By Erin Pride-Swaney
Special to The Herald
Easter Sunday brought candy-laden baskets to our doorstep, but I beat the bunny to the punch, starting my foray into candy making a few days before he hopped on through.
Before you start thinking I’m the next Cadbury, I ought to share that the only candy I’ve made prior to this past weekend were some soggy marshmallows, overly burnt caramel and chocolates that seized into a bitter mass. Even my gumdrop attempt of 2005 was a hopeless sugar puddle.
Since then, I’ve been understandably hesitant to make any treat involving molten sugar.
I felt a new hope for my candy making abilities with the arrival of Quin owner and candy maker, Jami Curl’s new cookbook, “Candy is Magic: Real Ingredients, Modern Recipes.”
Quin candy of Portland, Oregon, is a simple storefront with extraordinary candies. Their nostalgic gummy drops and lollipops enter the modern era of candy with flavors of lemon zest, black pepper and pinot noir. I love their nod to Starbursts, the dreams come true chews. My favorite are the caramels — smokey chai, buttery popcorn or aleppo pepper with raisin.
Curl’s fearless approach is punctuated by the fact that all her recipes begin in her home kitchen. This means these are no large-scale recipes trimmed down (often with questionable results) for the home cook. This is important, given that I’m not cooking in a solid stainless steel kitchen with glucose measurements and moisture gauges.
It’s just me, an electric coil topped stove and a rabid sweet tooth.
Candy making is as — or possibly more — precise as baking. You’re talking about a sort of sugar-based science experiment. For this reason, you should be ready to equip yourself with a few new additions to your kitchen: silicone mats or molds, buckets of glucose syrup and most definitely a digital scale.
“Candy is Magic” is all metric, and you weigh everything. I mean everything — even the water.
Curl attributes the success of Quin to her “zero fear of failure.” Unfortunately, when it comes to candy, I have 80 percent fear of failure.
But, Curl’s instruction is detailed and encouraging, also is the fact that she has no formal culinary training, candy or otherwise — another thing I’m sure most of us home cooks have in common with Curl.
Curl assures me that I’ll be as successful as she, with a little perseverance and good ingredients. She prides herself on creating only “real” candy. Her recipes use minimal ingredients with natural colorings and flavorings. “Nothing fake,” she writes.
In my desire to reach that zero fear factor, I adopted Yoda’s words of wisdom: “Do or do not. There is no try.”
I let the kids scour the brightly photographed pages of sweets to choose their favorites. My youngest has an affinity for lollipops (aka “pop pops”) and the eldest honed in on the popcorn caramels — rich vanilla caramel flavored with homemade popcorn cream and topped with Curl’s sweet everyday popcorn.
My daughter believes that all good things should be soft and fluffy (and preferably pink). She chose the marshmallows and hot chocolate made from Curl’s delightfully named Magic Dust.
I started with the lollipops — honey vanilla, which sounded like a less sweet version of an all-sugar candy. Delicate powdered vanilla (a bit pricey, but totally worth it) and a dark local honey made these divine. I felt giddy with happiness as I poured the sweet things onto their sticks, the sugar spreading out into odd organic shapes speckled with vanilla flecks in a rich honey color.
The lollipops, with Curl’s thorough direction, were almost simple. But not what I tackled next — the caramel beast. I popped the corn, made popcorn cream then started the caramel. All was going well, until the sharp smell of burning sugar stung my nostrils. Oh no! Not again!
I felt my fear level rising rapidly.
I removed the quickly darkening mass from the heat, swirled, then hurriedly whisked in the cream and butter. The sugar chunked up, stiffening. I tapped my inner Quin maker and whisked until the glimmer of real caramel color began to show. All looked salvageable until I realized I’d added the granulated sugar unevenly and the caramel was laced with candy pebbles that were flavorless and made my caramel unpalatable and lumpy.
I reached for a mesh strainer, and, oh happy day! Rich caramel scented like state fair caramel corn poured through to my prepared pan. I’d survived round two.
Easter morning we made marshmallows. After the caramel success, my fear factor was nearing a three. I told my daughter, “We got this.”
Dark cinnamon syrup whisked into dense foamy peaks and we padded down our mallow into a pan to cool.
Powdering the marshmallows was fun (and messy), and since we foolishly performed this task in our Easter outfits (Why, I have no clue, I guess candy makes you do weird things) we spent much of Sunday morning licking our fingers to dab powdered sugar off my dress.
Curl’s happy outlook is infectious, or perhaps it’s her sweet candies. Either way, both inspired us to share our magical treats with friends and family.
Handing out our hand-wrapped caramels to friends and proudly sharing hot chocolate kits put a smile on our faces and solicited many “oohs” and “yums.”
Yoda and Curl’s advice served me well. With a zero fear of doing and discarding the idea of try, I’m ready to spread the magic of candy every holiday, birthday or day my sweettooth bites.
