Every spring as a kid, I reveled in the same Easter basket filled with store-bought candy that all of the other kids in the neighborhood tore into: plastic eggs stuffed with foil-wrapped, peanut butter-filled chocolates, marshmallows machine-molded into pink bunnies and yellow chicks, and jelly beans nestled with tiny, speckled malted milk eggs in whorls of green plastic grass.
But somewhere along the path to adulthood, I realized my basket could be so much more.
No doubt fueled by the memories of those toothache-inducing mornings, I’ve since become an avid candy maker. It’s no wonder then that Easter -- nearly as synonymous with candy as Halloween -- now signals the time to skip drugstore sweets and celebrate old-fashioned candy making at home.
This year, I’ve decided to make three of my favorite candies for our Easter baskets: sugar-dusted marshmallows, cream cheese mint straws and hand-dipped chocolate eggs with almond butter centers.
The contents of my basket settled, I bring out the ingredients I’ll need to make them, for the most part, pantry staples -- sugar, chocolate chips, peppermint extract and honey among them. Almost instantly, I notice, the kitchen begins to smell like a candy store.
For the marshmallows, I start by boiling sugar, corn syrup, salt and water together until it reaches 245 degrees, candy’s firm ball stage, the same temperature to which homemade caramels are cooked.
I whisk the clear, syrupy liquid with the gelatin and water and within minutes it clouds into pillows of milky white marshmallow. While the marshmallow mixture is still warm, I pipe it into the shape of daisies, giving each of them a fat yellow center, and dust them generously with sugar.
While the marshmallows sit in a cool spot on the kitchen table to dry for a few hours, I start on the mint straws.
I’m a pushover for mint candies, and these are my favorites. I make them simply with powdered sugar, softened cream cheese and butter and then add a few drops of lemon juice and peppermint extract to make them brightly flavored and fragrant.
Rolling out these candies is the fun part, a perfect kitchen exercise for tiny hands when there are kids nearby. To shape the mints, I roll the pastel-colored dough into ropes and swirl the colors or press the dough into the palm of my hand to make sweet coins with a faint thumbprint in the center of each. Like the marshmallows, the mints will need time to dry before they’re eaten.
Greedily, I decide to bite into a marshmallow daisy. It’s too early, and so the fluff sticks to my lips and fingers. But it’s plenty tasty even now, magically thick, buttery and airy all at once.
While I wash the last of the gooey stuff from my hands, my mind wanders to the chocolate eggs.
Into a mixing bowl I pile almond butter, powdered sugar, honey and the secret ingredient I learned from my mother to make the chocolate eggs’ centers firm: powdered milk. This recipe is an undeniable riff on the no-cook peanut butter balls she used to make to assuage my fidgeting on road trips.
I roll the gently sweet concoction into balls, then taper one end with my fingertips. They’re about the size and shape of quail eggs lined up on the tray, and the almond butter smells toasty and rich. After they’re frozen a bit to firm up, I dunk the eggs in hot, melted chocolate to coat and rock them in a bed of chopped almonds to make a miniature nest upon which each one sits.
I glance over at tray after tray of candies adorning the kitchen table. I’ll load them into woven baskets for my nieces and nephews and scoop the rest into the candy dish to offer friends who wander by this week or to nibble on myself.
Candies like these seem to get more tempting each spring even though I’m not getting any younger. I’ll bet the Easter bunny has the same problem.
Generously dust a large, wax-paper-lined baking sheet with the powdered sugar and set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, or in a large mixing bowl, gently sprinkle the gelatin over 3 tablespoons of the water and set aside.
In a large saucepan, stir together two-thirds cup of the granulated sugar with the corn syrup, salt and remaining water until you have a wet, sandy consistency. Clip a candy thermometer to the inside edge of the pot and cook over medium-high heat, without stirring, until the thermometer registers 245 degrees Fahrenheit. Immediately remove the pan from heat.
Using the whisk attachment, or with a hand mixer, begin whisking the moistened gelatin on medium speed. Carefully add the sugar mixture in a slow, steady stream. Once incorporated, add the vanilla and increase the speed to medium-high. Continue whisking until the marshmallow mixture is at least doubled in volume, very white and sticky, and when the beater is lifted the mixture remains in soft peaks, 4 to 6 minutes.
Fold down the tops of two large resealable plastic bags. Spoon about three-fourths of the marshmallow mixture into the corner of one bag. Twist the bag to seal (as with a piping bag), then set aside. Add a few drops of food coloring to the remaining mixture and quickly stir until you have the desired shade of yellow. Spoon this mixture into the corner of the remaining bag and twist the bag to seal.
Snip the tips off each bag to form an opening roughly one-fourth inch wide. Using the white marshmallow mixture, gently pipe 2- to 3-inch daisies onto the prepared baking sheet, spacing them about 1-inch apart. Keep a small bowl of water nearby and moisten your fingertips to pinch the marshmallow to release them it the piping bag (the water will keep your fingers from sticking to the mixture). Pipe a dot of the yellow mixture into the center of each daisy.
Generously sprinkle the daisies with the remaining 3 tablespoons granulated sugar to coat, then set them aside in a cool, dry place until set and easy to handle, several hours.
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