There are certain consuming passions I never seem to outgrow, particularly at holiday times. But while a basket of truffles or a bucket of beluga found under my Christmas tree would not cause prandial distress, neither has the power to cause me shortness of breath or that beating heart I associate with deep and darkest food cravings. I know that probably makes me sound jaded, but the truth is, I am a man who dreams about eating Christmas gifts for 11 months of the year.
Like what? Well, for starters, like a batch of homemade fudge or a pan of hand-dipped caramels. Home and hand are the operative words you should notice. What I am yearning for is a confection (of any stripe) so long as it is whipped up in a kitchen and stirred by a generous arm, with love as one of the ingredients.
A Lost Art
Candy-making is practically a lost art in 1986. Truffles are everywhere but no bonbons are on the horizon, which is why a few long-in-the-tooth aficionados (like me) revere the gray-haired candy makers of our acquaintance and treasure their recipes so dearly.
Years ago on a Christmas morning, my sister gave me a slender, hard-cover candy-making manual as a stocking stuffer. It was reputedly written by the late film comedienne, Zasu Pitts. Now, whether Pitts actually knew her way around a candy thermometer hardly mattered for I adored the book. The recipes were easy to follow, mouthwatering to read, and the book's black and white movie stills, remembered from childhood, became a lode-star that drew me to the stove.
For fully a decade I would bring the book into the kitchen a month before Christmas. And for days I would stir, pound, dip and swirl sugar--until the clothes I wore became crystallized and the scent of marshmallow and toffee became so overpowering that stray dogs would follow me down the street.
Lost Book in Move
Sad to report, I lost this book in a move from New York to Boston in the 1950s. Even the book's title is not properly recalled. And though I have canvassed libraries and out-of-print book shops across the country trying to replace the volume, another copy never came to light. Sadder still, the wondrous sweets I learned also left my brain in time.
There have been candy-making books printed since. I have many of them, but somehow the old-time goodness of Pitts' candies seem sweeter with every passing year.
To compensate for the deprivation, I beg candy recipes wherever I go. Two of the best follow with gooey credit for the makers.
This is a gift of love from a good friend Mary Surina, who lives in San Pedro. Thrice the recipient of this heavenly chocolate-nut-toffee, I hinted for the secret on several occasions. She sent it by express mail and included a pound or so of the real thing for taste comparisons.
1 cup coarsely chopped almonds
1 cup finely chopped almonds
1 cup unsalted butter
1 1/3 cups sugar
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
3 tablespoons water
14 ounces milk chocolate, melted
Spread coarsely chopped and finely chopped almonds in separate shallow pans and place in 300-degree oven until delicately browned, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove, then keep warm.
Meanwhile, heat butter in medium-size saucepan over low heat. Add sugar, corn syrup and water. Bring to boil. Cook, stirring occasionally, until mixture is deep golden color (300 degrees on candy thermometer). Quickly stir in coarsely chopped almonds.
Pour mixture into ungreased 13x9-inch pan. Allow to cool thoroughly, about 1 hour. Turn hardened and cooled mixture onto wax paper. Spread top with half of melted chocolate and sprinkle evenly with half of finely chopped almonds.
Cover with wax paper and invert. Spread bottom with remaining chocolate and sprinkle evenly with remaining almonds. Place in refrigerator until chocolate is firm. Makes 2 1/2 pounds.
This old-fashioned butterscotch-plus-chocolate bar was sent by another friend, Jeanette Deschamps of Naperville, Ill., as a Christmas booty a few seasons back. Her confection was so popular it disappeared in half a day. Later I begged her for the recipe. The original, it turns out, was once printed on a butter carton but underwent some major alterations in Deschamps' kitchen and later, Greene's kitchen. But no better (or more caloric) sweet will you ever sample.
JEANETTE'S BUTTER PECAN TURTLES
2 cups flour
1 1/2 cups brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup pecan halves
10 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 (5-ounce) bar milk chocolate, cut into bits, about 1 cup
To make crust, combine flour, 1 cup brown sugar and softened butter in mixing bowl. Beat with electric mixer until mixture is fine, about 3 to 4 minutes. Pat firmly and evenly into bottom of ungreased 13x9-inch pan. Spread pecan halves evenly over crust.
To make caramel, combine butter and remaining 1/2 cup brown sugar in small saucepan. Bring to boil over moderate heat, stirring constantly. Boil 1 minute while continuing to stir. Pour evenly over crust. Bake at 350 degrees until caramel layer is bubbly and crust is golden, about 20 minutes.
Remove from oven and immediately sprinkle surface with chocolate bits. Allow chocolate to melt slightly. Using point of knife, gently swirl chocolate as pieces melt. Do not spread. Cool completely before cutting into 1 1/2-inch squares. Makes about 4 1/2 dozen squares.