Advent, My Way #16

IMG_4003Christmas candy.

Christmas and candy.

Candy and Christmas.

For good or ill, Christmas and candy will forever be associated in my mind.

When I was small, my grandmother made her homemade caramels only at Christmastime. We kids all loved those caramels and were more than happy to help with the chore of wrapping each one in a small square of waxed paper. We knew that sampling and tasting and snitching would be part of the game.

By the time I was in graduate school and then working my first job, I was making the Christmas caramels. I had my grandmother’s recipe and a lot of sentiment, and no candy-making experience.

Because the recipe said to add the butter “bit by bit” and the milk “drop by drop,” I did just that. Because I was afraid of burning the mix or letting it go too long and get too hard, I cooked the syrup VERY slowly and believed I had to stir constantly.

For three hours or more.

I would sit on a kitchen stool, next to the stove, and stir. I would try to avoid splatters of hot caramel falling on my skin—there’s no worse burn in the world! I would attempt to read while I stirred but was so tense about something going wrong that mostly I just obsessed.

Then, about 7 years ago, I decided I wanted to dip those caramels in chocolate—doesn’t that sound so good? I bought a book about candy making, found that tempering chocolate isn’t so hard and that dipping the caramels got easier with practice. And they were so good!

Well! Then I wanted to make all kinds of other candies and I started experimenting and having fun. When I retired, I decided that I needed to find an outlet for all the candy I was making—we couldn’t eat all of it, for heaven’s sake—so I began to sell candy on Etsy.

When I did that, Christmastime became, fully and intensely, candy season! I would sell odds and ends of candy from October through April but from mid-November until a week before Christmas, all I did was make candy.

I was buying a dozen huge 11-pounds bars of chocolate at a time. I had caramel making down to a near-science and had gotten a lot more sanguine about the process. I figured out I could double the batch and make about 400 caramels at a time, and it sure didn’t take three hours any more!

I made candy, I cut candy. I dipped candy pieces in chocolate. I chopped nuts and candy canes and dried fruits. I put all those little candies in little candy cups, put the candy cups in boxes, and put the boxes in bigger shipping boxes. I made address labels and return address labels and then begged my husband to drive to the post office.

So I could stay home and make more candy.

Sometimes, a good thing can go too far.

It was a lot of fun to make candy and I found it very gratifying that people loved it, this endeavor that all started with my grandmother’s caramels. Her caramels were my most popular items and I felt that validated her worth and honored her memory.

But for 5 years, Christmas was pretty much entirely about making candy.

We would fit in buying a wreath and getting those Santas out, to line up along the mantel, but I had no more time to think about our Christmas because I needed to make candy. Christmas was tense.

I’ve kept a journal for years and when I go back and read my entries from the last few Christmases, it’s apparent that mostly I just wanted the season to be over. Because I was tired and stressed and sick to death of chocolate, I wanted Christmas behind me.

Things are so different this year!

I made a decision that I was ready to limit the kinds of candy I make and stop doing holiday boutiques and stop promoting the Etsy shop. I have been offering candy on Etsy, in a minimal way, getting sales, but it’s all much mellower than it had been.

One of the things I no longer offer to customers, because of the time involved in making them, is my grandmother’s caramels. I haven’t made caramels this Christmas for the first time in probably 35 years.

That makes me a little sad but the year off will do me good. Already, I am enjoying this season more than I have in years because I have simply had the time to do things other than churn out more candy.

By next year, my intention is to be out of the candy-making business altogether. Then I will be able to make candy for fun again, to make the kinds that I like to make and that my family and friends like best.

Next year at Christmas, you will find me making caramels simply for the nostalgic pleasure of reliving happy moments from my childhood and honoring my grandmother’s memory.

And Christmas can be Christmas again.

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Advent, My Way #8

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The holiday season brings friendly gatherings. Friendly gatherings bring the need to feed people. Those people love snacks.

Snacks!

Sweet snacks are in abundance during the holidays but easy, tasty, savory snacks are more difficult, I think, especially snacks that can be made ahead and take absolutely no effort when guests arrive.

I used to just put out a bowl of mixed nuts.

Plain old mixed nuts . . . until I found this recipe, that is. This recipe takes nuts to a whole nother level, as we say at our house, a level that is exceptionally tasty, pretty addictive, not at all healthy, but totally worth the indulgence during this special season.

The recipe for Hot and Spicy Nuts comes from the good old Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook. This series of Silver Palate cookbooks was all the rage in the 1980s, which you can see by the shoulder pads and that one hairdo on the cover!

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I’ve been making these spicy nuts for all those years and, even in the years when we do the absolute least for Christmas, I take the (minimal) time to make these.

