Some of us cooks avoid candy making, thinking it complicated and fraught with risks for disasters. The mention of a candy thermometer in the recipe doesn't help dispel the fear either. However, there are many basic recipes that will de-mystify the candy-making process.
These recipes will yield batches of goodies that can be bundled into cellophane bags and tied with bright ribbon to create confectionary delights for anyone on your list. And an extra bonus: Serve the leftover and broken pieces to surprise guests at your holiday table. There's nothing sweeter than gifts from the kitchen.
Jacqui Love Marshall lives in San Ramon with her pug, Nina Simone, and volumes of cookbooks and recipes. Her column runs every other week. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Almond-Coconut Haystacks (makes 16 to 18 clusters)
8 ounces bittersweet OR semisweet chocolate, chopped
1-1/2 cups sweetened flaked coconut
3/4 cup smoked almonds (about 5 oz.), finely chopped, or plain almonds
1. Line a baking sheet with waxed paper. Melt chocolate in a large heatproof bowl over a pan of hot water, stirring frequently until melted and smooth. Remove from heat. Stir in 1 cup coconut and 1/2 cup almonds. Spoon the mixture in heaping tablespoon-size mounds onto waxed paper. Mix remaining 1/2 cup coconut and 1/4 cup almonds in a bowl and sprinkle over tops of haystacks, lightly pressing into chocolate to adhere.
2. Refrigerate until firm, about 1 hour. Store in an airtight container at room temperature up to 1 day, or in refrigerator up to 2 weeks.
White Chocolate Pretzel Logs (makes 12 pretzels)
4 ounces white chocolate, chopped
12 pretzel rods
1/3 to 1/2 cup mixed red, green and white nonpareil sprinkles
1. Slowly melt chocolate by placing 3/4 of it in top of a double boiler over barely simmering water in the lower half (or in a heatproof bowl set in a saucepan of barely simmering water); stir occasionally. Remove top of double boiler or bowl and wipe bottom to prevent any water from coming in contact with the chocolate.
2. Stir in remaining 1/4 chocolate and continue to stir until all is melted.
3. Line a rimmed baking sheet with waxed paper or parchment paper. (Do not use cooking spray.) Working with 1 pretzel at a time, dip top half in melted chocolate and allow excess to drip back into the pan. You can also use the back of a spoon to remove any excess.
4. Place dipped pretzels on the prepared baking sheet. Allow chocolate to cool and set slightly, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle chocolate area of each pretzel with sprinkles, turning to coal all sides.
5. Refrigerate until chocolate is hardened, about 20 minutes. The pretzels will release from the paper once dry. Dipped pretzels can be made up to 1 week ahead. Layer them, without touching, between sheets of waxed paper in an airtight container and store at room temperature.
Mixed Nut Brittle (makes about 1-1/2 pounds)
2 cups sugar
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cubed
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1 tsp coarse kosher salt
1 cup pine nuts (about 4-1/2 oz.)
1 cup sliced almonds (about 3-1/2 oz.)
Nonstick vegetable spray
1. Line rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper and coat with nonstick spray.
2. Mix sugar and water in large, heavy saucepan. Add butter and corn syrup. Stir over medium heat until sugar dissolves and butter melts. Attach candy thermometer to pan side.
3. Increase heat; cook without stirring until mixture is deep golden brown, bubbling quickly and thermometer registers 350 degrees, about 8 minutes. Remove from heat; remove thermometer.
4. Using large wooden spoon, stir in salt, then all nuts.
5. Turn mixture out onto prepared sheet. Using a large offset spatula, spread to 1/4-inch thickness. Cool completely; break into pieces of desired size. Store in airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 weeks.
Ginger-Spiced Pecans (3 cups)
4 Tbsp unsalted butter
3 cups pecan halves
1/4 cup sugar
2 tsp ground ginger
1. In a large nonstick frying pan, melt the butter over moderate heat. Add the pecans and cook, stirring, until beginning to brown, about 4 minutes.
2. In a small bowl, combine the sugar, ginger, and salt. Sprinkle the mixture evenly over the pecans in the pan and cook, stirring, until the pecans are coated with the sugar mixture and are browned and crisp, 1-2 minutes. Don't cook them too long or the sugar will begin to melt. Spread the pecans on a baking sheet to cool.
Note: If you prepare the pecans more than two days ahead, add another 1/2 tsp of ginger, since the flavor dissipates over time.