Edible Why I Turned to Candy-Making as My Family Fell Apart
If I was in the kitchen making candy, usually my mom wasn’t in there screaming or throwing a butter dish at my dad.
When I started making candy at around the age of eleven, it felt like a natural progression from cookies and brownies, but its allure was more magical. Candy may be the least necessary of all foods—Richard Olney’s introduction to the candy-making volume of The Good Cook series calls it “a frivolity whose only purpose is delight”—but making it is both technically demanding and risky.
There’s a moment in cooking sugar when it goes from cloudy to clear. The syrup settles like translucent molten gold, its bubbles shifting from oceanic foam to pinpricks that widen and burst cleanly. It looks like the ginger ale I poured for myself when I was sick as a kid, like the champagne I stole from my dad’s New Year’s Eve wedding when I was seventeen. It’s a moment of contained power. Boiling syrup looks deceptively predictable.
It’s not. Hot syrup can foam uncontrollably, splash and weld to stoves, sear a third-degree burn in an instant.
All sweetness is dangerous. Cooking sugar—the Arabic word for which, qand , gave us the word candy—turns it far hotter than water, and it becomes a kind of unstoppable lava as its temperature climbs through slow stages, named for the reaction of hot sugar syrup when it’s dropped in ice water: thread, soft ball, hard ball, soft crack, hard crack, caramel.
The alchemy of caramelization—turning plain sugar into gold—became clear to me one day when our babysitter pulled sweetened condensed milk from the cupboard, plopped the unopened can in a stockpot, covered it with water, and brought it to a boil. My mom was out all day, and the can boiled for hours.
In the end, the contents had thickened, losing that sickly yellowish color and stale-dairy baby formula smell. Later, I’d know this pudding-thick sweet as dulce de leche , which Haagen-Dazs would take mainstream. Back then, my babysitter just called it car-MULL. Conventional wisdom holds that boiling a can of condensed-milk is dangerous. If the water boils off, the can could explode. Trained by my sitter, I must have made a hundred cans of caramel. No accidents ever happened, but my own children have never opened up a can to find that magic transformation.
Condensed-milk caramel wasn’t candy, exactly, but it hooked me on what happened to sugar when you applied heat. My interest was spurred on by the vintage children’s books I devoured, in which girls at nursing school or in college dorms made clandestine fudge, a trickier candy than those stories made it seem. On our kitchen shelves, an old Peanuts cookbook promised lollipops and divinity; The Little House Cookbook enchanted me with boiled molasses on snow, something I couldn’t get in my California town. The book that drew me most, that Good Cook Candy volume, took a rigorously technical approach with photo-essay lessons: How to Handle Nuts. Applying a Lustrous Coat of Fondant. The Special Demands of Chocolate.
In the 1980s, I’d never heard of Richard Olney (then and now food-world-famous), and had no idea of how innovative his mail-order cookbook series was. But I was fascinated by his compendium of recipes. Some made no sense: carrot balls, prune sausage, labor-intensive crystallized brandy liqueurs with magical liquid centers produced by the arcane, fussy technique of molding them in cornstarch, walnuts sandwiching green marzipan and coated in a clear sugar shell so it looked like a zombified brain. Why? Who would go to the trouble of making this sweetmeat at home? I still wonder if anyone has ever prepared it since the photo was taken.
Marshmallows, however, appealed to me instantly. The Good Cook Candy recipe, flavored with orange-flower water, noted that marshmallows originally were considered medicinal, containing a root extract for chest ailments. I didn’t care about chest ailments (I’d just had my tonsils out to cope with those) but I absolutely wanted the sweet puff of marshmallows. It was 1985, a good two decades before the artisanal kind invaded every high-end sweet shop, but the Kraft variety had always been a favorite of mine. Family camping trips meant not only that my parents were relaxed around each other, an unusual treat, but also toasting airy cylinders until their skins were golden brown and paper crisp. By the time I was a young teenager, my parents were tense even on camping trips. The older I got, the more bitterly my parents fought, their bubbling anger threatening to crystallize into divorce. I sought escape in the kitchen and sweetness on the tongue.
Even so, I was drawn more to the rigor than to the delight of candy. I loved following a recipe, for the reasons Nora Ephron mentions in Heartburn : “They are based on “elementary, long-standing principles . . . a sure thing in a world where nothing is sure.” Besides, if I was in the kitchen making candy, usually my mom wasn’t in there screaming or throwing a butter dish at my dad.
