Spring Candy Sale Is On!

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Why, it feels like just yesterday that I was buying 350 pounds of chocolate and diving head first into candy-making season!

But with the promise of spring and warmer weather, the time for making chocolate candy is winding down—it’s very difficult to temper chocolate when it’s above 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

Before I close the door on the candy shop for the summer, I am offering American readers/friends a 20% discount on candy orders.

If you are hankering for chocolate, use the coupon code SPRING2015 upon check-out in my Etsy shop and get the discount!

Around the World, With Vintage Linens

As I iron my thoughts wander, all around the world. I think about how my linens have traveled, and I wonder where the next ones will go.

My linens been many more places than I have!

These napkins are on their way to Norway.5 dam dinner naps mums-2

These perfect, exquisite cocktail napkins just went to Abu Dhabi.white delicate cocktail naps-2

I got his flat-out gorgeous set from a woman whose grandfather was a linen importer. So the placemats and napkins made the trip to the U.S. from another country, I can’t guess where, but now they grace a table in Australia.

It never occurred to me, when I started selling vintage linens, that I’d be sending these lovely things around the world, to Japan, to New Zealand, to Italy, to South Korea. Not only are they valued in many lands, they are valued so much that people are willing to pay the often exorbitant shipping costs.

I ask myself why? Why would international buyers want these items?

Maybe it’s because some of the countries are young-ish, like Australia and New Zealand, and have less homegrown vintage than we do.

Maybe it’s because American culture and design, at least from certain periods, has a vibe that folks in other cultures value.

I can make some generalizations—Australians go for understated elegance. Usually all white, high-quality, and expensive linens that bespeak an old-world charm.

Many Asian buyers like the funkier look of American mid-century.

I have my ethnocentric moments, when I think, “Oh, but this belongs here. I don’t want it to go to another land, far from its home.” And then I remind myself that valued items have been traded across the world from time immemorial. If we could have a Silk Road, why not a Linens Road?

And I remind myself that the really important thing is that these pretty things be loved and valued and used, wherever they find a home.

This little, bitty, pretty one, a spoon keeper, is on its way to New Zealand. It will have a loving home where it will, once again, protect treasured spoons and be treasured itself.spoon keeper-5

Goodbye linens! Safe travels! Fare thee well.

History and Mystery: A Baby Named John

baby cupWho was baby John?

All we know for certain about the baby is that he was a boy, born long ago.

Born in 1916, he’s probably left this world by now. But we can guess he was a valued addition to his family, enough so that someone commemorated his birth with a simple and beautiful baby cup, engraved to honor that special boy and year.

What was his life like? The bottom edge of the cup shows little dents and dings—was he a rambunctious boy, who beat his cup against his highchair and laughed when the cat ran away, startled?

Was he born in upstate New York? His baby cup turned up at a garage sale here. Were his parents farmers like so many in this rural area? Did he grow up drinking milk from the family Holsteins and gathering eggs from disgruntled hens? Were his days spent rambling the fields and finding his way home, at dusk, in time for the evening chores?

Was his dad, perhaps, away in the Great War when he was born? Did John himself take up arms in the next war? He’d have been the right age. Did he make it home?

Did he go to school past 8th grade? Did he find love? Was there a son, also named John, who played with the silver cup? Or did the cup sit at the back of a china cabinet, forgotten?

Who puts a baby cup in a garage sale? Maybe John’s children’s children’s children, none of whom remembered him, except as the occupant of an old picture frame, and who had little use for a bibelot, so pretty but prone to tarnish and dust?

A small object like this baby cup, so evocative, so full of secrets, so eloquent in its silent silver glow.

My fond hope is that someone will buy this little treasure, to give to another baby named John, maybe one born in 2016, one hundred years after that other baby was born. I’d like to see this little cup polished and set out, reflecting the sun and another child’s smile.

It’s Time to Change Partners

waltz

from oldbookillustrations.com

I’ve been dancing with one partner too long.

My partner is suave and smooth but rather too insistent and demanding of my attention. He always wants to dance fast, and never to take a break, to sit one out. He has monopolized my time and kept me from others I care for.

As of right now, my dance card is open. I’ve told chocolate to take a seat; I’m going to dance with other partners.

I’m going to dance with vintage linens and selling on Etsy. That dance—the ironing and photographing and listing of beautiful things—is soothing and reliable. It’s a slow dance, my partner is a bit of a plodder, but, with him, there will be no drama, just a warm and mellow twirl around the dance floor. That sounds good right now.

I’m going to dance with quilting, my old, old friend. When we dance, I feel confident and skilled. We’ve danced together so long, it’s a pleasure to return to this partner. He knows my family, has danced with my foremothers. Dancing with him makes me feel nostalgic and at peace. That sounds good right now.

I’m going to dance with blogging. I know myself well enough to see that I’m happiest when he gets a regular dance. I feel energized and creative after each and every dance and, because he’s very social, I get to spend time with old friends and meet new ones when he’s my partner. That sounds good right now.

