Some things are better left to the experts


This is a season for gifts -- gifts to make, gifts to give, gifts to receive, gifts to enjoy, recognizing gifts that you have. But I am finding that there is another kind of gift -- gifts that you lack and cannot gain, and should probably just accept. I am finally understanding that I do not have the gift of candy making.

Two weeks ago I wrote about my past failures with fudge but how I had received a great recipe from a reader and was going to give fudge another try. I was also very excited to try my hand at cream caramels. I bought all the necessary ingredients, set aside the time and couldn’t wait to begin. I was convinced that I had, in some meaningful way, developed a stronger ability to master the transformations that heat wreaks upon sugar, magically turning it into a variety of sweet and solid forms. I have never been more wrong.

I followed the fudge recipe to the letter. All seemed to be going well until I pulled the saucepan off the heat to let it cool to lukewarm, as directed. Once cooled, I was to beat until it lost it’s ‘shininess’ and quickly pour it into the waiting pan where it would solidify into square of solid, fudgey goodness, ready to be cut, wrapped and given as gifts. I knew we weren’t headed in the right direction when I noticed that the cooling pan of fudge didn’t at all resemble even a thick liquid -- in fact, the edges were dry and cracking and the center was collapsing, much the way a pan of brownies might. Quickly, I grabbed my spoon to beat it, just in case it was merely losing that shininess on its own. Alas, the fudge was already solid, even while still very hot. I scraped it out of the saucepan and into the prepared pan where it did cool, but into a granular, brick-like mass. Later, I had 13-year-old Marielle stuff it into a plastic bag and beat it with a rolling pin, hoping that we could salvage it by turning it into some kind of crunchy ice cream topping. It didn’t work.

Frustrated, I decided that the caramel would have to wait - I didn’t want to have two failures on my hands in one day. I re-read the recipe. I double-checked my ingredients. The only explanation I could come up with was a faulty candy thermometer. Yep, not a cook’s error, but rather a mechanical failure. Upon further pondering, I suppose it might also have had something to do with the fact that I was using an enameled cast iron saucepan - holds lots of heatŠfor a really long timeŠand keeps on cooking, probably. I lined up a difference candy thermometer, readied a different pan and was prepared to make another batch but then ran out of weekend, so I planned to try again the next weekend. I was going to master this.

By the time the next weekend rolled around I had convinced myself that I should start with the caramel (bad fudge karma) so I develop a little confidence with a success. Again, I readied the kitchen, setting up equipment and ingredients much like a cooking show set, everything premeasured and at the ready. I melted, boiled, added and watched the thermometer like a hawk. Once I added the cream and vanilla, things even looked and smelled like real caramel. I had done it!

But even as I poured the lava-hot caramel into the buttered pan to cool, I had my doubts. Bits of caramel that had spattered on the stove didn’t cool to gooey, they cooled to brittle. This did not bode well. Still, I wrapped the pan and left it to coolŠinto a beautiful, solid block that I broke into large shards with a hammer. Not really holiday gift material.

Needless to say, I didn’t do a do-over of the fudge recipe following the caramel debacle. Instead, I calmly crammed my candy thermometer into the garbage and decided to let the candy making be done by others who know what they are doing. There are places that make delicious candy that I can buy, besides, eating all these failures can’t be good for my blood sugar levels.

My friend Sue pointed out that there are plenty of candy recipes, fudge included, that don’t require a candy thermometer and she’s right. I even make a version of one of them annually when I prepare my daughters’ favorite snack mix - an easy praline combination that requires no thermometer and is apparently quite forgiving, seeing that I’ve been making it every year since my friend Marlene from Marlborough, N.H., shared it with me almost 20 years ago. I still get to melt the sugar and feel like a bit of a confectioner, just not with risky results.

Praline Snack Mix

8 cups of mixed square cereal (we use corn, rice and wheat)

1 cup mixed nuts

1 c thin pretzels

3Ž4 cup brown sugar

6 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons light corn syrup (I learned this prevents crystallizing)

1 teaspoon vanilla

1Ž2 teaspoon baking soda

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Combine cereal, nuts and pretzels in a large bowl. Heat brown sugar, butter and corn syrup over medium heat until it comes to a boil. Take off heat add vanilla and baking soda. Pour over cereal mixture and stir very well to coat.

Pour mixture into a greased jelly roll or roasting pan. Bake for 15 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes. Cool and store in an air tight container.

Perhaps someday I’ll again try true candy making, complete with a thermometer and maybe even a copper pan for consistent heating. But for now I am looking at this realization that I do not have a knack for making candy as a different kind of gift, rather than that I lack one. I will leave candy making to those who seem to come to it more naturally than I do, focusing instead on those homemade gifts that I know I can be more consistently successful at. Honestly, more enjoyable for all!

Merry Christmas to you, and may you enjoy all of your gifts, especially the love of those around you.

P.S. If you would like the recipe for the Canadian Tourtiere meat pie that we are having on Christmas Eve (subject of my last column), email me at and I’ll send it right to you!

Julie Potter is a wife, mother of two, avid gardener and passionate cook who believes good food doesn’t have to be complicated. Share your thoughts with her at


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