Fudge makes family recipe, memories of holidays past inseparable
Published: Wednesday, December 19, 2012 at 3:15 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, December 18, 2012 at 9:54 p.m.
I cooked a batch of old-fashioned chocolate fudge on a December day in 2011, calculating that it was perhaps my 100th attempt since I started making it in the late 1960s.
I use the word attempt, because I'm never sure my batches will turn out, with successfully cooked fudge subject to a pretty exact internal temperature. I've failed many a time, but the risk of failure is, strangely, one of the reasons why I even attempt to make it in the first place — that plus Christmas tradition and the satisfying result when it works.
My mother-in-law, Mary Vanderhorst Greenleaf, introduced me to this candy when I married her late son in 1967. He and his four siblings grew up with her old-fashioned fudge, and with her divinity as well, made carefully the week before Christmas each year. She would get out her pans and measure and mix and boil the hot sugar syrups to the perfect temperatures. At the crucial moment, she would add chopped pecans to the fudge and push and level it into a pan.
The divinity would be spooned into cloud-like mounds on wax paper, some topped with a pecan half, some a candied red cherry. When the candies were set, she'd store them in colorful Christmas tins. It's an understatement to say we were eager for these treats; we waited all year for them! Christmas was truly here when we tasted the sweet, creamy richness that only comes from these two iconic candies.
For another 30-plus years, brothers, sisters and cousins gathered at Mother's home for a formal dinner at 1 o'clock on Christmas Day, with gifts exchanged afterward. Not only are these years long gone, but my first husband, Arie, and his mother are now deceased, and the children and grandchildren have scattered to their own lives. Blessed memories remain, however, and are held close at Christmastime, as sweet as the candy Mother made.
When Mary went into a nursing home, I acquired the shallow, aluminum 9-inch-by-9-inch Mirro pan used for receiving the cooked fudge. I treasure its history and contemplate the numerous batches spread, cut and shared from it, encouraged to carry on this Christmas tradition.
I also have Mother's recipe, written by her more than 40 years ago on a piece of paper attached, at some point, to an index card for support. The blue ink is faded, and the paper is both yellow with age and stained from use. Thinking perhaps my son and his wife, or a grandchild, would want her handwritten recipe someday, I later added a bit of genealogy for the record: Grandmother Greenleaf's Fudge, followed by her name.
These memories accompany my yearly candy-making efforts, and the day I made this batch was no different. Once I got the mixture of chocolate, sugar and milk cooking on the stove, I quickly did a few morning chores, thoughts of Christmases past on my mind. I didn't want to stray too far from the kitchen, though, especially when success depends on catching the moment the mixture arrives at the soft-ball stage, which is technically 234 to 238 degrees. The temperature rises quickly as it nears this stage, making it easy to overcook fudge, but undercooking is just as disappointing. I've done both! A candy thermometer is recommended, and I have no doubt that most have no problem using one, but my fudge tends to be overcooked when I rely on it.
When it's undercooked, even slightly, fudge won't set up, or harden enough to cut into squares. These batches are best eaten with a spoon, or perhaps used for an ice cream topping, or as icing on a cake; none too conducive for a Christmas box!
As I hurried up the stairs after putting in a load of laundry, the scent of bubbling fudge met me at the hallway door, overwhelming my senses with its delicious chocolaty aroma. Fudge was in the air, a Christmas greeting that spoke of a generation of holidays lived and tucked away, and a family tradition that calls me every year. Honoring this life memory, a testimony to the enduring value of heritage, became all important.
Inspired to encourage others to embrace the simplest joys, I received a blessing in the telling.
As it turned out, this batch of fudge was perhaps my best ever — creamy, yet solid. My sister-in-law, Edna, wrote in her Christmas thank-you, "The fudge is so good."
Arie's sister, Carol, penned, "Of course the fudge is a hit," and her husband, Butch, added, "Thanx so much for the fudge. But did you honestly think I'd share some with Carol? Fat chance! Oh well, maybe one piece (smiley face)."
