3 fun, festive candy recipes that are worth the effort

By Claire Saffitz, The New York Times

I won’t sugarcoat it: Making candy is tricky.

Of all the pastry arts, confectionery, the art of making sugar-based sweets, is an especially finicky category. But if you have the will and the ambition, not to mention the sweet tooth, to try, you’ll be rewarded with sweets that feel like sorcery in the kitchen.

Because candy is eminently giftable and winter’s drier air makes it a more favorable time to make it, the holidays present a great opportunity for first-time confectioners. The three recipes below are an especially good place to start exploring, as they offer a variety of styles, flavors, textures and techniques.

Novices might begin with fudge, which is a bit simpler than other confections because all of the ingredients are cooked together in a single process. Chewy caramels are an intermediate candy, requiring two cooking processes, and nougat is the most advanced, incorporating two cooking processes and whipped egg whites.

Before you begin, you’ll need a candy thermometer, which is essential for accurate temperature readings. (To make sure it is calibrated correctly, place it in boiling water: It should read 212 degrees.) You’ll also want to use a heavy saucepan with thick walls, which will promote even cooking and protect against scorching, as well as a kitchen scale to precisely measure your ingredients.

The Finer Points of Fudge

The properties of sucrose, the chemical name for sugar, are central to candy making: You’re managing many of its attributes, but specifically, its tendency to crystallize.

Fudge, for example, is a crystalline candy, meaning that the sugar is encouraged to crystallize as the mixture cools. First, though, sugar, milk, cocoa powder, corn syrup and honey are cooked together to a stage known as “soft ball.” The temperature range for a soft ball consistency is 235 degrees to 239 degrees. And, while you should use a thermometer, there’s another test: Dribble some of the mixture into cold water, let it cool for a second or two, then fish it out and roll it between your fingers. It should form a malleable ball that holds its shape but flattens easily when pressed (hence the name!).

Once the mixture reaches this soft ball stage, it’s transferred to a bowl, where unsweetened chocolate and butter are added. The mixture is left to cool before it’s agitated with a hand mixer, which initiates crystallization. The agitation breaks up the sugar crystals into tiny particles so they dissolve on the tongue, resulting in fudge that’s creamy, not grainy. Too much agitation will make the fudge crumbly, so pay attention as you’re beating the mixture and stop when it loses its sheen. The change can be subtle, so if you’re not sure, mix less rather than more.

Conquering Caramels

Chewy caramels, alternatively, are noncrystalline candies, meaning the sugar is prevented from recrystallizing as it cooks, yielding a smooth consistency. Their two-step process starts with cooking the sugar to a deep amber color, so it develops complex, bittersweet flavors (the darker the color, the less sweet the candies). During this step, you’ll want to avoid stirring the mixture and wipe down the sides of the saucepan with a wet pastry brush to dissolve any sugar crystals, which could initiate crystallization. The inclusion of corn syrup, a functional ingredient in candy making, is intentional and necessary: It contains mostly glucose, a common ingredient in noncrystalline candies, for its crystallization-inhibiting properties. Don’t omit it (from this or any other candy recipe where it appears).

Once you’ve cooked a dark caramel, cream and butter are added to halt the cooking. (I infuse the cream with coffee, which, though optional, further counters the sweetness.) Then it’s cooked again to a temperature between medium-ball stage and firm-ball stage, depending on how you like your caramels: 250 degrees results in softer, slightly oozier caramels, while 255 degrees results in firmer, chewier caramels. It’s up to you.

Tricky Timing, Tender Nougat

Nougat falls into a third category known as aerated confections, which are made with whipped egg whites. You’ll need a stand mixer to work air into the nougat for two reasons. First, it requires quite a bit of power. But you’ll also want your hands to be free, since you’ll need to stream two different cooked sugar mixtures into the egg whites in quick succession. Because the timing can be tricky, make sure you’re organized and pay close attention to the recipe.

Honey is the primary flavor of nougat, and because honey’s flavor degrades at high temperatures, it’s cooked separately from the sugar syrup and added to the egg whites first.

After the sugar syrup is added and the nougat is fully whipped, a small quantity of fat is added, which tenderizes it, followed by lots of toasted pistachios, which offset the intense sweetness (nougat tends to be very sweet). I also keep the proportion of sugar relatively low, which results in a softer, more marshmallowy nougat. It can be a bit sticky when slicing, so I recommend chilling the nougat beforehand and using an oiled knife.

