Spooky Dudes

It’s Halloween and a girl’s thoughts turn to vintage linens . . .

IMG_7480What’s that? You can’t think anything less terrifying, or spooky, or nightmare-inducing than vintage linens?

Ah, but have you met these guys?

He looks harmless . . .

IMG_2640But, wait—what’s that in his hand?

IMG_2639-2A knife. A big knife. A big butcher knife.

Is he cute? Or just a little . . . creepy, in a sociopathic kind of way?

And he’s looking right at you.

And, speaking of creepy, who, and what, is this guy?

gnome - Version 2 A harmless, kitchen gnome? I think not. Look at those eyes. gnome - Version 3 Spooky, and he’s looking right at you.

And sitting in your cereal bowl.

Be careful when you open the cabinet . . .

Boo.

A Day in the Life of a Chocolatier

irish cream meltA chocolatier. That’s me—it sounds pretty glamorous, doesn’t it?

It sounds glamorous if, when you read that word, you pronounce it in your head as “cha-ko-la-tee-ay,” with French verve. If you pronounce it in your head to rhyme with “musketeer,” it just sounds like I should be hanging out with my pal, D’Artagnan.

Most of the time I just tell people that I make candy.

These days, most of my waking hours are filled with candy—either the actual making of it or any of the other activities that go along with its selling. It isn’t especially glamorous, or difficult, for that matter.

In fact, it’s like all of the other crafts that you and I do—there’s a process involved and skills to master. Some aspects are mindless and repetitive aspects, but rather soothing. Some aspects I don’t especially care for. Other aspects are fun and creative, and keep me coming back.

I don’t make candy to make a living. I make candy because I like to make candy, just as I like to quilt and I like to weave. But, unlike quilting and weaving, candy piles up fast and that can cause its own dilemmas. I sell candy so I can justify making more, to experiment and try new things, without having to eat it all myself.

I’ve had glimpses of what goes on in a small, but commercial, bricks-and-mortar candy shop. Even small places have huge vats of chocolate that is tempered by machine. They have conveyor belts that bring candies under a stream of chocolate to enrobe them. One shop even had a spray (think of the spray nozzle at your kitchen sink) through which they could deliver chocolate over popcorn—so cool!

My operation is very different. At times, I may be making candy to fill one order from my Etsy shop—just one small pan of caramels or gianduja. At other times, like right now, I’m working on a slightly larger scale because I’m getting ready for a show where I sell candy face-to-face and may need a total of, say, 250 or 300 boxes of chocolates.

Almost every candy I make is a multi-stage process so, when I’m making a lot of candies, my days will be organized around the steps. Some days will be focused on making the “innards,” as I think of them, and other days will focus on enrobing, or dipping, the candy innards in chocolate.

When I make the innards, I work in small batches, and usually produce 50 to 200 candies at a time.

I make lots of caramels, which are the most time consuming of the innards. The pan of caramels takes about 2 hours to cook, and I need to pay attention but I can walk away from it if I have to. Other processes go quickly—English toffee, for instance, takes only about 15 minutes to cook and spread in the pan—but I have to be super attentive or end up with a scorched, nasty mess.

Making any of the innards depends on paying careful attention to temperature, so using a candy thermometer is essential. And, since I’ve never met a candy thermometer that I felt I could really, really trust, I also use the old tried-and-true cold-water test.

The cold-water test is based on the principle that cooked candy will react in predictable ways when spooned into ice water. For instance, if I spoon a little caramel into ice water and wait a few seconds, I want the caramel to form a fairly firm ball in my fingers when I pick it up. Other concoctions behave differently. There’s some experience and judgment that factors into this but it’s a time-honored and reliable way to judge readiness.

Once the candy is cooked and has cooled, I have to cut it. This is kind of a drag. If I were ever going to try to get bigger as a candy maker (and I’m not!), I’d want a gizmo called a guitar. The guitar is composed of a frame with taut strings set at intervals, which can be pressed down on a slab of candy to cut it. A home-based candy maker is more likely to use a big knife, maybe lightly oiled, and use either a ruler or cut the pieces by eye. I think it’s charming when the candies vary a little in size, don’t you?

The next step is the critical one that makes me a chocolatier—tempering chocolate. Some people who make candy use melted chocolate chips, a little bit of chocolate but lots of other stuff, too. Others use the so-called “candy melts,” which, you may notice, don’t claim to be chocolate at all, because they aren’t!

Anyone who wants to make really good candy learns to temper chocolate. To read about this, you might think it’s some sort of magical, mystery process but it’s pretty straightforward, kind of time-consuming, and just takes practice to get it right.

