Once a year, a group of us–literary-minded food loving peeps–gets together at a local park to hold a picnic in honor of our favorite children’s books. More accurately, our favorite classic children’s books. The first year we did this we had a Little Women picnic, the second year an Anne of Green Gables picnic, and this year, a Betsy-Tacy picnic.
If you don’t know them, Betsy and Tacy are the main characters of a series of books by Maud Hart Lovelace. They are set in Deep Valley, MN (modeled after the author’s actual hometown of Mankato, MN) at the turn of the twentieth century. They chronicle the lives of Betsy Ray, and her friend Tacy. Tib joins the friendship a couple of years later and they are a devoted threesome. The books chronicle their lives through their elementary school years, high school, a bit of college, and then their first two years of marriage. I will admit that I didn’t read them as a child—I discovered them as an adult and became an instant fan. They are charming books that beg to be read over and over again.
The books contain various food traditions that make them perfect for a food-oriented gathering. I was charmed by the fact that Betsy and her sisters always invited friends over for one reason or another, and they always seem to make fudge during these gatherings. I don’t think you would ever see a group of young people blithely making fudge during a party nowadays (although I may start encouraging Girlfriend to do this with her friends). I’ve been marveling over this ever since I read the books last spring. So, of course I had to bring fudge to the picnic. It’s a sure crowd pleasure and everyone always thinks that it’s hard to make. Between you and me, fudge is actually fairly easy to create–once you know the principles and as long as you follow the directions.
I’ve been making fudge ever since I was a kid. (Hey, maybe I should have had Betsy-Tacy parties back then). When I was young, I often spent my weekend and summer afternoons in the kitchen. I would get a chair from the dining room, drag it into the kitchen, and use it to climb up onto the counter and reach for a cookbook from the upper cabinets, usually the Joy of Cooking (which I always refer to as our family’s recipe treasury). I would flip through it, looking for recipes that seemed interesting or sounded good–and for which we had the ingredients. Our kitchen was always amazingly well-stocked (I’m not entirely sure how that happened–my mom was a busy, single working mom of four) and we usually had the ingredients for anything I decided to make.
One weekend afternoon, I decided to make fudge. I found a recipe for chocolate fudge in Joy of Cooking, gathered the ingredients, and made it. It was fun to make and was a hit with my siblings. From then on, I made fudge on a fairly regular basis as a kid and as a teenager. It always surprises people to hear this because fudge is “supposed” to be hard to make. I think the beauty of making this as a kid is that I didn’t know any better. My attitude was: the recipe was there, plain to read, and seemed fairly straightforward. And, there was no one around to tell me it difficult. My mom trusted me in the kitchen and just let me experiment to my heart’s content.
Part of the reason that fudge might seem hard to make is that it falls into the realm of candy making. And candy making requires the use of a little bit of chemistry. What some people mistakenly think about baking (that it requires extra super-precision in measuring and techniques) is actually true for candy making. So many people I know have given up on making fudge because it seems too challenging. In fact, I had a talk about this at the picnic with my pal, Matthew, who commented that he did a Spilled Milk podcast on the topic of fudge and how difficult he and his podcast partner, Molly, found fudge to make. Later I listened to the podcast and their fudge (mis)adventures totally cracked me up.
As a result of making fudge (and also taffy) from the Joy of Cooking, I learned about the various stages of cooked sugar. When you cook sugar for candy, you need to cook it to the appropriate “stage” in order for the candy to have the right consistency. The stages are related to temperature, but they also have helpful descriptors for folks who don’t have a candy thermometer. The stages of cooked sugar are: (at sea level) are: thread (230 degrees F), soft ball (234 degrees F), firm ball (244 degrees F) hard ball (250 degrees F), soft crack (270 degrees F), hard crack (300 degrees F), and caramelized (310-338 degrees F). The stages of cooked sugar correspond to the amount of water left in the sugar syrup. At the thread stage, there is a lot of water left. At the hard crack stage, there is very little water left. For more information on sugar stages, check out this site. For each 500 feet above sea level, these temperatures need to be lowered by 1 degree. I have always made fudge at sea level, so I’m not experienced with fudge making at high altitude.
