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Sweeten up the holidays

December 8, 2014

Step 14: Cut taffy into bite size pieces. (Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles

For many years I’ve made cookies for the holidays. Lots and lots of cookies. For gifts, for parties, sometimes just to have around the house. To keep it interesting, I might tweak the recipes or change up the varieties. Fun, yes, but even tradition can get a little boring after a while. Which is why I decided to switch things up this season and give candy a try.

My experience with homemade candy before now had been rather limited. I’d made lollipops once or twice and had tried my hand at marshmallows and divinity. But pulled sugar — like individually wrapped taffy bites and those beautiful handmade candy canes — always seemed a bit beyond me.

So I decided to start simple, with honeycomb candy, which is relatively easy and straightforward to make. Taffy is a bit more involved — the sugar needs to be pulled and stretched to incorporate air, making a lighter, chewier candy. Candy canes take practice because the sugar needs to be handled while it is still extremely hot.

Allow yourself plenty of time — and patience. Sugar work is not easy and will take time to master. Likewise, flavoring extracts will vary in intensity, and it may take a few batches to get the balance just right. But even the mistakes are (almost always) edible.

Honeycomb candy: Combine granulated sugar, honey and corn syrup with a little water and cook to a temperature of 300 degrees (also called "hard crack" stage), then whisk in a little baking soda. The baking soda reacts with the acid in the honey, bubbling up and leavening the sugar much as it does cookies and cakes. Stand back as the sugar bubbles — it will easily increase three to four times its original volume — then pour it onto a prepared baking sheet or pan to cool. Finally, break it into edible pieces and dip them in melted chocolate to seal the candy for a longer shelf life (sugar is hygroscopic and draws moisture from the air; sugar candy can become sticky if left out too long).

Taffy: The method is similar at first, heating sugar, corn syrup and water. A little cornstarch is also added to smooth out the texture of the taffy. Cook the sugar to 255 degrees ("hard ball" stage — some recipes call for a higher temperature, but this works better for me), whisk in a little butter and flavoring, then carefully pour the mixture out onto a prepared, heat-proof surface and set it aside until it’s cool enough to handle without burning your hands. Add some food coloring if you’d like, then begin to pull the taffy — stretching, folding, and stretching the taffy again and again.

Candy canes: Cook sugar, corn syrup and water to a temperature of 290 degrees ("soft crack" stage). Add flavoring and pour the sugar onto a prepared surface. And where you let the taffy cool a bit before pulling, the sugar for candy canes needs to be pulled while it’s hot. Hot sugar is dangerous; it burns easily and can become a sticky mess. You’ll need heat-resistant "sugar gloves" to pull the sugar, and you’ll need to work fast to aerate the sugar before it cools too much. (As sugar cools, it hardens and becomes brittle — if this happens, placing the candy in a warm oven will make it malleable.)

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HONEYCOMB CANDY

45 minutes, plus cooling time for the honeycomb. Makes 2 generous pounds honeycomb

2 cups sugar

1/3 cup honey

1/3 cup corn syrup

1/3 cup water

1 heaping tablespoon baking soda

1 to 1 1/2 pounds semisweet chocolate chips

1/2 to 1 cup fine-chopped toasted almonds, optional

1. Line a rimmed baking sheet with greased parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.

2. In a large, heavy-bottom saucepan, combine the sugar, honey, corn syrup and water and bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat. Continue cooking until a candy thermometer reaches 300 degrees, then slowly whisk in the baking soda (be careful, the mixture will bubble dramatically and increase to approximately 4 times its original volume).

3. Pour the mixture onto the baking sheet and set the sheet aside until the honeycomb is cooled to room temperature, about 30 minutes.

4. While the honeycomb is cooling, melt the chocolate. Place the chocolate in a bowl set over a simmering bowl of water, stirring, until the chocolate is melted; alternatively, melt the chocolate in batches in a glass bowl in the microwave, stirring every 10 seconds or so until the chocolate is fully melted.

5. Break the honeycomb into bite-sized pieces. Using two forks, carefully dip each piece in the melted chocolate to coat, gently shaking each piece to remove the excess chocolate. Place the pieces on a parchment- or silicone-lined baking sheet to cool. If desired, sprinkle the freshly coated honeycomb with chopped nuts for decoration. Store the pieces on parchment or wax paper in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.

EACH OF 32 (1-OUNCE) SERVINGS

Calories 144

Protein 1 g

Carbohydrates 27 g

Fiber 1 g

Fat 5 g

Saturated fat 3 g

Cholesterol 0

Sugar 25 g

Sodium 120 mg

Note: Hot sugar is sticky and can easily burn you. Be careful when handling, and wear heat-resistant "sugar gloves" if desired to protect your hands.

SALT WATER TAFFY

45 minutes. Makes a generous 1 1/2 pounds taffy

3 tablespoons butter, plus extra for buttering a baking sheet

2 cups sugar

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1 1/4 cup corn syrup

1 cup water

1 1/4 teaspoons salt

1/4 to 1 teaspoon flavoring, optional

Food coloring, optional

1. Butter a large, rimmed baking sheet.

2. In a large, heavy-bottom saucepan, whisk together the sugar and cornstarch. Stir in the corn syrup and water and bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat. Continue cooking until a candy thermometer reaches 255 degrees (the mixture will come to a roaring boil and then hold its temperature around 220 degrees for a while; be patient as the thermometer will slowly continue to climb as the water cooks off). Remove the pan from heat and stir in the butter, salt and flavoring until fully incorporated.

