Everything I know about Christmas fudge
Posted by parker over 5 years ago
I started making fudge as a contribution to Thanksgiving dinner when I was in high school, I think, and because it makes a good gift for some people on my list, very soon after I started, I found myself making two or three batches every Christmas. I'd bet I've made about fifty batches since I first started, and in the process, I realized last night, I've learned quite a lot about it that's not written in the recipe.
The first thing to know is to use the right saucepan. It needs to be big; you're going to dump in four cups of sugar and three more cups of milk and butter, and when that gets hot its volume expands significantly. (It froths up.) High walls will keep the bubbling syrup from spitting hot sugar on to the cook, an unpleasant side effect.
It also helps if your saucepan has some heft; too thin a pan will transfer the burner heat too directly to the syrup, and you'll risk scorching sugar to the bottom of the pan. I have a T-Fal pot which looks big enough to fit a medium-sized chicken, and it's the best I've ever used for this purpose. It has a non-stick bottom, as well, so when I pour out the fudge into the pan I don't leave a lot in the pot.
Also, butter the pan you'll be pouring the fudge into. Getting the candy out of an un-buttered pan is a pain.
The first step is the boring one, involving heating milk, sugar and butter until it reaches a particular temperature. First, the recipe calls for "14 and 2/3 ounces" of evaporated milk; this is an obsolete size of can, so get the 12-ounce can and add a splash of regular milk. It will be fine.
Second, mix the milk and sugar as soon as possible, so all the sugar is in solution and not dry, burning to the bottom of the saucepan. The butter will melt quickly enough on its own, but breaking it into chunks will speed the process, as any chemistry teacher will tell you.
Once the butter is melted, you'll see this syrup pass through a series of state changes which are a better indicator of what's going on than any candy thermometer. The old cookbooks explained the stages of candy syrups by defining what a drop of the syrup would do in cold water, naming the stages as "soft ball," "hard ball," and "hard crack." There are specific temperatures associated with each stage. I've never had the time to do a cold water test, so I use the thermometer at the end, but for most of the process, I just watch.
The syrup will be light and frothy to start with, and as it gets hotter--into the "soft ball" stage--it will get denser, and its volume goes down, looking more like a pool of lava than a boiling pot. As you near your target temperature, it will look drier and almost solid, sticking to itself much better, though it will still stir like soup.
The trick is not to put the thermometer in until you're pretty sure you're almost there. The biggest (and easiest) goof you can make with fudge is to get impatient and not let the syrup get hot enough. The recipe says 236 degrees; I go all the way to 240, just to be sure. If your final fudge is soft, you didn't let the syrup get hot enough here.
Once you've hit your temperature, things get very busy very fast. You need to turn off the heat and add marshmallow creme, chocolate, and vanilla, melt and mix before the syrup cools and sets up. The key is that this doesn't happen as fast as you might fear. Don't panic. Get the chocolate (a bag of chips) and marshmallow (one of the glass jars of Fluff; the big plastic tubs would require measuring, and trust me, you don't want to have to measure Fluff) in quickly so they can start melting. Then apply the vanilla. If the vanilla goes in too early, it may boil off, but usually the time needed to get the chocolate and Fluff in cools it enough that the vanilla can follow directly.
Stir this mix very well. Don't be tempted to pour it out into the pan until it's very thoroughly mixed; you'll wind up with streaky fudge, or chunks of un-melted chocolate (which may be a good thing, depending on your perspective.)
Here's where you have the chance to do substitutions. The classic chocolate fudge uses a 12-ounce bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips. Swapping in 12 ounces of white chocolate makes a very, very rich white fudge; I've also used peanut butter chips (or the mixed chocolate/peanut butter chips) to make peanut butter fudge. Note that anything other than the semi-sweet chips will make a slightly softer product, tending more to crumbs. The peanut butter variety will sometimes share its smell and flavor with other varieties in the same container, as well; I only make it by request.
Adding peppermint extract (or substituting it for the vanilla) gives a hint of mint to the final product, but you'll need a greater amount of peppermint than the amount of vanilla called for; the peppermint cooks off at a lower temperature, so it's more likely to evaporate in the cooking process. You could try crushed mints (candy canes or starlights) as well for a more bark-like effect, but I haven't tried that myself. You'd probably want them crushed quite small.
Once poured into the pan, the original recipe isn't kidding about "score while warm." This stuff sets up firm (fudge is not meant to be soft!) and cutting it can be a chore if the cuts aren't already half-made. Give it four or five minutes to cool, then take a knife and make "starter cuts" that don't quite go to the bottom of the pan. You'll be able to cut along these scores when it's time to get the fudge out of the pan. Ultimately, the fudge should cool for two or three hours before you try getting it out of the pan.
If your fudge is too soft, you can try refrigerating it, or you can dump it back in the pan and try re-heating it. This is tricky, since the chocolate/marshmallow/vanilla are in now, but may save the batch. I haven't gone this route myself; it's better to let it get hot enough in the first place.
Now, go forth and make good candy!