What is it? Tempering chocolate means melting quality, real chocolate and then cooling it in a controlled way to bring about a transformation of the chocolate. Some people temper chocolate on a marble slab and others do it with a technique called “seeding,” or adding unmelted chocolate to the melted in a particular way.

The desired outcome is the same. One tempers chocolate so that it will set without being refrigerated, it will stay set at room temperature, it will set with a high gloss, and it will have the “snap” that we expect in excellent chocolate. When you dip candy innards into tempered chocolate, it coats them easily and smoothly and the extra sort of cascades off, to leave a thin shell, smooth and shiny.

Untempered chocolate will look dull, often have streaks or a grainy texture, and will be difficult to use. It won’t ever set, unless refrigerated, and will start to melt again at room temperature. If you dip candy into it, it may lump up, and stay thick and coarse. Why bother with chocolate at all, if it is going to be so unappetizing?!

I have considered buying a tempering machine designed for home use, which would bring melted chocolate to the necessary temperatures and hold it there and, in theory, save me some trouble. But, try as I have, I‘ve never found one that gets good reviews from users and, for the $1000 I’d need to spend, I’d want it to make my life easier!

So, I spend a lot of time tempering chocolate by hand. I may temper 3 pounds at a time. I melt the chocolate to specific temperatures, depending on whether it’s dark, milk, or white chocolate, and then bring those temperatures down again. It takes about 30 minutes of constant stirring to temper chocolate, and it can’t be rushed.

Dipping or enrobing the innards comes next—this is one of my favorite parts! Sometimes I use a ladle to slather chocolate on bigger items. Sometimes I use a mold. Mostly I use a special little fork and a big bowl of tempered chocolate, and dip the candies one by one.

I get all set up and then I get in the zone.

I put my bowl of tempered chocolate on a heating pad, to keep it at the right temperature so it doesn’t lose its temper (because that causes me to lose mine!) I get all organized with any garnishes and my other tools, and I dip, tap, tap, tap.

I put one piece candy in the chocolate, turn it with the fork, scoop it up, slide it across the edge of the bowl and tap, tap, tap to remove the excess chocolate (according to a watchful friend, I tap about 12-14 times per piece). Then I slide it onto parchment paper.

Then I do another. And another. I stop after about 5 candies and either make my perfect swirl (the easiest trick in candy making!) or add garnishes. Either of these things needs to be done before the chocolate starts to set, which explains having to stop dipping frequently. I stop after every 20 or 30 candies to stir and check the temperature of the chocolate and adjust my heating pad, if necessary.

While I dip my little chocolates, I think deep thoughts. What in the world can I blog about next? How long before I can eat lunch? What will I eat for lunch? How in world did I get chocolate there?

Once I have all the candies enrobed and the chocolate has set completely, and I’ve cleaned up my mess and licked the spoon and my bowl, I trim the candy to remove excess chocolate around the foot.

The only task left is to package the candy. This is probably my least favorite part of the process but it has to be done!

I weigh out the candies, then I put them in little candy paper cups. I arrange them in the glossy white box and make sure they look pretty. I label the box. I seal the box with my little “KerryCan” sticker. I move on to the next box. The boxes pile up in a most satisfying way.

Candy making, as you can see, is a lot like knitting or quilting or writing a blog post—lots of persnickety details, some more fun than others. It gets easier to do effectively when you do it regularly. It involves some skill and technique but even more simple concentration and attention to detail.

The outcome may not be glamorous but it is always pleasing and, when others see your work and tell you they love what you’ve created, it feels pretty fine!

Early Autumn Apples–Naming Names

KerryCan:

When you think autumn, do you think apples? I do, and am heading to the orchard today. More soon but, in the meantime, here’s what I had to say last autumn!

Originally posted on Love Those "Hands at Home":

IMG_3133It is remarkable how closely the history of the apple tree is connected with that of man.Henry David Thoreau

Apples are synonymous with autumn in upstate New York. This is a place where farmers name their kids after apples—I swear I know a Cortland and a Macintosh but, though we joked about it, we never knew a girl named Delicious.

My great-uncle and aunt owned an orchard so I have apples in my genetic structure. They had just one of dozens of commercial orchards in the area that offer many varieties of apples, some you’ve never heard of, as well as hard and soft cider, apple cider donuts, apple pies, apple picking and all other manner of fall fun. (Let’s be clear, my people never made hard cider, though their descendant likes to drink it!)

Did you know that apples can’t be reliably grown from seed? You might…

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Light One Candle

IMG_2435I hadn’t thought about Diwali in years, not since I took a graduate course in myth and legend and read the Hindu epic, the Ramayana. There, I learned the story of Lord Rama and Sita, his wife, their exile, and subsequent return to their home. It’s that return, some say, that Diwali was meant to celebrate.

