Tomorrow we are having a baking day at my mom’s house. By "we" I mean: my sisters and three of my nieces. Instead of, you know, baking something, I decided, "hey! I saw that book about candy making at work the other day! I should make some hand-dipped chocolates!"
Now, before you go all doubting Thomas on me, I’ll have you know that I make caramel and fudge every year.
And in fact, I'm practically an expert at making fondant and soft caramels for dipping. Because I took a class! at a real candy store! And I’ve made them before. One time. Back in 1995. How much could I have forgotten?
Only that it’s harder than I remember?
So tonight, in preparation for tomorrow, I decided to whip up a batch of chocolate nougat, one of chocolate caramel and also a batch of fondant. My first clue should’ve been when I totally made a mess cracking the first egg for the egg-white nougat.
Because it all went downhill from there.
But I persevered. I washed the mixing bowl out and started again, following the nougat recipe exactly. What you do is whip the egg whites while a sugar syrup is boiling happily away. So I whipped the eggs and watched the thermometer in the syrup, and I boiled it to exactly 245 degrees, and then I slowly whisked the syrup into the egg whites.
Seriously. I did it just like the recipe said.
Except (and, ummm, hello, this makes sense because, you know, physics), not all of the syrup whisked itself into the egg whites. Nope. A good deal of it whipped itself into the air and became...whipped sugar. (Read: hard, crystalized sugar. Wrapped in thin amber strands around the beaters. Pretty...but not so awesome in a soft nougat.) But I’d used the last three eggs I had so I just kept going.
And maybe there was something tickling at the back of my mind...something I’d forgotten about candy making?
Meanwhile (back when the sugar syrup for the nougat was boiling), having forgotten how much concentration it takes to make candy, I decided to multitask. I started working on the chocolate caramel.
What you do for chocolate caramel is start by mixing sugar and water, and then just letting it sit over a medium-warm burner until it starts to boil. Then you add some Karo syrup, and you let it cook again, stirring every once in awhile, until it’s at 310 degrees. (That is hard crack stage, which will be important.) Then you cool it slightly, and add in other stuff.
So the sugar syrup for the caramel is bubbling away cheerfully on the power burner of my stove while I’m trying to whisk the sugar syrup for the nougat and only having, well, not very successful success. And it’s bubbling away happily while I’m carefully stirring the chocolate, butter, and vanilla into the nougat (carefully because I’m trying not to knock any of the 1.2 million bits of crystalized sugar into the nougat). And then it’s suddenly bubbling not so happily nor cheerily. It’s furiously boiling, it’s furiously mad, it’s, yeah, it’s burning because hello: I knocked the power burner dial up to high.
So I’m trying to pour (but not scrape because: sugar crystals) the nougat into the parchment-paper-lined pan and the kitchen is filling with smoke. I give up on the nougat, grab the pan full of burning sugar syrup, and start pouring it down the sink, with enough hot water that I think I’ll be, you know, safe. Except the handle to the pan is freaking hot (it’s not called the "power burner" for nothing) and so I drop the pan into the sink and burning sugar syrup splatters all over my hand.
I mean, as sweet as it sounds, a burn from burning sugar syrup? Not so sweet.
So the kitchen smells like burnt sugar and charred flesh. The nougat is a sort of lumpish, brownish mess on the parchment paper. But I still have the cream and the chocolate ready to go for the chocolate caramel, so I just start the sugar syrup over again. In a smaller pan and on the normal burner this time, because all that I did wrong the first time was use too big of a pan and too big of a burner.
I also decide that the recipe is too small, so I am going to increase it by fifty percent, even though I’m sure learned somewhere that you’re not supposed to double candy recipes. I do it anyway and once it starts boiling it looks exactly right. So I stir it now and then while I’m washing out the mixing bowl, burnt-sugar pan, 327 measuring cups and 5 rubber spatulas. I scrape all of the nougat I can into a ziplock bag; we’ll just see how it is tomorrow. I check the thermometer and stir and make sure that the burner stays on medium. I stir the vanilla into the cream and maybe I groan just a little bit when I lick the spoon.
I stir the sugar syrup and watch it closely.
I reread the recipe and I remember: oh, yeah. I need butter. Six tablespoons! No! Nine, because I’m 1.5ing it, right? So I toss the butter into the microwave and push, yes, start. Instead of soften, and I realize it twenty seconds in, and then I sigh and wash the butter off the microwave tray and start again with a new cube.
I check the thermometer again: 310! So I turn the burner off, and hold the pan in a bowl of ice to stop the cooking. And then I think, wait, this next step is weird, because it seems like pouring cream (which by now is room temperature) into hot sugar syrup seems, well...not very wise. But that’s what the recipe said when I read it the last time, so I pour in the cream, and just as I’m pouring I remember the two things I forgot from my long-ago candy making class:
You have to adjust the cooking temperature for altitude
310 degrees is, remember, hard crack stage. And if you don’t have a thermometer, how do you test for hard crack stage? You drip some of the sugar syrup into cold water and see what it does. At 310, it forms itself into long, hard strands.
Guess what happens when you pour cream into 310-degree sugar syrup?
It totally seizes.
Like a great big lump.
And as a bonus, I had this brilliant, ah-ha moment just while I was pouring the cream in, so I started to stop the pouring by grabbing the metal part of the pan. Yep, instead of the handle. With my other, non-burned palm of course!
So now there’s this big, hard ball of seized sugar syrup sort of mucking up the cream.
And I’m thinking, what a stupid recipe! And then I actually look at the recipe, and I see the step I skipped: let sugar syrup cool for about five minutes. Before pouring in the cream.
But I persevere! Because as scary as caramel is, it’s also fairly forgiving. You just heat it up again. So I pour in the butter, and I stir. I stir and I stir and I stir, and slowly that hard-as-glass sugar ball dissolves in the warm cream and butter. Caramel consistency is achieved at last!
Then I stir in the chocolate (a mix of dark and milk).
And pour the whole gloppy, delicious mess into another parchment-lined dish.
And then I scrape the pan with a spoon and I eat the little leftover bit of chocolate caramel and I try not to swoon.
Because, yum. Despite the burned skin, the sticky floor, the buttery smear on the microwave, and the five dozen kitchen utensils I’ve used—or perhaps because of all that—the chocolate caramel? It’s totally delicious.
Who knows what tomorrow will bring. Definitely not a batch of fondant, as I am exhausted.
Maybe after a night in the fridge the chocolate caramel will be disgusting.
Maybe the nougat will be unusable.
Maybe I’ll just have to run to Wal-Mart to get the ingredients for actual cookies to bake on our baking Saturday.
What I do know is this: It’s all the fault of the recipe book. It’s totally not because I took one class once nearly two decades ago.
I’ll let you know tomorrow how my regular caramel turns out, which I can make (nearly) with my eyes shut. I don’t even need a candy thermometer because I know what color it’s supposed to be when it’s done cooking. Sure, I have to open my eyes to see the color, but that’s OK.
Candy making just requires a lot of focus.