Wednesday, August 12, 2009

She Who Would Valiant Be, Gainst All Disaster*

A blog I read lately, the topic of which is caramel (I know, I know), suggested that (s)he who attempts candy without a thermometer is either very talented, very brave or very foolish.

I like to think of myself as brave.

Here's the thing: On deciding last week that my lifelong fantasy was to make my very own toffees, I did go out and survey my candy thermometer options. They ranged in price from $10 to $56. Presupposing that Williams Sonoma was trying to rip me off, I opted for the cheapie one from U-Deal. And then, while making my candy for the first time - I mean, in the midst of - the thermometer revealed itself to be an inaccurate dud. (Ha! Get that pun??) It didn't actually rise above 150 degrees - and caramel sets at 248 degrees. Maybe not my smartest save. But now I'm too cheap - and too stubborn - to go back for a better one.

To make matters more absurd, my very first candy-making experience - wherein I discovered the thermometer's inadequacy - turned out textbook perfect. So maybe I got a little chuffed.

Not sure how many of you follow Twitter, but Bel and I have created a new hashtag: #pilgrimcandymaker. Its etymology: I have this glib habit of justifying my questionable culinary practices by proclaiming that "the pilgrims wouldn't have used ____ (insert practical cooking instrument here)". So Bel decided we needed a category to contain the relevant tweets and there you go.

Tonight I tweeted my latest (second) exciting caramel-making venture. I forewent the thermometer, having not forked out for the $$ (though presumably functional) one, the one I own being a hunk of stupid. It was all going well. I thought I'd managed to recreate the last experience till, having let the paste cool for 2 hours, I went to carve it up. Um, it was not entirely solid. I find it difficult to express what state it was in - but I don't think I've ever seen anything else in the world that approximates it. Viscous would describe it. Stretchy like bubblegum? Semi-solid?

Point is, I would have lost a bake-off.

Julia Child, in her memoir, suggests that it's pointless - nay, contemptuous - to decry your work as failure. And trust me, the woman knows of what she speaks. M and I watched an ancient episode of The French Chef in which she positively murdered a tarte tatin. And, God love her, Ms. Child then had the balls to suggest powdered sugar would redeem it. Note to reader: It did not, though her attitude was awesome.

In all truth, when I sampled my toffee-gobs, they were small morsels of mushy heaven. OMG I could have scarfed the entire pan in one go, if only I hadn't wasted 30 minutes corralling them into wax paper wrappers. And, moreover, next week I have another great chance to get it right. (That's how long it takes to eat a pan of these if I'm prudent and not overly generous with the kid.) I don't know how they will adapt to refrigeration. They may become real candies (though probably not). That's why the wrappers are so useful.

I'm likely to forgo the thermometer again - at least until I've given myself an opportunity to figure it out "Mayflower style". After all, pilgrims didn't have candy thermometers. It was elbow grease with those ladies. I guess I'm going all Protestant on your asses. Minus the God-fear and head-gear. A girl does have to draw the line somewhere...

* Opening line of "The Pilgrim Hymn" - my old school song...


  1. I am sure there must be a way and I am confident you will find it.

  2. I have a very decent thermometer for confectionary making (bought from op shop for $1 of course!) but I still find my efforts are quite hit and miss when it comes to toffees and fudges and the like. Sugar is just a temperamental beast to work with!

    I honestly do not know the secret of getting it right every time, but generally the failures are still delicious, so I've learnt to live with it!

  3. I LOOOOOOVE this post. You knew I would. Let us come up with possible Pilgrim candies to include in your cookbook:
    Plymouth Rock Candy
    Chocolate with nuts and berries stolen from native peoples
    Native nougats
    Colonist caramels
    Protestant pecan rolls
    Calvinist ever-hard-working gobstoppers.
    New England Fish ( like Swedish fish with a different accent)

    I close with another hymn: Tis a gift to make candy simple.
    Tis a gift to make caramels without fancy thermometers. (Or something like that).

  4. I loved this post; your confidence and willingness to fail is so much fun. Can't wait to hear about the next batch...I just wish I was close enough to taste test!

  5. Well I could hardly judge you for the diversity of your candy results! I just hope the pilgrim theory does not extend to toothbrushing - soft candy can be a devil in the fissures...

  6. Mardel: Your confidence inspires me!

    Skye: Thank you for this perspective. Although I would have loved to have heard that you've knacked it and it's foolproof everytime! Can't believe your got your therm for a buck. That is so Skyetastic.

    Bel: You win comment of the week hands down! I love the names of our new confections. Plymouth Rock Candy is the funniest thing ever! We can't forget Smallpox Popocorn Balls and Scarlet Letter Cake :-)

    Stacey: I wish you were too! I guess you have to be willing to fail in order to succeed and, really, the stakes are so reasonable with baked goods :-) I hope your procedure goes well xoxo (I know it will)

    Hammie: Toothbrushing is all modern. All the time!

  7. You are a candymaking pioneer, indeed you are.

  8. I like to think of myself as fearful, but of you as brave.

  9. Oh I'm about to make jam so think a thermometer is in order to get sugar temp right!

  10. Have you tried the the old-school cold-water method for candy making? I started making candy in high school and learned about it in one of my mom's old Betty Crocker cookbooks. It has never let me down and the best part is that it's free. Google it.
    Love your blog, btw. You have flawless taste.

  11. Sal: Ha!

    Wendy: That sounds so deep :-)

    Kate: Yes - don't be crazy - I mean, brave!

    Seahag: I DID! That's the crazy thing. I tried it while I was making the stuff - thinking that it would be a good alternative. The problem is I went from memory. I must have stopped at the soft ball stage rather than the hard ball stage. I don't know what I did but it wasn't quite there. great suggestion though. And thank you so much for your lovely comment. K