Wrap the finished candies in squares of wax paper or foil candy wrappers, then pack into tins, boxes or jars. (Fudge, in particular, has a tendency to dry out, so make sure it’s wrapped airtight.) Finally, gift them to friends and family, who will think you’ve worked magic.

Chocolate Fudge

By Claire Saffitz

Fudge can be fickle, easily becoming grainy and hard if it’s beaten too much or if the sugar mixture crystallizes, the result of undissolved sugar crystals. Try to make fudge in a cool environment that is not humid, and, if the final texture isn’t quite what you desire, know that cooking the fudge at a temperature that’s a few degrees lower the next time will result in a softer fudge, while a few degrees higher will make it firmer. Fudge also dries out easily, so make sure it’s well wrapped.

Yield: 36 pieces

Total time: 1 hour 15 minutes, plus at least 3 hours’ resting

Ingredients

  • 2 cups/227 grams walnut or pecan halves or pieces
  • Vegetable oil spray
  • 4 ounces/113 grams unsweetened chocolate (100% cacao), chopped
  • 3 tablespoons/42 grams unsalted butter, cut into pieces
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt (such as Diamond Crystal)
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 cups/400 grams granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup/21 grams unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 cup/240 grams whole milk
  • 1/4 cup/85 grams light corn syrup
  • 2 tablespoons/42 grams honey

Preparation

1. Toast the nuts: Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Scatter the walnuts or pecans on a rimmed baking sheet and toast, tossing once, until they’re golden brown and fragrant, 8 to 10 minutes. Let the nuts cool on the baking sheet. Coarsely chop, then set the nuts aside.

2. Prepare the pan: Lightly spray the inside of an 8-inch square pan with vegetable oil spray. Line the bottom and sides with parchment paper, smoothing to eliminate air bubbles, then lightly spray the parchment paper. Set the pan aside.

3. Melt the chocolate mixture: Fill a large, heavy saucepan with about an inch of water and bring to a simmer. In a large heatproof bowl (big enough to sit atop the saucepan and not touch the water), combine the chocolate, butter and salt, and set the bowl over the saucepan. Stir the mixture with a flexible spatula until completely melted and smooth, then carefully remove the bowl from the heat. Stir in the vanilla extract, then set the bowl aside.

4. Cook the sugar mixture: Empty and dry the saucepan, and have at the ready a clean pastry brush, a spoon, a small bowl filled with very cold water and a separate large bowl. Add the sugar and cocoa powder to the saucepan, and whisk to combine and eliminate any lumps, then add the milk, corn syrup and honey. Set the saucepan over medium heat and stir the sugar mixture gently with a heatproof spatula until the sugar is mostly dissolved and it starts to bubble at the sides.

5. Before the mixture comes to a rolling boil, dip the pastry brush in water and use the wet bristles to brush down the sides of the saucepan and dissolve any stuck-on sugar crystals. Let the mixture come to a boil, then clip a candy thermometer to the side of the saucepan. Boil the mixture without stirring, occasionally swirling the saucepan gently and brushing down the sides of the saucepan with the wet pastry brush if you see crystals forming as it reduces. (This is to prevent crystallization, which would produce a crumbly, grainy fudge.)

6. Test the mixture for “soft ball”: When the mixture reaches 235 degrees, reduce the heat to low and continue to cook. When it reaches 238 degrees, spoon about 1/2 teaspoon of the mixture into the bowl of cold water and let it cool for a few seconds, then fish it out and work it into a ball between your fingertips (the mixture can still be cooking meanwhile). If it forms a ball that holds its shape but flattens easily between your fingertips, the mixture is ready. If it is too soft to hold its shape, continue to cook over low until it reaches 240 degrees and repeat the soft ball test. Once you reach the soft ball stage, remove the saucepan from the heat and pour the mixture into the separate large bowl but do not scrape the bottom or sides.

7. Let the mixture cool and beat the fudge: Scrape the reserved chocolate mixture into the bowl with the sugar mixture but do not stir. Thoroughly rinse and dry the candy thermometer, then clip it to the side of the bowl. Let the mixture cool until it registers 115 degrees, 30 to 40 minutes. Remove the thermometer, then beat the mixture with a hand mixer on medium-low speed until it loses its shine and becomes creamy, 8 to 10 minutes. Stop the mixer, add the nuts and fold quickly with a flexible spatula until the nuts are distributed evenly. Working quickly, scrape the fudge into the prepared pan and smooth the surface, working it into an even layer all the way to the sides and corners. Let the fudge sit at room temperature until it’s firm, at least 3 hours.

