Candy is not a food known for its use of wholesome ingredients. In fact, it barely qualifies as a food at all. But Jami Curl, the confectioner behind Portland's Quin candy shop, is trying to change that.
In her book, Candy is Magic: Real Ingredients and Modern Recipes, Curl crafts caramels and gumdrops and lollipops out of everything from roasted fruit to simmered-down wine to cream infused with freshly popped corn. Because it turns out that — despite what you might think from looking in a Halloween basket — candy can be made from actual ingredients.
But evangelizing homemade candy requires a bit of a public education campaign. Not only do most people think you can't make candy from real ingredients — they don't think the average person can make candy at all.
"I think it's scary to some people, because it's really hot, and it involves a thermometer. People don't want to do things that are fussy," observes Curl.
And candy is different from other types of kitchen magic. Bake a cake a bit too long, or over-salt your soup, and you can still redeem things — trim off the burnt edges and slather on some frosting, or toss in a few handfuls of rice (respectively), and all is redeemed. But bring your sugar to the wrong temperature, and you may be left with caramels that turn to goo, or candies that could break your teeth. That transformation can be a bit unforgiving and intimidating. But also kind of magical.
"That is the wizardry behind it," laughs Curl. "You put stuff in a pot that is a liquid, but then you make a candy that stands up on a stick. That is pretty powerful, I have to say. Those things that take the biggest journey are the things people get the most excited about."
But, Curl acknowledges, you do have to be careful. "Making candy is all about controlling sugar."
And that control comes down to bringing it to precise temperatures (thermometers are required for a lot of candy-making), measuring ingredients carefully (candy requires accuracy, so grab a digital scale), as well as finessing its physical structure.
"As soon as you melt it, sugar wants to become a crystal," Curl explains.
Remember making rock candy as a kid? With all those crystals magically "growing" around a string from a dissolved sugar solution? That's what we're talking about. To make sure sugar doesn't re-crystalize when you don't want it to, you have to be careful about handling it — swirl, don't stir (which would encourage the sugar to re-bond to itself). Many candy recipes also use an "interfering agent" that keeps the sugar from turning back to a crystal — usually glucose, though corn syrup can do the trick in a home kitchen.
This can be a bit intimidating — nobody wants to have a flop in the kitchen. "You have invested your time," Curl notes, "which is priceless for everyone. And then you have invested in ingredients. And then you screw it up. And that fear is what keeps people from experimenting."
But, Curl stresses, that experimentation doesn't need to be scary. Really, it's just a recipe.
"All candy starts out the same. You put the sugar in a pot, and then you melt it. And depending on what temp you cook it to, it does different things. Low temperature equals soft, chewy candy. If you cook it to a high temperature, it caramelizes, and gets to a hard-crack stage."
And, if you're Curl, you then use that structure of carefully controlled sugar, and fill it with big, natural flavors. At Quin, they craft lollipops made of fruit and wine, caramels flavored with coffee and popcorn. And, Quin stresses, it's pretty easy to get the flavors in there. While sugar that's taken to the hard-crack stage (like a lollipop) will burn off a lot of the subtle flavors, for many confections, you can get some amazing results from simple ingredients.
"In caramel, for example, cream is a really good vehicle for getting flavor into the candy. You can pour hot cream over popcorn, let it sit, then strain it, and the cream itself tastes like popcorn. And that carries through right until you unwrap it," says Curl.
She uses this same infuse-the-cream technique with everything from orange zest to black peppercorns. And fruit — fresh or frozen — lends a note to everything from gumdrops to marshmallows (after a quick roasting in the oven, to remove moisture and concentrate the flavor and color). Curl still remembers the first time they succeeded in such a recipe.
"To take blackberries that we'd picked, and in a few hours, get them to stand up as a lollipop on a stick — it was this other world for me. I still wholeheartedly believe it's magic."
But, Curl, stresses, getting flavor from all these foods does not mean you're ending up with some sort of health food. We're still talking sugar, after all — it's still a treat. But there is a space in life for treats. And a treat you can make yourself — from real ingredients? That's also quite a trick.
Makes about 115 caramels if made in a pan
Without a doubt, this candy combines a pair of great flavors: caramelized sugar and salty popcorn. The popcorn is introduced into the candy in two ways. First, a popcorn infused cream that basically tastes like popcorn-flavored milk; and second, a layer of popped corn that's pressed directly into the caramel after it's cooked and poured, so that each little square of candy is studded with a kernel or two. Between the flavor and the texture, it's hard to decide what I like best. When the caramel has set, see pages 164 to 165 for cutting tips, detailed instructions, and illustrations.
438 grams glucose syrup
800 grams granulated sugar
265 grams Popcorn Cream (see below)
7 grams kosher salt
18 grams vanilla extract
295 grams unsalted butter, cut into roughly 1-inch pieces
90 grams Every Day, Popcorn (see below)
Lightly butter a 9 by 13 –inch pan. Weigh the glucose syrup directly into a heavy-bottomed pot, then set the pot over medium-high heat. Allow the glucose to warm until it liquefies and then starts to bubble. Once the glucose has bubbled a bit in one spot, swirl the pot to distribute the heat. Add the sugar, about one-third at a time, sprinkling it over the glucose syrup. Using a high-heat spatula or wooden spoon, poke (no stirring) the sugar down into the syrup after each addition. Keep watch to make sure no giant lumps of dry sugar remain before you add the next installment of sugar. If you see lumps, poke them down into the glucose. Once all of the sugar is added and has been poked down into the liquid so it's wet, stop poking.