I’m going to dance with weaving. He’s not an easy partner but he’s very intriguing. I’ve been flirting with him for a while now, and have found him complicated and mysterious. He makes me stretch and learn new steps—I’m never bored with him. That sounds good right now.

And I’m going to save some spots for partners I haven’t met yet, just in case. That sounds good right now.

I know chocolate will be back. In fact, he asked me save the Valentine’s Day dance for him! I’m sure he’ll stop by before then, tap my current partner on the shoulder, and cut in briefly. There’s no doubt I’ll always be happy to see the smooth, old romantic and dance the quickstep again with him.

But at the moment, I’m footloose and free. I will follow Milton’s urging:

Come, and trip it as ye go,

On the light fantastick toe.

I will dance with many partners. That sounds very, very good right now.

It’ll Be Our Secret: Putting the Cordial in the Cherry Cordial

gooeyDid you ever wonder how the liquid gets inside a chocolate-covered cherry?

Whether or not you’re a big fan of chocolate-covered cherries, or cherry cordials, you have to admit they have a special place in the pantheon of the gods of chocolate candies. They are unremittingly sweet and gooey and have that liquid stuff in the middle that is messy, fun, and sort of mysterious.

How did it get there?

I used to imagine someone, maybe an elf or an Oompa Loompa, with a syringe, injecting each and every bonbon with a little gooey syrup.

The truth is both simpler and more magical than that. And I am prepared to share that secret with you.

You are being invited into the inner sanctum of sweets, the cabal of candy, to join the chosen few who know how they put the cordial in the cherry cordials.

Last week, when my fellow Americans were roasting turkeys and stuffing them with stuffing, I took a day off from candy making . . . and made candy.

At our friends’ annual Christmas Eve party last year, while in the throes of holiday cheer and good red wine, I indulged in a little self-aggrandizement and bragged about being able to make cherry cordials.

One of the other guests at the party allowed as how he loved chocolate-covered cherries better than almost anything and I, in my warm, cheerful haze, promised to make him some, to be delivered at this year’s party which, it occurred to me, is soon!

So, I took Thanksgiving Day off from making candy to sell and made candy to keep a promise. Such is the price of self-aggrandizement.

Making chocolate-covered cherries is a multi-step process. It involves making fondant, coating each cherry with the fondant, and then dipping the cherries in tempered chocolate.

Oh, and the most important step—waiting, waiting for the syrup to appear, like an alchemist’s dream, within the chocolate shell.

First, I made fondant, really just cooked sugar syrup, which stayed creamy while I dipped maraschino cherries into it but then hardened to a white, opaque shell. The fondant would stay hard, white, and opaque forever (which would make for a really unsatisfying chocolate-covered cherry experience) except . . . for the secret.

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Shhh . . . come closer.

The secret is invertase.

Invertase is an enzyme that changes sugar to liquid or, in plain terms, it “catalyzes the hydrolysis of sucrose.”

A tiny bit of invertase, added to the fondant, will turn that hard, white, opaque shell to sweet, sticky syrup, syrup to dribble down your chin as you gobble one cherry cordial after another.

The switchover from solid to liquid is a bit of a delayed reaction. I had plenty of time to dip the cherries into the fondant, let the fondant harden, temper the chocolate, and dip the cherries into the chocolate before the transformation began.

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In fact, my recipe for these candies says that the cherries will need to sit for 10 days to allow the magic to happen.

Luckily for me, and my burning desire to start snacking, the change really occurs much more quickly than that. Within a half hour of dipping the chocolates, I could start to see a bit of sugar syrup oozing, already, out of a tiny break in the chocolate shell.

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Abracadabra! Magic in the making!

And it continues. By the Christmas Eve party, I should have a couple of dozen chocolate-covered cherries to take along, to fulfill my promise.

I would never make these candies to sell. Making the fondant is too unpredictable, at least for me. In honesty, I screwed up the first batch I made last week and had to start all over again!

The process is even more laborious than other candy making with more waste, since even a tiny air bubble in the chocolate shell will become a weak spot from which the syrup will ooze. Trust me, if you end up with a syrup-less cherry in an empty chocolate shell, it simply isn’t magic any more.

And, while leaving the stems on the cherries, those sweet little handles, makes dipping the cherries so easy, it makes packaging the finished candy impossible—just ask the people who have, in the past, received ooey-gooey packages of exploded candy in the mail from me.

This was candy making simply for pleasure and that’s its own kind of magic. It was nice to make candy just for the fun of it, just for the challenge, with little pressure, and to make people happy. And it gave me the opportunity to share this particular secret of the universe with you.

But, remember—it’s a secret. Just between you and me.

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I’ve Got Rhythms

metronomeDo your days have a rhythm? Is there a predictable tempo to your hours? Or are your days spontaneous and varied dances of delight?

At this time of year, my days have an undeniable rhythm, a driving tempo. Much of the day is filled with an insistent, relentless beat, as I work to make the candy I sell.

The winter holidays bring busy times—people are willing to splurge on handmade candies for Thanksgiving, for Christmas, for gifts, for parties—so I’m always pretty busy in November.

