I’M not a big candy eater, but around the holidays I find myself longing for a few pieces of chewy Turkish delight. Despite the name and exotic rose-water flavor, it’s among the humblest of confections, made from just cornstarch and sugar. But it takes me back to the first Christmas I can remember, when the grandmother I hadn’t yet met, who was Indian and lived in England, sent me a box. For me it still carries the taste of strangeness and confusion and wonder.
I also don’t make candy very often. But when I do it seems the most magical branch of cooking, one that needs little more than plain white powder to conjure up such different marvels as glassy lollipops, opalescent ribbons, smooth creams, crumbly fudge and rich brown caramel.
But candy making can be much simpler, quicker and more fun than all that. Cooks were making candies centuries before the invention of thermometers. And modernity has brought us a household appliance that greatly reduces the tedium of boiling down home-size batches of candy syrup. With your microwave you can make candy with a fraction of the usual time and attention.
There are two basic steps in candy making. First you boil a syrup of sugar, water and other ingredients to evaporate away some of the water and concentrate the sugar. This determines how firm the candy will be when it cools and the sugar forms a solid structure. The more water you leave in the syrup, the more moisture there will be in the candy, and the softer and creamier you can make it.
As the sugar concentration rises, the boiling point does, too, so the temperature of the bubbling syrup indicates the candy’s ultimate texture. Syrups for creamy, fudgy or chewy candies are boiled until they rise to about 240 degrees. Syrups for hard candies like brittles and lollipops need to reach 300 degrees.
The second step is cooling the hot syrup to let it solidify. Depending on the recipe and what happens to the syrup during this stage, the sugar molecules may bond to each other randomly in a single amorphous mass, or they may form millions of individual, tightly organized crystals. If you want a creamy or fudgy texture, you stir the syrup as it cools to prevent the sugar crystals from becoming big and coarse.
Boiling down the syrup on the stove top is tedious for several reasons. Sugar syrups scorch easily, and form bubbles that last long enough to build into a foam and spill over. To prevent both problems, the cook has to stir constantly over moderate burner heat. And because sugar and water molecules hang on to each other tenaciously, the water is slow to escape, and cooking times are long.
The microwave oven is much better suited to the task. Nearly all the microwave energy goes directly into the water molecules, and evenly, from all directions at the same time. It heats the syrup very quickly, and there’s no chance that one part will be hotter than its boiling point and scorch.
If you start the syrup in a bowl large enough to accommodate its overall expansion as it boils, you can leave it to cook down mostly unattended. I scrape the bowl sides and briefly stir every five minutes or so until the syrup is getting close to done, when I check every minute or two to avoid overcooking it. For caramels and other candies that include foam-building milk proteins, you can prevent boiling over by lowering the oven’s power setting once the foam begins to rise.
Of course, even in a microwave you’re dealing with a hot sticky liquid that can scald you instantly. So you need to work carefully. Clear a space next to the microwave oven to set the bowl while you check and stir your syrup, and use a kitchen towel or mitts to handle the bowl.
Microwave-safe glass bowls allow you to check on the syrup at a glance, but they’re heavy and become uncomfortably hot. You can’t see as easily into silicone or metal bowls, but they’re easier to handle because they’re lighter and don’t accumulate as much heat. A metal bowl won’t cause sparking in the oven unless it comes close to other metal surfaces, but it does partly shield the syrup and requires longer cooking times.
The main awkwardness in using the microwave is that you need to open the oven door and remove the bowl to stir and check on the syrup’s doneness. Sometimes you can leave the bowl in the oven and judge by eye. Syrups for brittles and caramels are done when they’ve turned distinctly brown. For candies with creamy or fudgy textures it’s best to check the syrup’s temperature with a thermometer, or to see whether it sets into a soft solid when you scrape some with a spatula on the edge of a cold plate or drop a bit into a bowl of cold water.
If you haven’t made candy before, nut brittle is a good introduction. You can customize it with your favorite nuts or seeds, which toast in the syrup as it cooks. Brittles are meant to be glassy, not creamy or crumbly, so the recipe includes a large dose of corn syrup, whose glucose sugars prevent table-sugar sucrose from forming crystals.
You simply cook the syrup and nuts until they turn golden brown, which happens at about 300 degrees. Then stir in some baking soda, which clouds the syrup with little bubbles that will make the finished candy crunchy rather than hard. Spread the syrup out on a flat surface, let it set, break it into pieces and start nibbling.
Pralines come in two styles, creamy and chewy. New Orleans pralines get their creaminess from tiny sugar crystals embedded in just enough liquid to stick them together. The recipe, therefore, omits crystal-inhibiting corn syrup. You cook the sugar syrup to 240 degrees to get the right proportion of liquid to crystals, then beat the syrup as it cools to keep the crystals small. When you see the syrup cloud and thicken as it fills with crystals, you stop, form the candies and let them set. Made with fresh cream and butter and eaten while they’re still warm, your own pralines will be better than any you can buy.