8. Cut the fudge: Use the parchment paper to lift the slab of fudge out of the pan and transfer to a cutting board. Use a chef’s knife to cut the slab in half in both directions to make 4 equal squares, then cut each square into a 3-by-3 grid for a total of 36 squares.

Tip: The fudge will keep, well wrapped and stored airtight at room temperature to prevent drying, for 1 week.

Salted Caramels

By Claire Saffitz

Despite being primarily made of sugar, these soft caramels are wonderfully complex in flavor, as the sugar is cooked to a deep amber before fresh dairy is added and the mixture cooked again. Infusing the cream with coffee is optional, but it lends a pleasant bitterness to the candies.

Yield: 32 caramels

Total time: 1 hour 15 minutes, plus several hours’ cooling

Ingredients

  • Vegetable oil spray
  • 1 1/2 cups/360 grams heavy cream
  • Seeds scraped from 1/2 vanilla bean (pod reserved)
  • 1/3 cup/34 grams whole coffee beans (optional)
  • 2 cups/400 grams granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup/85 grams light corn syrup
  • 4 tablespoons/57 grams unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt (such as Diamond Crystal)
  • Flaky salt, for finishing (optional)

Preparation

1. Prepare the pan: Lightly coat the inside of an 8-inch square pan with vegetable oil spray. Line the bottom and sides with parchment paper, smoothing to eliminate air bubbles, then lightly spray the parchment paper. Set the pan aside.

2. Heat and infuse the cream: In a small saucepan, combine the cream, vanilla seeds and pod. Place the coffee beans, if using, inside a resealable bag and crush them with a rolling pin until they’re broken into bits. Add the coffee to the cream mixture. Bring the cream mixture to a simmer over medium heat, then reduce the heat to the lowest setting and keep the mixture warm while you make the caramel.

3. Make the caramel: Fill a glass with water, place a pastry brush inside and set next to the stove. Combine the sugar, corn syrup and 1/3 cup/142 grams water in a large, heavy saucepan and stir gently with a heatproof spatula over medium-high heat to dissolve the sugar, about 3 minutes. Let the mixture come to a boil and use the wet pastry brush to brush down the sides of the saucepan and dissolve any stuck-on sugar crystals. Boil the mixture without stirring, occasionally swirling the saucepan gently and brushing down the sides of the saucepan if you see crystals forming, until the syrup takes on a pale golden color and the bubbles become large and slow to pop (a sign that the water had boiled off and caramelization is near), about 5 minutes. Turn the heat to medium and continue to cook, keeping a close watch and swirling the saucepan frequently, until the bubbling has mostly subsided and the mixture is very fluid and a deep amber color, 4 to 7 minutes.

4. Immediately remove the saucepan from the heat and add the butter a few pieces at a time, stirring with a heatproof spatula (this will halt the cooking; be careful, the caramel will sputter). Gradually pour the cream mixture through a fine-mesh strainer into the saucepan with the caramel mixture and stir until the caramel is completely smooth. (Discard the solids in the strainer.) Stir in the kosher salt.

5. Cook the caramel again: Return the saucepan to the heat and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Clip a candy thermometer to the side of the saucepan and cook, occasionally scraping the bottom and sides of the saucepan with the spatula, until the mixture reaches 250 degrees for softer caramels or 255 degrees for firmer caramels. Immediately remove the saucepan from the heat and pour the mixture into the prepared pan.

6. Cool and cut the caramels: Allow the caramel mixture to cool in the pan for about 15 minutes, then sprinkle with flaky salt (if using). Let the caramels cool completely at room temperature, which will take several hours. Before cutting the caramels, refrigerate the pan for 15 minutes, then use the parchment paper to lift the slab out of the pan and transfer to a cutting board. Use a chef’s knife to cut the slab in quarters in one direction and in eighths in the other to make 32 bar-shaped caramels. Wrap them individually in parchment paper, waxed paper or foil candy wrappers.

Tip: The individually wrapped caramels, stored in an airtight container, preferably in the refrigerator, will keep for 1 week.

Nougat With Honey and Pistachios

By Claire Saffitz

Nougat is not exactly for the faint of heart: Preparing it involves heating honey and a sugar syrup separately to different temperatures and streaming them into beaten egg whites in rapid succession. Make sure you have all of your ingredients ready before you start cooking, and the reward is a candy unlike any other with a snow-white color, fresh honey flavor and lots of toasted pistachios to temper the sweetness and add crunch.

