Monday, December 29, 2014

Christmas candy tradition

Mother and daughter make favorite holiday sweets

A cozy kitchen stocked with plenty of sugar, corn syrup, local pecans, butter and chocolate turned into a candy shop Monday morning with Brenda Bailey and her daughter, Candace Bailey, hard at work for several hours making fudge, crystal candy, divinity and butter crunch.

It’s a tradition passed down from mother to daughter in its fourth generation now with Candace’s daughter, Emma Renfrow: candy making, the good kind, and just in time for Christmas.

It’s been about a year since my high school friend Candace mentioned on Facebook that she had spent the day making candy with her mother. My first thought was that I had missed an opportunity to spend the morning with these fine ladies who could teach me a thing or two. My second thought? Tell Candace to invite me next year!

Lucky me; we both remembered.

The mother and daughter team started out making what they call "real fudge” — not the kind made with marshmallows, Candace said, although her mom loves that recipe as well!

Brenda pulled out a small, worn cookbook and flipped through the pages to find the handwritten recipe passed down from her mother, Beatrice Dixon, also known as Mama Beat. She’s the inspiration for this yearly cooking binge. Mama Beat used to fill a bedroom with candy for Christmas, the women said, and they love carrying on her tradition.

The fudge is made with cocoa, sugar, dark corn syrup, vanilla, butter and evaporated milk. Brenda came from a house with six children. When it came time to make candy, pies and even whipped cream, her mom didn’t want to sacrifice fresh milk on sweets and used canned milk instead.

"Therefore, I do the same thing,” she said.

As the fudge started simmering, the Bailey women kept a close eye on the candy thermometer. The enticing smell of dark chocolate filled the small kitchen. The anticipation of a pan filled with chocolate fudge made my mouth water!

Once the fudge had cooked and was cooling, Candace started assembling ingredients for crystal candy — or hard candy. Over the weekend she had made a batch of peppermint candy, not too strong — the way her daddy, J.W., likes it. Candace’s son, Graham Renfrow, suggested she make it blue. On Monday, we made cinnamon, my favorite!

This is the recipe I was most eager to learn, and I watched the process carefully.

The Baileys have been making crystal candy since 1984 when they saw the recipe in Southern Living. They’ve made butterscotch, clove and spearmint flavors as well. Once again, the candy thermometer came out. The candy must reach the hard crack stage, 300 degrees, before it’s poured into a pan to cool.

Candace and her mom, who lives in the Buckhorn community, have made this candy many times, so they know how to do it quickly. Once the bright red candy was poured into a glass dish and started to cool, Candace got to work scoring it over and over to make sure the marks stayed. She knew that would make it easier to break the candy once it was cool enough to handle. I loved helping with this process, taking off large chunks and breaking the candy along the lines Candace had cut.

When I ate the candy, I noticed the smooth edges from the marks Candace had made.

There’s plenty of experience behind the third candy of the morning as well: divinity or sea foam candy.

"The best thing my mother made was sea foam,” Brenda said.

Divinity is a favorite of many Southern families, but it is intimidating to many cooks.

Brenda and Candace worked as a team, watching the bubbling mixture reach 259 degrees and making sure the egg whites were perfectly stiff. Mama Beat never used a candy thermometer when she made her sea foam.

"My mom always made it spin a thread,” Brenda said, showing a string of the hot mixture extending from the spoon indicating it’s at the correct temperature.

Once the egg whites and nuts were beat into the hot mixture, the real teamwork started.

"We’ve got to do it fast,” Brenda said.

The two grabbed spoons and quickly scooped up just the right amount and placed the fluffy white pieces onto wax paper before the mixture cooled and hardened. The three of us couldn’t resist sampling the delicious white candy filled with fresh pecans. What a sweet, Southern treat!

Brenda’s main tip for making divinity is not to make it by yourself.

"You need help getting it out,” she said.

Also, when beating in the egg whites, beat only until the mixture just loses its gloss, she added.

Pay attention to the weather as well. It’s not a good idea to make sea foam candy on a damp or humid day.