Here’s the basic recipe, as it came out of the cookbook. I’ll follow with some comments.

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cumin
  • ½ teaspoon celery salt
  • ½ teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • ½ teaspoon seasoned salt
  • 1½ cups mixed unsalted roasted nuts
  • 1 tablespoon coarse kosher salt

Instructions

  • Preheat oven to 325°F.
  • Melt the butter in a medium-size saucepan over low heat.
  • Add the remaining ingredients except the nuts and coarse salt.
  • Simmer over low heat for several minutes to combine flavors.
  • Add the nuts and stir until evenly coated. Spread on a baking sheet and bake for 15 to 20 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally.
  • Toss the nuts with the coarse salt and let cool. Store in an airtight container.

My Notes:

  • I’ve never used celery salt. I didn’t the first time and didn’t miss it so I’ve never used it.
  • Use the nuts you like. I use unsalted cashews, pecans, and peanuts that I get in the bulk section of the grocery store. I also use sesame sticks and love them!
  • Don’t bother making a single batch. Trust me and do at least double the amount.
  • The kosher salt gets added at the end. I let the nuts cool for a few minutes then put the salt into a big paper bag, add the nuts, and shake it all up.
  • Be careful about the amount of salt!! The recipe calls for a tablespoon but, even though I LOVE salt and often go looking for it, that is too much. For a doubled recipe, I use only 1.5 teaspoons.
  • Make sure the nuts have completely cooled before you sample them and judge. They need to cool to be crispy and crunchy.

Make them today, to be sure you like them. Serve them when you put up your Christmas decorations. Serve them when you take the decorations down.

Serve them when carolers come over, at the Christmas Eve soiree, and let people snack before Christmas dinner.

Serve them for every college bowl game.

Serve them on Boxing Day, just because.

They are perfect for New Year’s Eve and super-perfect for your Super Bowl football party!

I already made a bunch of these . . . and they are gone. That is unacceptable so I’ll be making more soon. Will you join me?

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Loving Hands at Sandringham

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A handmade gift can go terribly wrong but it can also go wonderfully right . . .

Imagine you’re in love.

Everything is going so well and seems so perfect.

But you’ve been invited to Christmas at his grandparents’ house and need to get a gift for his grandmother.

The pressure is on . . .

Oh, and, by the way, his grandmother is the Queen of England.

I love the story about now-Duchess Kate, who found herself with this dilemma.

How do you impress the woman who has everything? How do you set the right tone, hit the right mark, choose the right gift?

Kate Middleton seems to have gotten it just right. She turned loving hands to the task and made her gift, chutney from her own grandmothers’ recipe.

According to the reports, Kate says she thought, “’I’ll make her something.’ Which could have gone horribly wrong. But I decided to make my granny’s recipe of chutney.” Kate was reassured when the chutney appeared on the table at dinner the next day.

It seems we can learn quite a lot from Kate’s decision and from Queen Elizabeth’s response.

From Kate we learn to trust our instincts. A handmade gift, done reasonably well, communicates differently than any purchased gift can. It speaks to a confidence that the receiver will understand the gesture and be moved by it. It acknowledges that gifts are about something other than cost. And it hints at Kate’s respect for and connection to her own family, to use her grandmother’s recipe.

From the Queen we learn that it’s important to use and enjoy a handmade gift in the presence of the giver. I think the handmade gift giver is often anxious about the reception of such a gift. Is it good enough? Will the receiver think the gift is tacky or that the giver is a cheapskate? Will the receiver understand the spirit in which the gift was made and given?

Kate Middleton took a chance and Queen Elizabeth understood and appreciated it. And from this, one expects, a certain kind of connection was made that should serve them well.

So, you, you with a gift for baking or knitting or growing beautiful flowers—trust your gift and make a gift of it to others.

And you who receive such gifts—use them and enjoy them in the presence of the person who did the making.

After all, if it works for the Queen of England and the Duchess of Cambridge, it can certainly work for the rest of us!

English Toffee: For Yanic and You

english toffee-5A little while ago, I posted a photo of English toffee I make and sometimes sell.

Some of you reported drooling and wanting to lick your computer screen. One blog pal, Yanic, did the more rational thing:


Yanic: Would you share your English Toffee recipe? It looks amazing.

Kerry: I’d be happy to share my toffee recipe but it’s really the same as every recipe you’d find on allrecipes.com–except instead of using chocolate chips, I temper real chocolate and put it on both side of the toffee. The only ingredients in the toffee itself are sugar, butter, water and vanilla. The only other thing you need is a reliable candy thermometer. Let me know if you want the specifics from the recipe I use.

