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.)