I can’t get into the Christmas spirit fast enough, post Thanksgiving. My tree is up and decorated, and I’ve got other Christmasy things out around the house. Erik spent Sunday putting lights up on the house, all the gifts are purchased and wrapped, and I have spent part of my four day Thanksgiving weekend making treats and edible Christmas gifts. I LOVE CHRISTMAS!!!!!
I found out by accident a few years ago that I am very, very good at making candy. The first year Erik and I were married, he casually mentioned that he enjoyed divinity. Ever the dutiful wife, I whipped up a batch from an internet recipe and it turned out perfectly (this, without a candy thermometer, thankyouverymuch). I figured it was just a fluke and thought the next batch and the subsequent candies I tried out would probably suck hard, but each and every time I have attempted a candy recipe, it has turned out perfectly. I’m probably jinxing myself by saying that, but the bottom line is that my candy is awesome. Truly. So I make huge quantities of it every year for Christmas gifts. This year, I thought I’d skip the usual chocolate and peanut butter fudge and make my first ever batch of leche quemada and try out something similar to my usual saltine cracker toffee with graham crackers instead. I’m skipping the white peppermint bark and trading it in for chewy pecan pralines (and I’m not sorry). If you need a quick gift, these are spectacular and decadent and all those good things that homemade candy is supposed to be.
Just a note before we get started, making candy can be dangerous. Sugar brought to the temperatures it’s being cooked to is HOT and it will burn you if you don’t treat it carefully. If you burn your fool self, remember that I warned you and don’t be mad at me if that happens. Just sayin’.
recipe from Fiesta at Rick’s
1 quart whole milk (don’t substitute low fat or skim please)
2 3/4 cups sugar
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 Tablespoon water
1 1/2 cups chopped nuts (optional)
1 cup dried of crystallized fruit cut into 1/4 inch pieces (optional)
In a large, heavy pot, whisk the milk and sugar together. Dissolve the baking soda in the water. Whisk this into the milk and sugar. Set the pot on medium heat and bring to a simmer. Simmer briskly, watching so it doesn’t boil over. Stir regularly and cook it to 238 degrees Farenheit (soft ball stage). In lieu of a thermometer, to check for soft ball stage, drop a bit of the mixture into a glass of cold water. If it balls up and is uh soft, it’s ready.
Pour this mixture into your electric mixer (with the paddle attachment). Turn on low and beat the candy for about 15 minutes. Line a baking sheet or a baking dish with parchment. After the 15 minutes are up, you can stir nuts or fruit into the candy if you want. I stirred in nuts. Scoop this into the prepared baking dish/sheet. Press into an even square. Let this cool and firm completely, then cut into squares.
Mock Almond Crunch
recipe from Not Without Salt
8 graham crackers
1/2 cup sliced almonds, toasted
3/4 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup plus 2 Tablespoons butter
1/4 teaspoon fleur de sel or some kind of finishing salt
3/4 cup bittersweet chocolate chips (I used Guittard)
Heat the oven to 325 Farenheit. Butter a 10×10 baking dish or line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment. Place the graham crackers side by side on the dish/sheet. Sprinkle the almonds on top of the crackers. In a heavy sauce pan, melt the butter with the brown sugar and let this boil for about 3-5 minutes. Pour this on top of the grahams and almonds. Sprinkle with the salt. Pop it in the oven and let it cook, until the top is all bubbly (10 minutes or so). Remove from the oven and sprinkle on the chips. Let them melt for a minute, then with a large offset spatula, smooth the melted chocolate all over the grahams. Place in the freezer to firm up quickly, or in the fridge if you don’t mind waiting. Break it into pieces after everything firms up.
Here are a couple of other gift ideas I’ve run across on blogs, in magazines, etc: Brown Eyed Baker did some homemade cracker jack popcorn that I had to try. This is far better than the boxed stuff – not cardboard flavored and stale tasting, but buttery and lightly sweet. I’m also giving hot chocolate to my mother in law, in the form of an ingenious little recipe from Cook’s Illustrated. Hot cocoa doesn’t have to always mean a mug full of powdery packaged stuff. This is real, chocolatey hot cocoa, perfect hot comfort for the kind of winter we’re having.
Homemade Cracker Jack
recipe from Brown Eyed Baker
10 cups popped popcorn
1 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup light corn syrup
6 Tablespoons melted butter
2 Tablespoons water
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup lightly salted peanuts
Heat the oven to 250. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Spray a very large bowl with cooking spray and dump your popped popcorn in it. In a saucepan, stir together the brown sugar, corn syrup, butter, salt, and water. Bring this to a simmer on medium high and stir often, letting the mixture reach 250 degrees (a little over soft ball stage). Off heat, whisk in the vanilla and baking soda. Pour immediately onto the popcorn. Carefully incorporate the mixture all over the popcorn. Dump this onto the lined sheet and spread it out. Bake the popcorn for an hour, stirring it every 20 minutes. Remove from the oven, let it cool, then break it up (gently). Package it in cello bags tied with ribbon and print out labels on cardstock to give it for a gift.
Hot Chocolate Balls
recipe from Cook’s Illustrated
2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon salt
Melt the chips with the cream and salt. I popped mine in a large bowl in the microwave and heated it in bursts of 30-40 seconds, stirring after each heating, until it was melted. Stir it up (gently) to make sure the cream is all incorporated and folded into the chocolate. Cover the bowl and refrigerate it until firm (like 2 hours). Using Tablespoons, roll 3 Tablespoons worth of the mixture into 10 2-inch balls. Wrap them individually in plastic wrap, place in a ziplock. Freeze them for up to 2 months. To make your mug of chocolate, add 1 ball to 1 cup of milk in a mug. Microwave it to however hot you like yours, stirring until the chocolate is smooth.
And I don’t have any photos, but these chewy pecan pralines from The Hungry Texan are spectacular. Truly.