Yanic: I would love your recipe… since I’ve never made any, even if it’s a classic, I’d rather have a recipe from someone I know. 🙂 Thank you!


So, Yanic (and all lovers of English toffee), this blog’s for you.

First, because I know you have children you love, Yanic, you absolutely must do one of two things if you’re going to make toffee. EITHER make it while they are out of the house or napping OR tell them firmly to put their bottoms in the kitchen chairs and not move until you tell them it’s safe, until the hot syrup is cooked and spread and cool.

I mean it, Yanic—scare them a little because nothing will burn them worse than 300 degree syrup that sticks to the skin.

Okay, now that we have that out of the way, collect your many exotic ingredients. That would be sugar, butter, salt, water, and vanilla extract, and whatever you will use for chocolate coating. Candy coating or “melts” are easy but not really chocolate at all. Chocolate chips would be preferable, in my book. Or, if you know how to temper chocolate, use the real thing!

The most exotic necessity for making toffee is the candy thermometer! Be sure you have one!

Here is the recipe I use, which comes from the book that taught me all I know about candymaking, Chocolate and Confections at Home, by Peter P. Greweling.

English Toffee

  • Servings: about 1 pound 14 ounces
  • Print

8 oz. (1 cup) sugar

8 oz. (16 tablespoons; 2 sticks) butter, melted

2 oz. (1/4 cup) water

½ teaspoon salt

½ oz. (1 tablespoon) vanilla

12 oz. (1 ¼ cups) tempered dark chocolate OR dark compound coating, melted

6 oz. (1 1/2 cups) chopped toasted pecans or almonds

  1. Line a large sheet pan with parchment paper.
  2. Combine the sugar, melted butter, water, salt, and vanilla extract in a 2-quart saucepan. Bring to a boil, over medium high heat, and stir constantly with a heat-resistant silicone or rubber spatula.
  3. Place your candy thermometer and continue stirring until mixture reaches 300 degrees F. For me, on my stove, this takes about 18 minutes from start to readiness.
  4. Pour (carefully, Yanic!) onto the prepared pan and spread quickly to the edges of the pan with an offset knife—be very careful not to get the syrup on your hands! Don’t ask me how I know this. I just do.
  5. If you are using chocolate chips: wait until the toffee has cooled just a bit and sprinkle the top liberally with the chips. Wait a moment or two and the chips will get melty. Use an offset knife to spread the melty-ness and then promptly sprinkle with the nuts you choose. You can really only coat one side of the toffee with the chocolate chips so you should keep it in a tightly sealed container—the uncoated side will be susceptible to humidity.
  6. If you are using candy melts or tempered chocolate, wait until the toffee is completely cooled. If there is oil on the surface of the cooled toffee, wipe it off with a dry paper towel. With your melted coating or tempered chocolate, cover one side and quickly sprinkle with nuts. Give it a few minutes to set, then flip the whole thing over, using a cutting board or another baking sheet. Coat the second side and sprinkle with nuts. Because this approach coats the toffee on both sides, it will probably hold up longer than toffee coated on one side only.

The toffee can be broken with your hands or with the point of a chef’s knife. All those little pieces that split off are super-good over ice cream or mixed into chocolate chip-style cookies!!


And there you have it! The recipe, with both sides chocolate-coated, makes almost two pounds of toffee. I stack pieces in cellophane bags and add a ribbon and . . . no one ever turns it down!

If you make it, let me know!

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Snapshots of Busy-ness

It’s that time of year, when loving hands are busiest! Our house smells like chocolate and looks like a place where lots of fun is being had.

Several projects I’ve been playing with but nothing is finished . . . I’ll tell you more soon!

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And a pretty scarf is still on the loom–slow going but I like it!

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And, of course, there’s candy everywhere.

This is one of the big sellers this year–English toffee!

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I’m sure I know the answer to this question but how busy are your loving hands these days?!

All My Life’s A Circle . . .

coconut bark-2All my life’s a circle, sunrise and sundown

The moon rolls through the nighttime, till the daybreak comes around

All my life’s a circle but I can’t tell you why

The season’s spinnin’ round again the years keep rollin’ by.

As so often happens, I woke up with a song in my head. I think my subconscious provides me with the lyrics, depending on my mood and what is happening in my little piece of paradise.

This morning, the song in my head is Harry Chapin’s “Circle.” I know why.

It’s because the seasons are spinning ’round, and it’s autumn, and candy season has begun.

As I’ve explained before, I sell handmade chocolates, and I can’t temper chocolate for the candy when the temperature is warm. Every spring, when the mercury goes up, I put away the candy-making paraphernalia and my circle spins to other pursuits.