Christmas 2011 will be held dearly, another holiday woven into the tapestry of my life, a successful batch of fudge one of its satisfactions. Perhaps my devotion to weaving a tapestry of joy based on simplicity and creativity can be attributed partly to Joan Walsh Anglund, distinctive illustrator and author. I spent my teen years inspired by her cherished books. They portray the innocent, foundational activities of childhood that become bedrock to the whole of life. Her simplest message is powerfully illustrated, truth come to life through drawings of square-chinned children at play, rest or task, their eyes two black dots of surprising curiosity and understanding, expressive in a featureless face.
In her 1961 book "Christmas Is a Time of Giving," Anglund wrote:
For some people,
Christmas is a time of remembering …
remembering other happy days
filled with laughing voices …
and other treasured times, now past.
I'm one who remembers and treasures the past, regardless of loss, disappointment and challenge; you be one, as well.
To help promote a new family tradition, I offer Mary's fudge recipe:
(From Mary Alice Vanderhorst Greenleaf Campen's handwritten recipe)
3 cups sugar
6 tablespoons cocoa
1 tablespoon corn syrup
1½ cups milk
Boil above ingredients until soft ball stage. Drop in 4 tablespoons butter and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Cool. Beat until it loses its shine.
Tips for cooking old-fashioned chocolate fudge
(Using the cold water test)
Suggestions offered from personal experience and from "Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book," 1962 edition.
1. Lightly spray or grease a heavy, high-sided pan, at least 4 inches deep, and smooth inside; wipe off excess oil; this prevents crystals from forming.
2. Add the sugar and cocoa to the pan and mix well.
3. Stir in the corn syrup and the milk.
I've used both 2 percent and 1 percent milk over the years.
I used Smart Balance 1 percent milk in this batch of fudge, and I like its results the best! This milk is very creamy, like whole milk, yet minus the fat content. I actually recommend this for your fudge, especially if you want your candy to be a bit healthier. It worked perfectly!
4. Stir fudge until it comes to boiling and all grains of sugar have dissolved — one sugar crystal can start a chain reaction and make your whole batch grainy.
If you choose to use a candy thermometer, this is the point when you attach it to the pan.
5. Cook over medium heat; I usually adjust the temperature slightly as it cooks, reducing the heat a bit if I think the mixture is about to boil over.
6. Because the hot sugar syrup splatters some as it bubbles, I usually place wet paper towels on the stove, away from the burner in use but strategically positioned to make cleanup easier.
7. The mixture will bubble to the top of the pan, usually within 10 minutes.
8. The syrup will then subside; continue cooking.
9. I begin the cold water test not long after it subsides, around 220 degrees, the point when the temperature begins to climb fast; I do this test at least five times until it reaches the soft ball stage, 234 degrees.
Use a small bowl, cold water and a spoon to determine whether the fudge has arrived at the soft ball stage.
Spoon some of the hot syrup into the cold water.
The fudge is ready when you can form drops into a ball in water, but the ball will flatten when removed from the water.
Carefully move the pot of hot fudge to a cake rack — don't jar it.
Place 4 tablespoons of butter or an alternative like Smart Balance Buttery Sticks, which I use, on top of the fudge.
Cool fudge until the bottom of the pan feels comfortably warm (110 degrees).
Rest pan on pot holder; beat vigorously with wooden spoon. Don't rest or stop too soon.
When fudge begins to stiffen and lose its gloss, add nuts (optional), continue beating, then push from pan; don't scrape sides.
Push the fudge into a lightly greased square pan and level.
Score while warm; cut when firm. I usually cut the squares while the fudge is warm.
One of my anticipated Christmas joys is scraping and eating what's left in the pan — you can actually put some of the extra leavings into a bowl; they're great to nibble on. Enjoy!
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