Turkish delight, lokum in Turkish, is one of the original gummy candies. The chewiness comes from cornstarch. You cook the starch first, then add the sugar and anti-crystallizing corn syrup, bring the mix to a boil, cook for another 10 or 15 minutes, until it’s good and sticky, then pour it out to set without stirring.
Standard Turkish delight is made with rose water and red food coloring, but I love the saffron variant suggested in Peter P. Greweling’s excellent book, “Chocolates and Confections” (Wiley, 2010). These lokum are bright yellow, speckled with vanilla seeds and deep red saffron threads. They are tart and slightly bitter: an adult’s delight in any season.
Microwave Nut Brittle
Time: 30 to 40 minutes, plus 30 minutes’ cooling
2 cups raw nuts or seeds
2 cups sugar
1 cup corn syrup
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla extract.
1. Chop the nuts or seeds if they are large; otherwise, leave them whole. Put them into a 4-quart glass bowl with all other ingredients except the baking soda and vanilla extract. Stir in 3/4 cup water. Heat in a microwave oven on high power for 5 minutes. Using oven mitts or potholders, carefully transfer the bowl to a countertop and stir with a heat-resistant spatula. Repeat 2 or 3 more times, until the syrup thickens and the nuts begin to stick together. Then heat for 1-minute periods, stirring in between, until the syrup begins to turn light golden brown.
2. Line a baking sheet with foil. Add the baking soda and vanilla extract to the syrup and stir vigorously. Quickly pour the mixture out onto the baking sheet and use the spatula to spread it as thin as possible. Allow to cool to room temperature, then peel off the foil and break the brittle into pieces. Store in an airtight container.
Yield: About 2 pounds.
Time: 30 to 40 minutes, plus 50 minutes’ cooling
3 cups pecans
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups light brown sugar
3/4 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup milk
1/3 cup butter
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract.
1. Spread the pecans on a baking sheet and bake in a 350-degree oven until lightly toasted, 10 to 15 minutes.
2. Combine all the ingredients except the pecans and vanilla extract in a 4-quart glass bowl. Heat in a microwave oven on high power for 5 minutes. Using oven mitts or potholders, carefully transfer the bowl to a countertop and stir with a heat-resistant spatula. Return to microwave and heat for 5 more minutes.
3. Stir in the pecans and heat for another 5 minutes. Stir and check the temperature with a digital or candy thermometer. If it reads 240 degrees, proceed to Step 4. If not, continue heating on high power, stirring and checking the temperature every minute until it does.
4. Remove from oven and let the mix sit undisturbed. After 20 minutes, add the vanilla extract and stir vigorously until it becomes cloudy and creamy. Using 2 spoons, scoop and shape into 2-inch-diameter mounds on a baking sheet lined with foil, parchment paper or a silicone mat. If the mix becomes too hard to shape, reheat for 15 seconds. Let the pralines rest for 30 minutes. Keep stored in an airtight container.
Yield: About 30 pralines.
Microwave Saffron Turkish Delight
Time: About 45 minutes, plus 3 hours’ cooling
1 1/4 cups cornstarch, plus more for dusting
3 cups sugar
1/4 cup corn syrup
1 teaspoon saffron threads
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 vanilla bean
Cooking oil, for greasing pan
1/2 cup powdered sugar.
1. Pour 2 1/2 cups water into a 4-quart glass bowl. Slowly whisk in 3/4 cup cornstarch until smooth. Transfer to the microwave and cook on high power for 2 minutes. Using oven mitts or potholders, carefully transfer to a countertop and stir with a heat-resistant spatula. Return to microwave and heat 1 minute at a time, stirring between heatings, until the mixture thickens, bubbles and becomes translucent, about 5 to 6 minutes. Then heat on half power for 3 minutes.
2. Mix in the sugar, corn syrup and saffron. Heat on high power for 5 minutes. Stir and repeat, then stir and repeat again. After the last time, stir in the lemon juice. Slit the vanilla bean lengthwise, scrape all the seeds into the mixture and stir to combine. (Save the bean for another use.)
3. Continue to heat on high power for 3-minute periods, stirring in between, until a little syrup scraped onto the edge of a cold plate quickly sets to a tacky solid, from 12 to 21 minutes.
4. Grease an 8-by-8-inch baking pan with cooking oil and scrape and spread the mix into it. Allow to rest, uncovered, until it is firm enough to handle, several hours or overnight. Dust the top with cornstarch. Invert onto a small cutting board, using a spatula if needed, and dust the other side with cornstarch. Transfer the board to the freezer for 30 minutes. Cut into 3/4-inch squares with scissors or a knife.
5. Combine the remaining 1/2 cup cornstarch and the powdered sugar, and toss the squares in it. Store the candy in this mixture in a wide, shallow container.
Yield: About 120 pieces.
December 22, 2010
Copyright 2010 The New York Times