Pour the cream into a small saucepan and add the salt and vanilla. Stir to mix, then set the pan over low to medium heat. You're not looking to boil the cream; the idea is to simply warm the ingredients so they're not cold when they go into the hot sugar.
Meanwhile, let the glucose and sugar cook, swirling the pot occasionally, until the mixture is dark amber, or the color of a copper penny. Time-wise, you're looking at 13 to 15 minutes for the caramel to reach the target color. At first the sugar will turn pale brown, then darker brown. This may happen in spots around the pot, so it's important to swirl the pot as the sugar cooks. Once the sugar is a uniform color, cook it for a second or two longer until you feel good about the color, remembering that you want it to match that dark amber target.
Remove the pot from the heat and very carefully add the warmed cream mixture, immediately followed by the butter. Whisk the candy for 5 minutes, until completely emulsified. This means that the fats have been completely mixed into the sugar with no chance of separating. The mixture will be homogenized, with no oily separation or bits of anything burnt floating around.
Pour the caramel into the prepared pan, nudging it into the corners as needed, and allow it to rest for 5 minutes. Shower the popcorn evenly over the top (see below) and press down lightly to ensure a good stick. Allow the candy to sit until cooled and set, at least 3 hours or preferably up to overnight, before cutting.
Topping The Caramel
When topping a slab of candy with an ingredient, whether it's salt, popcorn, seeds, sprinkles, coconut, or shards of chocolate, it's important to shower it from a good height, rather than just an inch or so above the candy. Don't believe me? Try it. Grab a few fingers full of salt and attempt to sprinkle them all over something from an inch or so away. See what happens? The salt all ends up in one big pile. Now, do it again, but sprinkle the salt from 18 inches above the surface. This time the salt is distributed much more evenly, and you've avoided getting too much in any one spot. Knowing how to shower any ingredient is important because you will be sprinkling it on hot candy — and you can't correct your mistake once the sprinkling is done.
Makes about 270 grams
Probably what I love the most about popcorn cream is the fact that if you drink it, it tastes like buttered popcorn or a night out at the movies. (But who would drink heavy cream? Anyone? Only me? OK.) You need a food processor for this recipe, and the bowl and the blade of the processor must be completely dry. You want to turn the popcorn into dust, and that won't be possible if there's any moisture around.
One more thing: the popcorn in this recipe is popcorn you'll pop yourself on the stove top. I'm always surprised by the number of people who use a microwave to make popcorn when the stove-top method (especially when popped in coconut oil and a little sugar) produces such superior results. You may be tempted to make this cream with prepopped bagged stuff or even a chemical-laden microwave imposter, but the flavor will never be the same.
100 grams Every Day, Popcorn (see below)
500 grams heavy cream
Place the popcorn in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the blade attachment. Pulse the popcorn until it turns into a fine dust. Empty the popcorn dust into a heatproof bowl.
Pour the cream into a small saucepan, place over medium heat, and bring to a gentle boil, stirring a couple of times while you're waiting. Once the cream is bubbling, immediately pour it over the popcorn dust, nudging with a spoon to make sure that every speck of dust is saturated with cream. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and allow the cream to steep for 30 minutes.
Set a fine mesh strainer over a small bowl and pour the cream-popcorn mixture into the strainer. It will look like some kind of mush, but it will smell like cream and popcorn (and, if you're like me, you'll start to get excited). Press the popcorn mush against the strainer with the back of a large spoon to release as much of the beautiful cream as you can. Discard the mush.
The cream is now ready to use, or transfer it to an airtight container and refrigerate for up to 1 week.
Makes about 300 grams
The real goal here is popcorn that can be used to make popcorn and cream, the key ingredient in Popcorn Caramels.. I pop my corn in refined coconut oil because the oil can stand up to high heat. Beware! Once the aroma of freshly popped popcorn fills your home, a snack attack is inevitable. You are going to needs 100 grams of the popcorn for making the cream and another 90 grams or so for topping the caramels. The remaining popcorn? Snack away. And don't be surprised if you're tempted to make this popcorn every day.
114 grams coconut oil
230 grams popcorn kernels (white or yellow)
75 grams granulated sugar
10 grams kosher salt
Put the coconut oil in a large pot (with the lid nearby), set it on the stove top, and turn the burner to medium-high. Once the coconut oil has liquefied, sprinkle the popcorn kernels evenly over the oil, then sprinkle the sugar evenly over the kernels. Place the lid on the pot and wait for the kernels to start popping. While you are waiting, get out a sheet pan and put it near the stove. Once the popcorn is off to a start, stand by and listen.
You'll want to keep the pot on the heat until there are long pauses between pops. Those pauses should not last more than 10 seconds. As soon as the popping starts to slow, turn off the burner, take the pot off the heat, carefully remove the lid, and pour the popcorn onto the sheet pan. Sprinkle the salt all over the popped corn.
The popcorn is ready to use, and (once cool) can be stored in an airtight container for up to 1 week.
Reprinted with permission from Candy is Magic, copyright 2017 by Jami Curl. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.