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Boomer's Journal: Boiling sugar

By Rachel Barduson

‘Tis the season for traditional candy – either bought, homemade or gifted. It reminds me of several attempts at what could be called a chemistry experiment gone up in smoke. This particular chemistry laboratory, also known as mom’s kitchen, starts with several cups of sugar that could lead to the demise of several pounds of white granulated crystals.

Traditional recipes for making candy. Stock photo

The infamous rock hard and ribbon candy that I found in my little brown bag after the annual Sunday School Christmas Program at Erdahl Lutheran Church was, of course, my first recollection of boiled sugar. And boy, did I clutch that candy treasure in my innocent little fingers. This would not be shared. This was gold. Just the fact that we could start eating it at 9 p.m. on a Sunday night after church was indication enough that this was the prize of all prizes. This was a gift that could keep on giving. Forget the red apple. Forget the peanuts-in-the- shell. I had crystallized saturated sugar in a little brown bag.

Fast forward – and I do mean fast forward when you think how quickly life passes by – to this Christmas as I reflect on that little brown bag and the Christmas memories it created. I found myself intrigued with the history of how rock candy developed, which is really all about boiling sugar.

And so... I did a little investigating. I was fascinated by the amount of information I could find. In a nutshell, according to rock candy manufacturer, Dryden and Palmer, rock candy is referenced in both Indian and Iranian writings from the 9th century.

The Greeks and the Romans imported tiny amounts, calling it “Indian salt.” In those days of limited travel and trade, it was very expensive. By then, India had already developed the first two kinds of candy. The original was simply a lump of sugar crystals, what we call rock candy.*

In my search, I found it interesting, and somewhat amusing, that there are many references to what we now call rock candy in literature. Shakespeare, in Henry IV (1596) referred to its therapeutic value as a throat soother for long-winded talkers.

But, back to the chemistry experiments in my mother’s kitchen. The more-modern definition of rock candy “is formed by allowing a supersaturated solution of sugar and water to crystallize onto a surface suitable for crystal nucleation, such as a string, stick, or plain granulated sugar.

I guess we are rocket scientists after all.

I learned quickly that making Christmas candy was tricky, whether it was rock candy, peanut brittle, divinity or fudge.

Boiling sugar to the correct temperature was not easy. My mother tried to teach me. I thought Home Economics class would help. It didn’t. We either got it too soft or too hard. The candy that was supposed to be hard wasn’t hard enough and the candy that was supposed to be soft got too hard. Crystallized sugar formed when it wasn’t supposed to and it didn’t form into a hard ball when we wanted a hard ball. A few pans might have been destroyed in the process as a good solid layer of blackened burnt sugar on the bottom of the pan was impossible to clean. Endless soaking in soapy water resulted in re-using a blackened pan with a burnt sugar smell, albeit, we used it again anyway. I learned that there was that fine line that was hard to find. And this was all before smoke alarms had been invented.

Mom tried to teach me how to test the temperature of candy without a candy thermometer, because, who had a candy thermometer at home? No one in our “modern” world, that’s for sure. The only known candy thermometer in the county on this side of Millerville was the one in the home economics classroom in Evansville.

And so, mom taught me about the “cold water test.” It was really fun to experiment. I think the fudge was supposed to be firm, the divinity was supposed to be a little softer and the peanut brittle was supposed to be quite a bit harder. Mom’s cookbook even had a remedy for “fudge repair: If smooth but too stiff, knead till softened; press into buttered pan or form roll; slice. If fudge doesn’t set, stir in ¼ cup milk and recook.” Okee-dokee then.

Mom tried peanut brittle. This was dad’s favorite Christmas treat and therefore, always requested. Her batches always got too soft. Her peanut brittle was more like salt water taffy. She gave up when my Aunt Beverly apparently “had the knack” and sent a package of homemade peanut brittle to dad every Christmas.

So, we moved on to making Divinity, the year I was in the eighth grade and had learned how to make it in Home Economics class. I was really excited because our group in school had made a successful batch. There I was in the kitchen at home with mother, measuring cups of sugar and bringing it “to a boil.” Boiling it to just exactly what we thought was the correct soft-or-firm-ball stage, and dropping spoonfuls onto wax paper. We only tried making Divinity once. Honestly, I don’t remember if the family ate it, or we tossed it out at the end of the season. Our Christmas platter of treats never donned Divinity after that.

What was on our Christmas platter of treats - mixed in with all of the special tried-and-true cookies and bars and ethnic treats – were bits and pieces of rock and ribbon candy (to add color to the tray) from the little brown bag of goodies still brought home from the Sunday School program.

And so, the lesson from this simple little narrative about rock candy, i.e., boiling sugar? Why tamper with perfection? Some things we are good at and other things we are not so good at. I guess we aren’t all rocket scientists. Just like mom, candy making isn’t so much in my forte of cooking, so I will find an alternative method of serving my guests and gifting my friends.

The other lesson? Heeding Shakespeare’s reference to rock candy, which is a supersaturated solution of sugar and water crystallized into a surface suitable for crystal nucleation, such as a string, stick, or plain granulated sugar, I will eat it with the knowledge that it has therapeutic value as a throat soother for long-winded talkers.

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