If you manage to keep yourself from eating the popcorn cream that flavors these buttery goodies, you’re better than I. The crunch of the popcorn and the chew of the caramel make a happy pair. To cut the caramels, Curl says to either remove the candy frame or turn the slab out onto a cuttable surface, score the caramel to desired size, then cut along score lines. I used a pan then cut mine into strips, making it easier to cut to size. My pieces weren’t as uniform as Curl’s method, but with the popcorn kernels it made the job easier. Plus, who doesn’t mind an oversized caramel? Curl recommends real cellophane wrappers (available online) for the sticky candy pieces. I strayed, using wax paper. Indeed, the candy stuck. So we just licked the wrappers. Sound desperate? This caramel is too good to care.
438 grams glucose syrup
800 grams granulated sugar
265 grams Popcorn Cream (see below)
7 grams kosher salt
18 grams vanilla extract
295 grams unsalted butter, cut into roughly 1-inch pieces
90 grams Everyday Popcorn (see below)
Makes about 180 caramels if made in a frame or 115 caramels if made in a pan.
Set up a 12 by 14 inch candy frame or lightly butter a 9 by 13 inch pan.
Weigh the glucose syrup directly into a heavy-bottomed pot, then set the pot over medium-high heat. Allow the glucose to warm until it liquefies and then starts to bubble. Once the glucose has bubbled a bit in one spot, swirl the pot to distribute the heat.
Add the sugar, about one-third at a time, sprinkling it over the glucose syrup. Using a high-heat spatula or wooden spoon, poke (no stirring) the sugar down into the syrup after each addition. Keep watch to make sure no giant lumps of dry sugar remain before you add the next installment of sugar. If you see lumps, poke them down into the glucose. Once all of the sugar is added and has been poked down into the liquid so it’s wet, stop poking.
Pour the cream into a small saucepan and add the salt and vanilla. Stir to mix, then set the pan over low to medium heat. You’re not looking to boil the cream; the idea is to simply warm the ingredients so they’re not cold when they go into the hot sugar.
Meanwhile, let the glucose and sugar cook, swirling the pot occasionally, until the mixture is dark amber, or the color of a copper penny. (A helpful caramel color chart is in the cookbook.) Time-wise, you’re looking at 13 to 15 minutes for the caramel to reach the target color. At first the sugar will turn pale brown, then darker brown. This may happen in spots around the pot, so it’s important to swirl the pot as the sugar cooks. Once the sugar is a uniform color, cook it for a second or two longer until you feel good about the color, remembering that you want it to match that dark amber target.
Remove the pot from the heat and very carefully add the warmed cream mixture, immediately followed by the butter. Whisk the candy for 5 minutes, until completely emulsified. This means that the fats have been completely mixed into the sugar with no chance of separating. The mixture will be homogenized, with no oily separation or bits of anything burnt floating around.
Pour the caramel into the prepared candy frame or pan, nudging it into the corners as needed, and allow it to rest for 5 minutes. Shower the popcorn evenly over the top and press down lightly to ensure a good stick. Allow the candy to sit until cooled and set, at least 3 hours or preferably up to overnight, before cutting.
100 grams Everyday Popcorn (see below)
500 grams heavy cream
Makes about 270 grams.
Place the popcorn in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the blade attachment. Pulse the popcorn until it turns into a fine dust. Empty the popcorn dust into a heat-proof bowl.
Pour the cream into a small saucepan, place over medium heat, and bring to a gentle boil, stirring a couple of times while you’re waiting. Once the cream is bubbling, immediately pour it over the popcorn dust, nudging with a spoon to make sure that every speck of dust is saturated with cream. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and allow the cream to steep for 30 minutes.
Set a fine-mesh strainer over a small bowl and pour the cream-popcorn mixture into the strainer. It will look like some kind of mush, but it will smell like cream and popcorn (and, if you’re like me, you’ll start to get excited).
Press the popcorn mush against the strainer with the back of a large spoon to release as much of the beautiful cream as you can. Discard the mush. The cream is now ready to use, or transfer it to an airtight container and refrigerate for up to 1 week.
114 grams coconut oil
230 grams popcorn kernels (white or yellow)
75 grams granulated sugar
10 grams kosher salt
Makes about 300 grams.
Put the coconut oil in a large pot (with the lid nearby), set it on the stove top, and turn the burner to medium-high. Once the coconut oil has liquefied, sprinkle the popcorn kernels evenly over the oil, then sprinkle the sugar evenly over the kernels. Place the lid on the pot and wait for the kernels to start popping. While you are waiting, get out a sheet pan and put it near the stove.
Once the popcorn is off to a start, stand by and listen. You’ll want to keep the pot on the heat until there are long pauses between pops. Those pauses should not last more than 10 seconds. As soon as the popping starts to slow, turn off the burner, take the pot off the heat, carefully remove the lid, and pour the popcorn onto the sheet pan. Sprinkle the salt all over the popped corn. The popcorn is ready to use, and (once cool) can be stored in an airtight container for up to 1 week.
Reprinted with permission from “Candy is Magic” by Jami Curl. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.