3. Pour the mixture out onto the prepared baking sheet and add a dozen or so drops of food coloring to the taffy. Set the taffy aside just until cool enough to handle without burning yourself.

4. Grease your hands well with butter and gently peel the taffy from the sheet. Begin "pulling" the taffy by stretching it, folding it, and stretching it again. Continue pulling the taffy to distribute the color evenly; as the taffy is pulled, it will lighten in color and become stiff as it cools, 15 to 20 minutes. When the taffy is almost too tough to pull, stretch it into long, skinny strips and cut the strips into bite-sized pieces using a greased knife or greased pair of scissors.

5. Wrap each individual piece of taffy in a small piece of waxed paper, and store the candy in a cool, dry place.

EACH OF 24 (1-OUNCE) SERVINGS

Calories 132

Protein 0

Carbohydrates 31 g

Fiber 0

Fat 1 g

Saturated fat 1 g

Cholesterol 4 mg

Sugar 31 g

Sodium 133 mg

Note: Hot sugar is sticky and can easily burn you. Be careful when handling, and wear heat-resistant "sugar gloves" if desired to protect your hands.

CANDY CANES

About 1 hour. Makes a generous pound of candy

Butter, for greasing the baking sheets

2 cups sugar

2/3 cup corn syrup

1/2 cup water

About 1 teaspoon peppermint or cinnamon extract

Red or other food coloring (preferably gel coloring)

1. Heat the oven to 200 degrees. Grease 2 rimmed baking sheets with butter and set aside.

2. In a large, heavy-bottom saucepan, combine the sugar, corn syrup and water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Continue cooking to 290 degrees. Remove the pan from heat and, when the bubbles subside, carefully stir the peppermint extract into the sugar mixture.

3. Pour four-fifths of the mixture onto one sheet and place it into the oven. Pour the remaining sugar mixture onto the other sheet and add a dozen or so drops of food coloring to the sugar.

4. Using a greased bench scraper or metal spatula, spread out the mixture and fold it over itself repeatedly until the coloring is evenly distributed and the sugar is cool enough to handle.

5. Wearing greased sugar gloves, begin "pulling" the candy by stretching it out into a long strip, folding it over and pulling it again. After 10 to 15 minutes, when the candy is lightened and opaque in color and is almost too tough to continue pulling, stretch the strip out once more so it is about one-half inch thick. Divide the strip into 4 sections and place them back on the second baking sheet and into the oven.

6. Remove the first baking sheet, and work this larger batch of sugar mixture in the same manner as the smaller, pulling the sugar until firm and opaque in color and forming it into a strip about 2 inches thick. Divide this strip into 4 equal sections, and place all but one section in the oven.

7. Take 1 of the red sugar strips from the oven and line it up with the thicker white strip, pressing the strips together to form one log. Roll the log out until it is about one-half inch in diameter, and carefully twist the log to give it the familiar candy cane look. Cut the log into desired lengths, and twist the top of each length to form a hook. If at any time the log becomes too difficult to work, place it in the oven until it becomes soft enough to manipulate. Repeat, twisting together remaining pairs of strips.

8. Set the candy canes out onto a piece of parchment paper to harden, then store the candy canes in an airtight container.

EACH OF 16 (1-OUNCE) SERVINGS

Calories 140

Protein 0

Carbohydrates 37 g

Fiber 0

Fat 0

Cholesterol 0

Sugar 37 g

Sodium 9 mg

NOTE: This recipe requires the use of sugar gloves to protect your hands; the gloves are available at most cooking and baking supply stores, as well as online. Be careful when handling hot sugar, as it is sticky and can easily burn you.

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TIPS FOR WORKING WITH HOT SUGAR TO MAKE CANDY

Here are a few tips and tools to keep in mind when making your own sugar candy:

Be careful when working with hot sugar. Hot sugar is dangerous and can easily burn you. It can also easily become a sticky mess.

Read the recipe carefully before beginning and gather all of your equipment ahead of time so you're prepared.

Give yourself plenty of time to work on a recipe without feeling rushed or being interrupted.

To clean cooked sugar out of pans and utensils, fill the used pan with water and bring the water to a boil over the stove, adding any tools (make sure they're heatproof). The water will dissolve the sugar, making cleaning much easier.

Exact temperature is crucial, and a proper thermometer is the best way to ensure accuracy. As the sugar temperature climbs, the sugar concentration increases, and it behaves differently when it cools. Candy thermometers can be found at most grocery, cooking and baking supply stores, as well as online; they cost about $10.

Sugar gloves are specially made for working with hot sugar, and although they won't block all of the heat, they will make it possible for you to work with the sugar before it has a chance to cool and harden. Some brands come in specific sizes for better fit and dexterity. They are available at most cooking and baking supply stores, as well as online, and cost about $15.

— Noelle Carter

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