Yield: About 50 pieces

Total time: 45 minutes, plus at least 6 hours’ cooling

Ingredients

  • Vegetable oil spray
  • 2 1/2 cups/314 grams shelled, skinless pistachios (see Tip)
  • 3 large egg whites
  • 1 tablespoon/13 grams plus 1 1/4 cups/250 grams granulated sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (such as Diamond Crystal)
  • 1/4 cup/87 grams light corn syrup
  • 1/2 cup/188 grams honey
  • 3 tablespoons refined coconut oil or cocoa butter, melted
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Preparation

1. Prepare the pan: Lightly coat the inside of an 8-inch square pan with vegetable oil spray. Line the bottom and sides with parchment paper, smoothing to eliminate air bubbles, then lightly spray the parchment paper. Set the pan aside.

2. Toast the nuts: Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Scatter the pistachios on a rimmed baking sheet and toast, tossing once, until they’re golden and fragrant, 8 to 10 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 200 degrees, then remove the pistachios from the oven, and let them cool on the baking sheet for 5 minutes. If needed, wrap loosely in a clean kitchen towel and rub off as much of their skins as you can. Turn off the oven, and return the baking sheet to the still-warm oven to keep the nuts warm.

3. Prepare to make the nougat: Combine the egg whites, 1 tablespoon/13 grams sugar and the salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. In a small, heavy saucepan, combine the corn syrup, remaining 1 1/4 cups/250 grams sugar and 1/4 cup/57 grams water, and set aside. Fill a glass with water, place a pastry brush inside, and set aside.

4. Cook and stream in the honey: Place the honey in a separate small saucepan and clip a candy thermometer to the side. Bring the honey to a boil over medium heat and cook, swirling the saucepan occasionally. When the honey reaches 235 degrees, turn the mixer on medium-low and beat the egg white mixture until the whites are broken up, about 20 seconds, then increase the speed to medium-high and continue to beat until the mixture forms medium peaks, about 1 minute. When the honey registers 248 degrees, remove the saucepan from the heat and, with the mixer on medium-high, very slowly stream the honey into the egg white mixture, pouring it down the side of the bowl and avoiding the whisk to prevent splatter. Continue to beat on medium-high until the mixer bowl is warm (not hot) to the touch.

5. Meanwhile, cook and stream in the sugar: While the egg white mixture is whipping, set the saucepan with the sugar mixture over medium-high heat and stir gently with a heatproof spatula just until sugar dissolves to form a clear syrup, about 2 minutes. Let the mixture come to a boil and use the wet pastry brush to brush down the sides of the saucepan to dissolve any stuck-on sugar crystals. (Don’t forget to check the egg white mixture and turn off the mixer whenever necessary.) Clip the candy thermometer to the side of the saucepan (it’s OK if it’s coated in honey), reduce the heat to medium and boil the mixture without stirring, occasionally swirling the saucepan, until it registers 310 degrees, then remove from the heat immediately. With the mixer running on medium-high speed, stream the sugar mixture into the bowl just as you did the honey. Once you’ve added all of the sugar mixture, increase the speed to high and continue to beat until the sides of the bowl are warm but not hot and the mixture is very thick, dense and voluminous, about 4 minutes (the mixer might strain against the mixture).

6. Finish the nougat: Turn off the mixer, add the melted coconut oil or cocoa butter and vanilla to the bowl, and beat on high just until the nougat is smooth. (The mixture will separate but then come back together, which is normal.) Turn off the mixer and remove the bowl. Remove the nuts from the oven and add to the bowl, then fold the nougat with a large flexible spatula until the nuts are evenly distributed. Scrape the nougat into the prepared pan and smooth the surface, working it into an even layer all the way to the sides and corners. Cover the nougat with a piece of parchment paper sprayed with more oil and smooth, then let it sit at room temperature until it’s completely set, at least 6 hours but preferably overnight.

7. Cut the nougat: Uncover the nougat and use the parchment paper to lift it out of the pan and transfer it to a cutting board. Use a serrated or chef’s knife coated in vegetable oil spray to cut the slab into quarters in one direction, then slice each third crosswise into 1/2-inch pieces to make about 50 pieces.

Tips: Skinless pistachios are sometimes sold as “blanched.” They might not be available in typical grocery stores, but can be found at specialty grocers. You can also roast regular shelled pistachios, then simply rub off as much of the skins as you can with a kitchen towel. The nougat, stored airtight at room temperature, will keep for up to 1 week.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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