But this year, I’m also doing two holiday boutiques, two selling shows, where people walk by my table, taste a sample of chocolate, and buy.

Last summer, when I agreed to these shows, on two consecutive days in early December, it seemed like a great idea!

Right now, I can’t help but wonder what I was thinking. I know people will want to buy candy but I can’t predict just exactly which candy they will want or how much to have on hand.

So, I spend my days piling boxes of chocolates up, and working obsessively to make more. The tempos of my life right now are staccato, presto, agitato.

But not first thing in the morning. I am committed to start my day, early, early, at a different pace—this is the calm before the candy.

I am an early riser, usually up by 4:30. I have my ritual to begin my day. It is set to adagio and, certainly, pianissimo.

I feed the cats. I give the diabetic cat an injection. I make a cup of coffee, black. I visit a set list of websites, in a set order—NBC News, the National Weather Service, the local newspaper. I write in my personal journal and have another cup of coffee, black.

I take some time to visit with you, to see what you’re saying and doing. I read your thoughts and respond, as much as possible, before the rhythm changes and the day demands my participation.

I love the calm before the candy. My husband sleeps a few rooms away. The cats go back to bed, too. I am alone with my thoughts.

I plan what needs to be done, and everything seems possible! I know I can get so much accomplished because the day stretches out in front of me, full of open hours and promise.

About 6:00, the rhythm switches to accelerato, allegro, animato. If, by this time, I haven’t taken a shower, written a blog post, finished reading yours, it probably won’t get done today.

The chaos of the candy takes over, the cacophony, the movement toward crescendo.

Happily, for me, this fast-paced rhythm lasts only for a month or two. January will bring a quieter time, slower tempos, with fewer demands for quick-step dancing in the kitchen.

I’ll return to the rocking rhythm of hand quilting, the soothing back and forth of throwing the shuttle, and the warm, comforting slide of the iron over vintage linens. I may even fit in a spontaneous dance of delight or two!

I’ll have more time for me, then, and for you.

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!

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.

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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!

White Chocolate–Worth the Calories?

white chocAccording to the folks at Foodimentary, it’s National White Chocolate Day!

Do you have an opinion on white chocolate? Yay or nay? Would you ever choose it over dark or milk chocolate?

This is also my sister’s birthday–she’s a dark chocolate kind of girl all the way!

The One That Got Away: A Pansy-Strewn Tablecloth

IMG_7422One of the best things about selling vintage linens is that I love what I sell and get to scout for beautiful items to pass along to others.

One of the worst things about selling vintage linens is that I love what I sell and, in passing them along to others, I sometimes really regret letting something go.

Such is the case with this wonderful tablecloth. IMG_7406Never mind that I have no room to keep it, it doesn’t fit my décor or lifestyle, or that it would be better appreciated by someone else—I still wish it had stayed mine.

I am not a pink and purple kind of gal. I rarely, if ever, would have a reason to use a cloth like this and don’t have a table it would fit on. It only made sense to sell it.

It sold with a couple of days of listing and the new owner was eager to get it.

But the minute I got notification of the sale, I experienced the worst seller’s remorse.

Part of the reason was the quality. The embroidery was stunning and done so perfectly. My grandmother always said that the mark of expert embroidery was that it looked nearly as good on the back as it did on the front.

The front of the tablecloth is shown on the left; the back is on the right.

The front of the tablecloth is shown on the left; the back is on the right.

Additionally, the linen was heavy and dense, with a beautiful sheen, and the hem was finished with delicate hemstitching, a detail that adds such elegance.

The other reason I’m sad to have let the cloth go is that I had learned a bit of its story from the woman who sold it to me. I rarely get any provenance for the vintage linens I buy so that’s always special—the cloth had been made as a gift for the owner’s mother. It was made in Scotland and brought to the United States in the early 1950s, when the woman emigrated.

And the pièce de résistance is that a man created the beautiful embroidery!

It makes me inordinately happy when I hear of a man excelling at work that is stereotypically “women’s work” or, for that matter, a woman doing work we associate with men. I love the idea that a person gets so much pleasure and satisfaction from an activity that they persist even though others may think them odd.

I know men, including my husband, who love working in textiles—they ask why should women have all the fun?!

In addition to the quality of the tablecloth and the detail that it was made by manly hands at home, the fact that a man made this lovely piece for a woman, who brought it with her to America, also allowed me to indulge in a little speculation. He must’ve cared for her very much—making this tablecloth was not a done on a whim! Did he love her? Did she not love him? Why did she leave Scotland? Did they stay in touch?

Sigh.

Knowing a tiny bit of the history of this tablecloth captured my imagination. The fact that I’ll never know the rest of the story is fine by me—the story in my head might be better than the truth.

The tablecloth has gone to its new home. I wrapped it carefully in tissue paper and put it in an envelope. I told the new owner what I knew about the history. I wanted to lecture her about using it carefully and cherishing it, but I exercised self-restraint.

It’s hers now.

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