This has been a busy week in The Heritage Cook’s kitchen. Saturday was the annual holiday luncheon with a group of gals I have known since childhood and everyone got a goodie bag filled with homemade creamy fudge, candied pecans, gluten-free bourbon balls and a fresh tangerine for good luck. I love sharing treats with them and getting all the sets pulled together was more work than I thought it would be, but these gals are worth every second at the stove!
Even though I have been making candy from scratch my entire life, it has been a few years since I made big batches and I am out of practice. Candy is one of those things that can go sideways in a second and I had quite a few frustrations when making them this year. It started with having to wait until we got a couple of dry days in a row. Did you know that if it is humid or rainy, sugar won’t caramelize correctly? My timetable got thrown off as I waited for the correct weather and that forced me to feel more pressure than I was planning on, never a good thing when making candy.
There are many misconceptions about food bloggers. Probably the biggest one is that we are so good at cooking that we never make mistakes. Granted, we don’t often talk about our failures since it is much more fun and satisfying to focus on the successes. So in the spirit of openness and full disclosure, I am here to say that I blew it several times while trying to make some of the candy this year. Yes folks, I am human!
I was working with a recipe from a blogger who had adapted it from another blogger. I should have trusted my instincts and checked it against a professional recipe to make sure that the ratios and techniques lined up. It turns out that it was missing several key steps that made all the difference.
Normally when I cook, I already know the technique and only really need to focus on the ingredients and ratios. Because toffee isn’t something I make regularly, I depended on the recipe more than usual. This time the technique portion of the recipe was incomplete, leaving me with two pots of burned sugar (I tried it twice) and no toffee. When you are writing recipes, assume that the person reading it has never picked up a pot or pan before and be as descriptive as possible. Brevity is not necessarily a sign of a good recipe!
So I switched gears and the darling Artist made some suggestions of things I make that he loves, and off I went in search of a few more ingredients to make my new, revised menu!
I love bourbon balls, but can’t have them anymore because they are made with cookie crumbs. So I baked my own gluten-free chocolate cookies, pulsed them in the food processor and voila, we had GF bourbon balls that are outstanding! If you don’t have to worry about gluten, you can easily make these with either vanilla wafers or chocolate cookies (even Oreos work if you scrape out the filling).
Next up were candied pecans. You can make these with any type of nut that you love, so if you don’t like or are allergic to pecans, switch them with hazelnuts, walnuts, macadamias, cashews, etc. You have probably seen a lot of recipes with spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon and sometimes chili powder. I left all those out of this version, keeping it really simple. The reason is that you can use these nuts in a wider variety of uses. I especially love them in tossed green salads. Try adding some sliced apples and/or pears too and a raspberry vinaigrette – you’ll have a salad that will have your guests begging for the recipe.
The final candy I made this year was fudge. I know, pretty ordinary, but I love tradition and one of my oldest friends gave me the recipe. It is virtually foolproof, but I wanted to make a lot so I doubled the recipe. No problem with that except that I didn’t use a large enough saucepan. Oops! More burned sugar on my stovetop. When the candy started to boil over, I quickly grabbed another pot, ladled part of the candy into the second pot and put it on another burner. Never panic, just improvise!
I used my Thermapen to monitor both pots of boiling candy and it worked like a champ. I love how quickly it responds to changes in temperature. Candy is temperamental and has to be cooked to very specific temperatures depending on what you are looking for in the final product. Both pots of candy were at a full boil and I could move the thermometer back and forth between them, judging when they were at exactly the right temperature and getting them off the heat quickly. Within minutes we had fudge!
The packages were delivered this week to my beautiful friends as we enjoyed a lovely lunch together. We weren’t the closest of friends when we were in high school, but have discovered that we have become some pretty amazing women and thoroughly enjoy each other today. I am extremely grateful for each and everyone of them!
If you have a chance, make one or two of these treats for your family. I promise you will love them all. I wish you all the happiest of holiday seasons and brightest of New Years! HO, HO, HO!!
Holiday Chocolate Bourbon Balls (Gluten-Free option)
© 2012 Jane Evans Bonacci, The Heritage Cook. All rights reserved.
Yield: about 30 pieces
1-1/2 cups chocolate cookie crumbs (see below for gluten-free option)
1 cup hazelnut or almond meal, or very finely ground fresh walnuts, pecans, etc.
1/2 cup sifted powdered sugar, plus additional for coating finished balls
2 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder (gluten-free if needed)
2 tbsp dark corn syrup, organic if available (check to be sure it is gluten-free)
1/4 cup Kentucky bourbon, such as Buffalo Trace (verify with manufacturer that it is gluten-free)
In a medium bowl, combine the cookie crumbs, ground nuts, powdered sugar, and cocoa powder. Whisk or mix with your hands until completely blended and all ingredients are evenly distributed. Add in the corn syrup and bourbon. Stir with a spoon until mostly incorporated and then finish mixing it with your hands.
Using moistened hands, pinch off small pieces of the mixture and roll into 1-inch diameter balls. Place on a parchment paper-covered baking sheet. You can make these up to 1 to 2 days ahead. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside until ready to coat.