"And if you don’t do it right the first time, try again,” she said.

Before we ate our lunch of Brenda’s delicious homemade vegetable soup, there was one more recipe to make, butter crunch, or toffee.

This is another of Mama Beat’s recipes that Brenda has adapted. Once again, a simmering pot of sweetness filled the kitchen, this time with the buttery smell of caramel or toffee. When the mixture had reached the correct temperature, it was poured onto a marble slab to cool. Pecans and chocolate chips were sprinkled on top, then the mixture cooled until it could be cut into pieces.

When the four recipes were complete, it was time to divide them into tins for the holiday season.Brenda gives away candy to neighbors and family. She also serves it as dessert at a family spaghetti party.

Candace, a professor at North Carolina Central University who also teaches music history at Duke University, often has a houseful of teenagers and young adults who love the candy.

"Mine will be eaten,” she said.

This candy making tradition is very important to both of them.

"It’s just what mom and I do at Christmas,” Candace said.

lisa@wilsontimes.com | 265-7810

Real Fudge 

3/4 cup cocoa

3 cups sugar

Dash of salt

11/2 cups evaporated milk (not diluted)

2 tablespoons dark corn syrup

1 teaspoon vanilla

4 tablespoons butter

3/4 cup pecans, toasted and chopped 

Stir cocoa, sugar, salt, evaporated milk and syrup in heavy pot with candy thermometer attached. Bring to a boil and continue cooking until mixture reaches 235 degrees. Remove from heat.

Add butter and let cool around 30 minutes or until cool enough to touch pot. Add vanilla and nuts. Beat fudge with electric mixer until it loses its gloss and firms up some. Pour into pan.

Brenda Bailey

Crystal Candy 

4 cups sugar

1 cup water

1 cup light corn syrup

5 drops or more food coloring of choice

3/4 to 1 teaspoon oil of cinnamon, peppermint or spearmint 

Combine water, sugar and syrup in saucepan or large Dutch oven. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Add coloring. Continue to cook without stirring until hard crack stage, 300 degrees. Remove from heat and stir in oil. Pour into well-greased 13X9-inch pan.

As it begins to cool, score candy to make it easier to break into pieces once it cools. When cool enough to handle, turn out onto parchment paper or other surface. Break into pieces. This can be messy as candy pieces break off and fly.

Adapted from Southern Living

*Note: It’s best not to make this on a damp or humid day. The flavored oils are sold in tiny glass bottles in cooking supply sections of some stores (I purchased some at Hobby Lobby) as well as from pharmacies.

Sea Foam 

3 cups sugar

1/2 cup dark corn syrup

2/3 cup water

2 large or 3 medium egg whites

1 cup toasted pecans, chopped 

Beat egg whites until stiff and set aside.

Pour sugar, syrup and water into heavy saucepan with candy thermometer attached and bring to a boil. Do not stir. Let simmer until it reaches 259 degrees.

Slowly pour mixture into mixer bowl with egg whites, with mixer running on medium; add vanilla and nuts and beat until mixture just loses its gloss. Do not overbeat.

Quickly spoon candy (about a tablespoonful) onto wax paper using buttered spoons. It’s best to have two people doing this to finish before candy starts to harden.

*Note: It’s best not to make this on a damp or humid day.

Brenda Bailey

Butter Crunch 

1 cup butter

1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons water

1 tablespoon corn syrup (either light or dark)

3/4 cup pecans, chopped and toasted

6 ounces of chocolate chips 

Butter marble slab or large cookie sheet, preferably one with a rim.

Melt butter over low heat in a large saucepan. Add sugar; stirring constantly, add in water and syrup. Cook over medium heat until reaches 290 degrees. Remove from heat and pour onto prepared surface. Have a spoon or knife handy in case candy starts to run off edges of marble if that’s what you are using.

Sprinkle nuts over surface of candy. Then add chocolate chips. As they melt, use a spoon to smooth evenly.

When cool, cut into squares or break into serving-size pieces.

Brenda Bailey

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