The descriptors of each stage indicate the shape that a glob of the sugar syrup will take if dropped into a cup of cold water. So, for example, when you drop sugar syrup that is at “soft ball” stage into cold water, you should be able to form it into a soft-ish ball of sugar while it’s in the water. Once you start experimenting with candy making, these stages are relatively easy to recognize because they pretty much conform to their description. The key with this is to not overthink it. For example, if it seems like the glob comes together as a nice, soft ball and you are aiming for the soft ball stage–trust that and move forward.
One thing my childhood kitchen didn’t have was a candy thermometer, so I just used the sugar stage shaping descriptions as my guides when making fudge. When I made fudge on those long ago afternoons, I dutifully filled a tea cup with cold water, and as I cooked the sugar mixture, I would drop dollops of it into the cup and try to form it into a ball. After each test, I dutifully emptied the tea cup and fill it anew with cold water for the next test. I still do it this way to this day.
Later, when I got to high school, I had another connection to fudge–I worked in a fudge shop in Carmel (CA) for a couple of years. The employees were all high schoolers (which was fun) and we were divided into counter staff and fudge makers (I was counter staff). The fudge makers were treated kind of like rock stars. They made huge batches of fudge in copper kettles and then poured the hot mixture onto a marble table and used a large paddle to whip the fudge into its final shape. This was done in front of a big picture window and the fudge makers always had a large audience while they were whipping the fudge. Our unofficial shop song was “Whip It” by Devo. I loved working there. We always got interesting customers–Doris Day has a hotel in Carmel and she came by every so often. And the atmosphere was very casual and laid back–and I got to be around fudge!
Over the years I’ve used various recipes for making fudge. I’ve never been a huge fan of the recipes that uses marshmallow fluff. I realize that the using fluff is a “crutch” of sorts because it eliminates the need to worry about the sugar stages, but it creates a fudge that doesn’t taste quite right to me. The fudge recipe I currently use is a riff on the recipe by Greg Atkinson, a local chef and cookbook author a several cookbooks. This recipe comes as close to a foolproof fudge recipe as any I have tried.
I encourage you to give the recipe a try and to not be intimidated by it. One of the most important things in candy making is to truly follow the directions and the ingredients. And, because things go quickly during each step of the recipe, it’s important to prepare your mise en place (i.e., “everything in its place”)–and get everything out and ready to use so you don’t have to scramble in the middle of the process. This recipe creates a lovely, creamy fudge that is a joy to eat and to share. And people will be quite impressed that it’s homemade!
Chocolate Fudge (with or without nuts)
-adapted from recipe by Greg Atkinson
2 cups (400g) granulated sugar
2 tablespoons mild honey
3/4 (178ml) cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup (6 oz; 170g) bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate (chips or finely chopped)
2 tablespoons butter (or neutral-flavored oil like Rice Bran oil), room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup nuts (handful), lightly toasted and chopped (I use pecans), optional
Butter an 8 inch square baking pan.
In a heavy-bottomed 2 or 3 quart saucepan, combine sugar, honey, cream, and salt over medium-high heat. Stir until the sugar has dissolved and begins to boil. Bring to soft ball stage (about 235 degrees F), stirring occasionally. This should take about 5 to 10 minutes.
As soon as it hits the softball stage, remove from heat. Add butter or oil to the top of the mixture but do not stir (stirring it at this stage will crystalize it, creating grainy fudge). Leave it alone until it reaches about 120 degrees. You can speed up the process by placing the saucepan into a large bowl filled with ice water. The speeded up cooling process will take about 20 minutes. When the fudge has cooled to the appropriate temperature, it will feel hot but not burning when you press down on the top with your finger. Hang out near the fudge so you can monitor it. Don’t let it get below 120 degrees.
When the fudge has cooled to about 120 degrees F, add the chocolate chips/pieces and the vanilla. Beat vigorously with a wooden spoon until the fudge gets thick and starts to loose its sheen—this will happen at about the same speed as the chocolate melts. Quickly stir in the nuts (if using). The fudge is ready to scrape out into the prepared pan when it is no longer pourable but isn’t stiff (this will happen quickly).
Quickly scrape into prepared pan and smooth top. The top will look glossy and oily. Leave at room temperature, on the counter, and let cool completely. When the fudge has set, cut into squares. Since the fudge is quite rich, I usually cut it into 1 inch by 1 inch squares. The fudge will keep, wrapped, at room temperature, for about a week.