Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The science of Valentine candy

The thing about making candy at home is that it is really, really sticky. Impossibly sticky. And lava-hot at the same time—dangerous combo. But, the mess (and occasional finger burn) is so worth it. For easily less than five dollars, thanks to inexpensive everyday ingredients, you can cover your kitchen counter in more delectable tempered chocolate than fifty bucks'll get you at Godiva.

Oh, the other thing about making candy at home: specifics matter, especially temperatures. It's not an art; it's a science. You can't rush. Except when you have to.

As usual, I wanted to try something new and special for a Valentine's Day dessert. (See failed 2010 Valentine dessert here and successful 2012 dessert here.) Mostly, I followed the Chocolate and Peanut Butter Nougat Squares recipe from Saveur, but with a few changes: First, I halved it. Second, I used bittersweet chocolate chips instead of semisweet. Third, I didn't sprinkle any salt whatsoever over the finished squares. And fourth, my confections were not squares.

My version of the recipe is below, following these words of encouragement: At first glance, this recipe is ambitious, but really, these candies can be made in one evening if you have at least two and a half hours to spare. Some of that time is waiting time, and the remaining intensive hands-on time is well worth it in the end. You may also be happy to know that the nougat, while impossibly sticky and stretchy, washes right out of your mixer bowl (or hair) with warm water, easy.

Chocolate-Covered Peanut Butter Nougat
Makes 50 or so candies

1 cup sugar
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons light corn syrup
1/4 cup molasses
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons water
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 small egg white (or about half to three-quarters of a large one)
1/2 cup peanut butter
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons dry powdered milk
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1/2 pound bittersweet chocolate chips
1 tablespoon vegetable shortening

Spray a 9x9-inch square baking pan with cooking spray; set aside. In a 3-quart saucepan, combine the sugar, 1/2 corn syrup, molasses, and water and heat over medium-high. Clip a candy thermometer to the pan and cook the mixture, without stirring. NOTE: At this stage, the pot will seem far too large for the amount of ingredients, but just wait. You will be glad for all three quarts of it once this stuff starts boiling.

The first important temperature on your candy thermometer is 235 degrees, so keep an eye on that 3-quart pot while you tackle these next steps. (It takes a little while for the temperature to reach 235, but when it does, you have to move fast!)

While the mixture is heating, put the remaining 2 tablespoons of corn syrup, the vanilla, and the egg white into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk. Don't turn the mixer on yet. Then, in a separate bowl, combine the peanut butter, powdered milk, and powdered sugar and mix those three ingredients until smooth. Just get your hands in there and knead it like dough, then set it aside.

When the syrup in your 3-quart pot reaches 235 degrees, switch on the stand mixer and let it whip the egg white, corn syrup, and vanilla on high speed.

Now run back over to the stove because that syrup that had been so slowly creeping up to 235 degrees is now rocketing toward 250! When it reaches 250 degrees, remove the pan from the heat and just let it sit for 1 minute. (Mine continued to boil and get even hotter on its own, but either that is supposed to happen or it just luckily didn't adversely affect the nougat's outcome. OK, so not always an exact science.)

Your kitchen will smell like burnt molasses by now.

When 1 minute is up, reduce your mixer speed to medium and ever so carefully pour the hot syrup into the egg whites in a slow, steady stream. Scrape the last of the syrup out with a rubber spatula to get it all in there. Then, increase the mixer speed to medium-high and let it go for 4 minutes. It will become a creamy light brown and extremely sticky. Marshmallowy.

At the end of 4 minutes, remove the bowl from the mixer (forget scraping the whisk clean—time is too precious at this stage—just take a quick swipe at it to get what you can and lick the rest later!) and quickly but gently fold the peanut butter mixture into the egg white mixture until well combined. Scrape it all out into the sprayed 9x9 pan and smooth it out with a rubber spatula. I used a spatula in combination with a butter knife because otherwise I'd try to spread the nougat into the corner of the pan and only lift it all away again as it was stuck to the spatula!

Now, just let that sit and cool to room temperature. It doesn't take particularly long, which is why you had to work so quickly to get it mixed and in the pan.

If you taste the nougat now, the molasses nearly overpowers the peanut butter. I was disappointed by that taste. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't what I'd hoped for. However, I can now assure you that the strong molasses flavor fades by the time this whole process is finished, becoming a nutty undertone instead. Your sweetheart will never guess that molasses is in there.

When the nougat is cooled, transfer it to a cutting board. How? Hold the pan upside down over the cutting board. With a little encouragement from the rubber spatula around the edges of the pan, the whole square of nougat should just peel away and dump itself out.

It's still incredibly marshmallowy but not impossible to work with. Slice it up into a grid of approximately 1-inch pieces. In theory, that would be 9 columns and 9 rows, based on the size of the pan, but I cut roughly 11 columns and 7 rows. (I say, "roughly," because my columns were crooked and resulted in a corner of extra pieces.)

Using the knife and your fingers, pull the pieces away from one another, more or less preserving their rectangular shape.

Now, to melt the chocolate. Fit a pot of simmering water with a heat-safe bowl, and put the chocolate and shortening in the bowl. Heat, stirring often until the chocolate melts and the mixture is smooth. Remove the bowl from the pot and set it aside until the chocolate cools to 89 degrees.

The original recipe says that when the chocolate reaches 89 degrees, you can start dipping the pieces of nougat, and if the chocolate cools below 86 degrees, you should heat it  back up to 89 to continue dipping. Well, we do not own an instant-read thermometer. So, I used the candy thermometer to keep watch on the chocolate's progress until it got down to 100 degrees, the lowest the candy thermometer goes. Then, I switched to... um... a digital oral thermometer. Yes, the kind you stick under your tongue to see if you have a fever. Yes, I cleaned it first! Even that thermometer only goes down to about 91 before it declares its subject dead, so I had to estimate when the chocolate was really ready, and I have no idea whether it cooled below 86 degrees during the dipping. But once again, my inexact science did not seem to be a problem in the end. (We have since gained another thermometer from a cheese-making kit, and it reads all the way down to zero. Science can resume.)

The chocolate takes forever to cool. Way longer than the nougat does. At last, around 89 degrees, the chocolate's good for dipping. With a couple of toothpicks or tiny forks, stab your nougat rectangles and dip them in the melted chocolate. It's OK if the rectangles become blobs. Shake off the excess coating, and then place each candy on a sheet of wax paper. Let them sit out at room temperature.

In about an hour, the chocolate will have set, or will at least be solid enough to handle. By the next morning for sure, you'll be able to put the chocolate-covered nougats into a heart-shaped box or whatever you like! You see I simply piled them into a bowl.

Try not to eat all of these fluffy little nuggets in one sitting.

This post shared on: Real Food Wednesdays, Frugal Crafty Home, Eat Make Grow, Frugal Days, Sustainable Ways 


  1. Mmm candy looks so delicious!

  2. Wow - that looks like a LOT of effort, but worth it? They look amazing!

    1. Not as much effort as I feared when first looking at the recipe, thanks to the stand mixer! But a little bit of effort, yes, and definitely worth it in the end.