the bulb is fully submerged in the liquid, but not touching the bottom. Continue cooking the caramel, stirring occasionally, until the thermometer reads 245ºF.
  7. Add the sea salt and vanilla extract. Stir briefly, just until well-combined, and then remove the pot from the heat and pour out into your prepared pan. Do not scrape the bottom of the pot.
  8. Let cool at room temperature. When fully cool, run a plastic knife around the edges of the pan, then invert it over a cutting board to release the caramel. You might need to give the pan a thwack to encourage the caramel to come out.
  9. Cut into 1”x1” squares and wrap in rectangles of wax paper, twisting the ends in opposite directions to make a pretty little package.

Brittle
Our next permutation of cooked sugar is brittle. Like a crunchier toffee, nut brittles typically have more sugar and less butter (if any at all). Often, baking soda is added to improve the texture, making it light and crunchy. You can use any sort of nut in brittle, not just peanuts. Take a stroll down the bulk aisle at Willy Street Co-op and see what strikes your fancy! For some brittle recipes, check out the book Candy Making for Dummies by David Jones for a chapter devoted to brittles.

Hard Candy
When I was in baking school, one of the most fascinating topics we covered in class was hard candy. I hadn’t realized that it’s possible to make hard candy without specialty equipment. It is! For some lollipop recipes, check out The Sweet Book of Candy Making by Elizabeth LaBau. If you’re particularly ambitious and want to make candy canes or other hand-formed hard candies, there are some resources on the internet. Here’s one recipe: candy.about.com/od/hardcandyrecipes/r/candy_canes.htm.

There’s definitely a learning curve; don’t expect to have perfectly formed candy canes the first time you do it, but that isn’t very important; you know that everyone will be impressed that you made them!

Chocolate
No overview of candy-making would be complete without a section on chocolate. Whether you want to top or dip other confections in it (try spreading a layer of tempered chocolate over your cooled toffee, or dipping pretzels in it), or you want to make truffles, you’ll find plenty of options for natural chocolate treats. Two techniques will get you a long way in chocolate confectionary: tempering, and making ganache.

For dipping and topping:
Tempering chocolate is a process of manipulating temperature to ensure a shiny surface and a clean, crisp snap when you break the chocolate. Most chocolate that you buy will arrive tempered, but if you melt it to pour or shape in some way, and you want it to have the same nice appearance and texture after it re-solidifies, you will need to temper it before using it.

For a filling or frosting:
If you’re looking for a soft and creamy chocolate, for the center of a truffle or a topping for a brownie, ganache is what you want to make. Ganache is, at its essence, an emulsion of chocolate and dairy (or a dairy substitute). It is made by adding chocolate to a pot of hot cream, letting it sit for several minutes, and then carefully and thoroughly stirring until blended and shiny. Depending on the how you plan to use the ganache, you’ll use differing ratios of chocolate and cream. For the center of a truffle, you’ll want a relatively stiff ganache, with less cream. For a topping on brownies or a glaze on a cake, you’ll use more cream.

For chocolate recipe ideas, look in nearly any book on candy-making. In addition to recipes, The Sweet Book of Candy Making has some great photos showing off techniques.

Fudge
My childhood is filled with memories of making fudge for the holidays with my dad. The recipe he uses is the same one that his own father used. When I smell the sugar, butter, and evaporated milk cooking on the stove, I am immediately transported home. The family recipe is actually a variation on the one that appears on the jar of marshmallow fluff. I’ve adjusted this recipe to include an option to make your own marshmallow fluff from scratch, if you’re looking for a more natural and less processed product (standard marshmallow fluff includes corn syrup and artificial vanilla).

Dad’s Chocolate Fudge
2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup butter (1 stick)
1 can evaporated milk (12 oz.)
1 jar marshmallow fluff (7.5 oz.), or homemade marshmallow fluff, recipe follows
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla
12 oz. semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup chopped walnuts (optional)
Marshmallow Fluff, adapted from www.cheeseslave.com/how-to-make-marshmallow-fluff-without-corn-syrup/
When I made this recipe, I got a total of about 6 ounces of fluff, as opposed to the 7.5 ounces in the commercially available jar. The fudge still came out fine. If you wanted to use the full 7.5 ounces of fluff, you could double the recipe below and use just part of it.
1 egg white
5 ounces honey
Sea salt (pinch)
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Directions:

  1. In a bowl or a stand mixer, combine egg whites, honey, and sea salt.
  2. Mix on high speed for about 7-10 minutes, until thick.
  3. Add vanilla extract and mix until completely combined.

Fudge Directions

  1. Butter a 9 in. square glass pan.
  2. Fill a sink with ice cubes.
  3. Mix sugar, butter, and evaporated milk in 3 quart sauce pan, heat on medium-high heat, stirring constantly.
  4. Cook to soft ball stage. You can test for this using a candy thermometer (taking care that the bulb is submerged but not touching the bottom of the pot), which should read 235ºF. Or you can test the traditional way: when the bubbles in the mixture no longer form a dome, use your stirring implement to drop a tiny bit of the fudge into a saucer of cold water. Let sit for a moment so it can cool. If it forms a blob that retains its shape in a soft ball between your fingers, the fudge is ready for the next step. If not, keep cooking and test again until you reach soft ball stage.
  5. Put the pot in the sink over ice and stir in the remaining ingredients as quickly as possible, chips first. NOTE: if you use the homemade marshmallow fluff, the egg white is raw, and may not be pasteurized by the heat of the fudge. Consider this option to carry the typical level of health risk for consuming raw eggs.
  6. Pour the fudge into the glass pan. Cover with plastic wrap and cool in the refrigerator for a couple of hours.
  7. When cool, cut the fudge into 64 pieces carefully with a sharp knife with a thin blade. Remove and wrap each piece in plastic wrap.

Candy Outside Your Kitchen
Madison is a good place for candy. Did you know that UW-Madison is home to an extremely popular candy-making residency program for confectionary professionals? Every year, this two-week summer course—officially named the Resident Course in Confectionary Technology, but nicknamed Candy School—fills up quickly and draws students from around the globe. It’s held at Babcock Hall and has seen more than 1,200 graduates over the 50 years it’s been running. I had no idea this existed right in our own backyard! If your curiosity is also piqued, check out the program’s website at www.foodsci.wisc.edu/extension/candy/.

And of course, you need only look in the aisles and check-out lanes at Willy Street Co-op to be awed by the variety of chocolate and candy that’s available in Madison, including much that’s locally produced. Give these businesses your support whenever you can, and let them inspire you in your home endeavors too! Some holiday-related confectionary specialties you can look for include Hannukah gelt and advent calendars from Divine Chocolate, and penguin mini chocolates from Endangered Species.

To learn more about candy-making, check out some of the following resources:
Books:

  • Candy Making for Dummies, David Jones
  • The Sweet Book of Candy Making, Elizabeth LaBau

Websites:

  • The Exploratorium museum in San Francisco’s candy page with a focus on science (various sections for various ages): www.exploratorium.edu/cooking/candy/
  • About.com’s guide to candy making, including techniques, charts, and recipes: candy.about.com/od/candybasics/a/candy_beginners.htm