In a shallow pie plate or similar container, sift a thick layer of powdered sugar. Drop several of the bourbon balls in the sugar and roll to coat them thoroughly. Transfer to a clean sheet of parchment paper. Continue with remaining bourbon balls until all have been coated.
Store in an airtight container at room temperature (if using within one to two days); layers separated by sheets of waxed or parchment paper. When ready to serve, roll again in powdered sugar as described above, and transfer to a serving platter. If not serving immediately, store in the refrigerator up to two weeks. Note, the longer they are stored, the more pronounced the bourbon flavor becomes.
For Longer Storage: For longer storage you can freeze the bourbon balls. First, allow them to sit at room temperature for several days so the bourbon fully permeates. Wrap each one individually in plastic or waxed paper, place them carefully in an airtight container, place a sheet of waxed paper between layers, and store them in the freezer up to several months.
To Serve: Take them out of the freezer and let them come to room temperature. Sift a cup of confectioners sugar and put it into a bowl. Roll each ball carefully in the sugar to coat them before serving them.
GLUTEN-FREE OPTION FOR CRUMBS: For the cookie crumbs I baked a batch of my Milk Chocolate Chocolate Chip Cookies but left out the chocolate chips. I baked them a touch longer than normal to get good, crunchy crumbs, and then made sure they were completely cooled before grinding them in the food processor. You can bake these a day or two before and let them sit at room temperature if you prefer.
Source: Karen Wise Dickinson
Yield: 1 (13×9 inch) pan fudge; about 40 pieces
Candy is notoriously temperamental. Humidity or other changes in the weather may make candy making difficult. If it is a rainy or high humidity day, you will need to cook the candy a few degrees higher than normal to compensate for the increased moisture in the air. You must have a candy thermometer. They are not expensive and greatly increase your chances of success. If you can, find one with a mercury tube suspended on top of a flat metal plate. This is the most accurate kind and is protected from breaking it on the bottom of your pot.
1 cup mini marshmallows
1 (12 oz) pkg of semi sweet chocolate chips
or for a stronger chocolate flavor, use 5 oz unsweetened plus
7 oz semisweet chocolate, or use all bittersweet chocolate
1 cup butter (2 sticks), melted
4 cups granulated sugar
1 (12 fl oz) can evaporated 2% milk
1 tsp vanilla
1 to 2 cups chopped nuts, optional
Butter a 9×13-inch pan; set aside. Place marshmallows and chocolate in the bowl of your standing mixer; set aside.
In a large saucepan melt the butter and using a wooden spoon, stir in sugar and evaporated milk. Stir until sugar is totally dissolved then cook without stirring to the soft-ball stage, about 240°F on a candy thermometer. The temperature will rise quickly at first and then it will very slowly increase. When you are close to the soft-ball stage, watch carefully.
Remove from the heat, remove the thermometer, and pour over the marshmallows and chocolate without scraping the pan. Set aside for 1 minute to allow the chocolate and marshmallows to melt. Mix on low until everything is completely melted and are thoroughly combined. Stir in vanilla. Add nuts, if using. Pour into prepared 9×13-inch pan.
Set aside and let sit undisturbed until firm. If you have time, let it set up overnight before cutting it into squares. Store in an airtight container, in layers separated by parchment paper or wrap individual squares in cellophane, plastic, or waxed paper.
Simple Sugared Nuts
© 2008 Jane Evans Bonacci, The Heritage Cook. All rights reserved.
Yield: 14, 32, or 64 ounces
This recipe gives you three options for how many nuts you want to make. These are so good that I make them in large batches and when the holidays roll around, I make the largest amount and give them as hostess and thank you gifts. If you use the smallest amount of nuts, use the smallest amount of both sugar and water; middle amounts and largest amounts follow the same format.
14 oz … 32 oz … 64 oz pecans, almonds, cashews, etc.
3.5 oz … 8 oz … 16 oz sugar
3 tbsp … 6 tbsp …12 tbsp water
Preheat oven to 200°F. Line two baking sheets with silpats or parchment paper. Note: silpats or silicone baking sheets are by far the best choice when making these nuts. Nothing sticks to them and they slightly insulate the bottom of the pans, protecting the nuts from burning in the oven.
Place nuts on prepared sheets and warm in oven for about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, combine sugar and water in two large skillets or saucepots (I used two 12-inch pans for 64 oz nuts). Turn burners on medium to medium-high. (If you have light-weight cookware, cook on a lower heat because of the risk of burning.) Stir until smooth with a wooden spoon. Pour in the warmed pecans, evenly divided between the two skillets. Set the baking pans aside. Bring the sauce to a boil.
Cook, stirring often and tossing the nuts in the simple syrup, until the sugar starts to turn a light caramel color and is just beginning to become “sandy.” You do not want to cook them all the way to full caramel because you run the risk of burning the nuts.
Pour nuts back onto your prepared baking sheets and place back in the low oven. Bake, stirring every 15 minutes, for about 1 hour or until nuts are slightly crunchy. If they become sandy and coated with sugar, that is fine. They are still yummy! Toss them occasionally as they cool. They will get crisper as they cool.
Store in an airtight container at room temperature up to 1 week. For gifts I place about 1 cup in cellophane bags and tie them closed with raffia or twine.
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