MANHATTAN, Kan. -- Making holiday candy is a tradition in many homes, yet beginning -- and even first-time -- candy makers can taste sweet success.
"In the U.S., the most widely used home-style holiday candy recipes fall into two categories: crystalline (fudge is an example) and non-crystalline, such as peanut brittle or toffee," said Karen Blakeslee, Kansas State University Research and Extension food scientist, who also is an experienced holiday cook and candy maker.
For either category, making candy typically involves combining sugar with water and cooking the mixture until the water evaporates, she said.
"Attention to detail is a must," said Blakeslee, who offered the following candy-making tips:
* Invest in a candy thermometer, which usually can be purchased for $10 or less at hardware, kitchen, or discount department stores, and, during the holiday season, in the baking sections of many supermarkets and grocery stores.
* Investing in (or borrowing) a double boiler also will allow greater control in heating chocolate to recommended temperatures.
* Choose a tested recipe with step-by-step directions.
* Buy specified ingredients, and do not make substitutions. In making fudge, for example, a recipe that calls for butter, which is made with cream, should contain butter. Substituting margarine or a lower-fat spread (that will have varying water contents) will upset the complementary food chemistry and product. Corn syrup, which also is frequently included in fudge recipes, is a necessary sweetener that is helpful in limiting crystallization that can result in grainy, rather than smooth-textured, fudge.
* Read a recipe before beginning, and follow recipe directions exactly.
If making fudge and the mixture begins cooking up on the side of the pan, Blakeslee recommended placing the lid on the pan for a minute or so to produce a small amount of steam that will "wash the sides of the pan so that the fudge slides back into the main mixture."
"Be careful to not leave the lid on too long," she said, as over-steaming will increase the water content and may upset the food chemistry and overall quality of the product.
"Brushing the sides of the pan lightly with warm water also can discourage fudge from adhering to the sides of the pan during the cooking process," Blakeslee said.
Fudge recipes generally call for cooking to the “soft-ball stage” which is 236-240 degrees F on a candy thermometer.
After reaching the recommended temperature, Blakeslee suggested:
1) removing the pan from the burner, and
2) allowing the fudge to cool to 110 degrees F, and
3) then stirring the fudge vigorously to keep it from developing a grainy texture.
Meanwhile, if stirring in nuts, Blakeslee recommends spreading the nuts on a baking sheet and warming them slightly (in a 200 degrees F. oven) before stirring them in. Nuts also can be placed in a skillet and warmed on the stove top at a low temperature.
"Warming the nuts helps to support a gradual cooling process and also enhancing the flavor of the nuts," Blakeslee said.
After beating and adding nuts or other additions such as marshmallows, fudge should be spread in a prepared pan and allowed to firm at room temperature.
Fudge can be cut and stored in a covered container at room temperature, Blakeslee said.
Peanut brittle recipes usually include sugar, water, flavorings such as vanilla, peanuts, and baking soda, which will cause the mixture to foam (briefly), but lower the acidity and make the candy easier to break -- and chew.
Peanut brittle should be cooked according to recipe directions, usually until a candy thermometer registers 300-310 degrees F. This is the hard-crack stage.
As with the fudge, warming the nuts will help to keep the cooked candy syrup from cooling and solidifying too quickly, Blakeslee said.
The thickness of peanut brittle will depend on the size of the pan in which the cooked sugar mixture is spread out, said Blakeslee, who recommended spreading the hot mixture with the back of a fork.
Toffee, a crunchy candy with a chocolate topping, is similar to peanut brittle. The mixture of butter, sugar and water can sometimes separate during the cooking process, though, said Blakeslee, who recommended reheating and stirring and/or adding one to two tablespoons (one at a time) of hot water and stirring to re-blend the mixture.
Toffee is typically cooked to 330 degrees F (caramel stage) on a candy thermometer before being spread on a pan to cool before topping with semi-sweet chocolate and nuts, she said.
When making candy, Blakeslee recommends buying a high-quality chocolate.
While some recipes may suggest sprinkling chocolate chips over a semi-cooled candy mixture and then spreading the chocolate chips as topping, results may vary, because not all chocolate chips are pure chocolate, the food scientist said
Blakeslee, who as K-State's Rapid Response Coordinator spends her working hours answering food and food safety questions, also offered a few tips for homemade chocolate-covered peanut butter balls, which have generated some questions recently.
"Some older recipes call for adding paraffin wax to help the chocolate coating set up and shine," said Blakeslee, who does not recommend adding wax.
Adding two tablespoons plus two teaspoons of vegetable shortening per 12 ounces of semi-sweet chocolate will produce the same results, she said.
Tempering chocolate, which means heating it to 84-88 degrees F (which is warm enough for dipping, but still hot enough to set up with a shine) also will work, Blakeslee said.
More information about candy making is available at K-State Research and Extension county and district offices and on the Extension's Rapid Response Web site: www.rrc.ksu.edu.
More information about food, food safety, nutrition, health, family meals and basic cooking also is available at www.ksre.ksu.edu/foodsafety and www.ksre.ksu.edu/humannutrition/.