Every September, the circle spins again, I take out my lucky tempering bowl and my digital thermometer, my sugar and butter and chocolate, and I commence to make candies.

I’ve had my first candy foray of 2015 this week. I made a double batch of caramels—about 200 candies—and yesterday I dipped half of them in dark, beautiful Callebaut chocolate. This morning I made white chocolate bark and will dip the rest of the caramels in Callebaut milk chocolate.

(On a side note, there’s a story in the news about someone who worked at Callebaut in Vermont, who hated his job so much he called in a bomb threat, in order to get fired. Never mind, how twisted his thinking was—can you imagine hating a job at a chocolate factory?!)

In the next few months, “candy season” in my world, I’ll make the equivalent of about 500 half-pound boxes of chocolates.

This arc of my circle is pretty predictable. I’ll chop, stir, temper, dip, garnish, package, label, rinse, repeat. And repeat.

I’ll get knickers in a twist about preparing enough candy for the one holiday boutique I participate in, and then I’ll have too much.

I’ll get up in the morning and check Etsy, half hoping to find more candy sales, and half hoping I won’t.

I’ll worry about running out of chocolate or out of half-pound boxes.

At some point, I’ll probably get a nasty sugar burn and I’ll get very, very sick of chocolate.

And, while this arc waxes, others aspects of my circle will wane for now. I’ll have much less time for vintage linens and weaving and blogging and quilting, and I’ll pout about all of that.

I’ll wonder why I do this candymaking thing at all.

But then, I’ll get my first order of the season from the “Queen of Sienna,” a blog friend, fellow seller of vintage lovelies, and loyal lover of chocolate. She’ll say kind things about my candy and be excited I’m back, selling again.

When I do the holiday boutique, people will come specifically looking for something they loved last year or because they heard about the chocolate from a friend. Etsy shoppers will buy candy as Christmas gifts and ask me to include sweet messages to their loved ones far away.

And my family and friends will be pleased when I have extra candy around!

I’ll find I enjoy quiet mornings in my warm space, with the smell of chocolate and caramel and vanilla. I’ll achieve a certain satisfaction from the repetitive motion of dipping caramel after caramel into silky dark chocolate. Zen and the art of candy making.

And, through it all, I’ll know that, when and if it stops being fun and fulfilling, I can put away the lucky bowl and digital thermometer for good. Because the circle of my life isn’t a stone circle, and the seasons can be filled with whatever I choose.

For now, though, I choose chocolate, and candy season.

Loving Hands and A Birthday to Remember

IMG_7907How would you celebrate your 90th birthday?

My aunt is coming up to that milestone and she chose to throw herself a birthday bash with bonfire this past weekend.IMG_7843

This party had it all. Her guests came from many circles—colleagues from her years as a teacher, church members, people from her swim class, family, and many, many neighbors.

One of my aunt’s long-time friends traveled from England. Her oldest friend was there—they’ve known each other for almost every minute of their lives. Almost 90 years—astounding!

The party was at my aunt’s rural home, on a hill overlooking the Champlain Valley of upstate New York, about a mile from the farm where I grew up. That meant I saw some of the people I grew up with but haven’t seen in forever—my sister’s first puppy love, members of the family with whom my family was closest and with whom I share wonderful childhood memories, kids for whom I used to babysit and who are now growing gray.

The party had a definite “loving hands at home” quality, in the best sense of that phrase. Many people chipped in, to make it happen. Daughters made snacks and worried about the details, a son-in-law chopped veggies and arranged food to perfection.

There was plenty of homemade music—we sang “Happy Birthday” to a bagpipe accompaniment and “Auld Lang Syne” to guitar. The birthday girl was serenaded to Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young.”IMG_7853

Because an enormous bonfire was the focal point of the evening, the campfire theme prevailed. The ladies from my aunt’s church made cupcakes with a campfire motif and a neighbor friend contributed floral centerpieces in campfire colors.11728979_10153592498309901_5267262041501630761_o (1) 11845088_10153592321439901_4960895211403482030_o (1)

The weather was perfect. The evening ended with the enormous, rip-roaring bonfire. Smaller fires provided toasted marshmallows for s’mores. Falling stars streaked across the sky, offering opportunities for wishes made upon them.

Friends. Family. Warmth. Wishes on stars.

How will you celebrate your 90th birthday, should you be lucky enough to reach it?


Forever Young, by Bob Dylan

May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay forever young.

May you grow up to be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you
May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
May you stay forever young.

May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
May your heart always be joyful
And may your song always be sung
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young.

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