Today, Diwali “celebrates new beginnings and the triumph of good over evil and light over darkness,” according to an article in The Independent.

Gallivanta, at Silkannthreades, wrote about Diwali yesterday and about lighting a candle, as was tradition in the land of her youth, Fiji. Gallivanta ended her post by saying, “Join me, if you will, in lighting a candle, for the night is black, and we need all the light we can get. Happy Diwali and may the light of the lamp burn brightly in all our hearts.”

Yes, the night is black.

It seems exceptionally black right now. Not just the fading light of autumn, here in the Northern Hemisphere, and the longer nights, and the snow and cold that keep us isolated from one another.

The news of the world makes the nights feel exceptionally black and dark and cold. The fear of disease, and of fear itself. The fear of unspeakable horrors that humans inflict on others. The fear of wars, and rumors of war.

I’m feeling very sad about Canada right now. I live just a few miles from her border; I love her capital city and its beautiful Parliament, with the Peace Tower and Tomb of the Unknowns and Books of Remembrance.

Canada always seemed a place apart to this American. A little apolitical, a little innocent, a little safe. A little sunny.

But recent nights have been black for Canadians, too. They know darkness now, as they did not before.

The world provides so much to keep us anxious, so much that seems to hide in the shadows and whisper, “Be afraid.”

But then I think about Diwali and how humans, from all cultures, it seems, have used fire and candles and lamps to dispel those shadows and fears, and replace them with light and hope. It’s not only Diwali.

So many fire festivals, in so many lands. So many songs to honor the sun and light and fire, and to bring the light of the human voice to the shadow of silence. So many metaphors that play a key role in human language, and so many ancient places built to admit the light of the sun on transitional days. So many candlelight marches and perpetual flames at graves.

So much light, literal and symbolic, to combat the dark, and push it back, and replace it with the hope of trust and peace.

So, yes, Gallivanta, I will join you in lighting a flame, to celebrate the good and to refuse to give countenance to darkness and evil.

And I will reiterate your wish, “Happy Diwali and may the light of the lamp burn brightly in all our hearts.”

IMG_2444

Isn’t It Lovely?

big choc barIsn’t it wonderful?

It’s a big bar of beautiful chocolate.

It weighs 11 pounds.

It measures 18 inches long by 10 inches wide. It’s 2 inches thick.

And I have 35 of them in my pantry.

They account for almost 1,000,000 calories of happy.

Life is good.

______________________

Edited to add:

Oops! I am reminded by Silver in the Barn that not all of you know why I have so much chocolate around! I eat a lot, but not all of it, myself. The rest I make into a variety of chocolate candies. You can visit them in my shop on Etsy!

On An Imperfectly Woven Dishtowel

IMG_2412Me: Rats. It’s not perfect.

The ME I want to be: Relax. You’re new at this.

Me: I know. But it’s not perfect.

MIWTB: Making mistakes is part of the learning process.

Me: I know. But I was so careful.

MIWTB: You said you were just experimenting, just having fun weaving.

Me: I know. But it’s not perfect.

MIWTB: You claim you like the imperfect and idiosyncratic!

Me: Yes, but . . .

MIWTB: It’s not the last thing you’ll ever make! The next project will be better!

Me: Yes, but this one’s not perfect.

MIWTB: It’ll still be perfectly serviceable.

Me: I know. But it’s not perfect. I wanted it to be perfect.

MIWTB: Do you think our foremothers got hung up on tiny mistakes in utility items? They had bigger things to worry about!

Me: So what? I wanted mine to be perfect.

MIWTB: But look—there’s no question it’s made by hand! Did you want it to look machine made?

Me: Well, no. I wanted it to look perfectly handmade.

MIWTB: Aren’t you the one who’s always yammering on about the human touch and seeing human fingerprints on the things we make?

Me: This is different. It’s so obvious! People will think I’m not perfect.

MIWTB: No offense, Kerry, but people already know you’re not perfect.

Me: I’ve noticed that whenever you start a sentence with, “No offense,” the rest of the sentence is really offensive.

MIWTB: Yes, well, some things need to be said.

Me: But I wanted it to be perfect!!!

MIWTB: Shhh, it’s time to stop whining and get back to work.

IMG_2413

Ahhhhhh-tumn

As a charter member of the North American autumn appreciation team, I felt it my bounden duty to attempt to capture the evanescent essence of the season. The Adirondacks have put on a splendid show this year—my photos do not begin to do justice to the glory! (You can click on any of the thumbnails to get a closer look, though.)