The photo essay on marshmallows walked me through pouring the gelatin into soft-ball-stage syrup, measuring with an old mercury thermometer, incorporating egg whites, whipping them—and whipping, and whipping, and whipping—in my mom’s old Sunbeam mixer.
My marshmallows, which I made many times, were bouncy. Making them felt like a grown-up thing to do, but still satisfied a childish appetite. I yearned to seem adult, but if I’d been honest I’d have confessed that I liked the light fruity flavors of pastel mini marshmallows from the supermarket better than orange-flower water.
My biggest project, when I was fourteen, was homemade marzipan. My father had an almond orchard, so we had a reliable supply of nuts. I boiled the almonds, slipped and pinched the flaccid skins off, and ran the kernels through my mom’s heavy Cuisinart, over and over. They remained nubbly, never approaching the smoothness of store-bought almond paste.
Eventually, I got my marzipan smooth enough to mold, cooking it with egg whites in sugar syrup boiled to soft-ball stage and kneading it hard. I loved sculpting, and a few years earlier, as a bookish kid, I’d used modeling clay to make such figures as Elizabeth I and the sisters of Little Women with tiny twisted ringlets. When figurines began to seem childish, molding tiny fruits of marzipan, to give as holiday presents, sated the same urge. I dimpled strawberries with a toothpick and pinched the ends of bananas, then painted everything with a mix of food coloring—the liquid kind in its gnome-capped bottles—and egg yolk, an edible tempera paint.
I didn’t know that would be the last holiday season before our family reached the hard-crack stage. My dad walked out at Christmas the next year. Marzipan fruits were never going to be up to the job of smoothing and molding our misshapen family back into stability. But there was another problem with my most ambitious candy: It was too sweet. My marzipan didn’t have the peach-pit tang of the real thing. I tried adding almond extract, but it wasn’t right. There was no note amidst all the tutorials to explain how to get that sharp note of cyanide.
The fault was in our sweet American almonds. Bitter almonds contain a compound called amygdalin that supplies the intense aroma of marzipan and almond extract. When eaten, amygdalin breaks down into highly toxic cyanide; as few as 10 bitter almonds, eaten raw, can kill a child. Because bitter almonds are so toxic, the flavor in amaretti (the Italian cookies) and almond extract is often derived from the kernels of apricot pits, which have a much lower concentration of amygdalin. It’s still illegal to cultivate or sell bitter almonds in the United States. Plump, wholesome, bland American almonds are suited for cheerful, anodyne candies: Almond Joy, and the gold-wrapped logs of Almond Roca my grandparents set out at holidays.
The most popular varieties of almonds have names that express unrivaled perfection: Peerless, Nonpareil, Ne Plus. But every so often, when you eat an almond from my dad’s trees, one is bitter: a sport, a little genetic oddity among its perfect siblings. And by the sides of the creek that snakes through my dad’s two hundred acres of almonds, misshapen wild trees pop up. Those are bitter; almond trees are heterozygous, meaning that the tree that grows from a planted seed will not be the same variety as the seed, but a random variation on it. To grow the same variety, they must be grown from a graft.
I didn’t know then how to express my disappointment with the marzipan I made. I didn’t know that what was missing was the edge, that sugar always needs to be offset with its dark flip side. The glory of caramelization, too, lies in removing sweetness—the simple pleasure of sucrose—and replacing it with a bitter, burned simulacrum. Sugar has always had a brutal side, something Olney’s book glazes over as it does not reckon with the inextricable links between sugar and slavery.
Sugar has other bitter uses these days. It reveals the presence of cancer during a PET scan, which relies on cancer’s eagerness for sugar: The patient fasts and is given a glucose-rich solution laced with contrast dye, which tumors take up quickly. In the scan, sites of cancer light up like a macabre Christmas tree, as my husband’s did through diagnosis and remission and relapse. I wished, many times, that a batch of marshmallows could have treated his chest ailment (unfortunately, it was a tumor, hardly susceptible to an apothecary’s sweet) or let me escape from the sorrow of his illness. But I was the adult I once had longed to be, and I didn’t have the time or the will to retreat to the kitchen. The frivolity of candy felt almost insulting, and in my overwhelmed funk I didn’t even make toffee and caramels at Christmas. I wish I had; the beauty and sweetness of candy-making can’t solve adult problems, but, as Nora Ephron says, it can offer a sure thing in a troubled world.
My teen candy-making was never just for fun. Sweetness seemed the goal, but through candy I was finding the limits of my independence. I was testing my capability for precision and observation, for success and failure, through the threat of crystallization and painful sugar burns. From the way that sweetness pleases more when it is challenged, I learned about balance. Without the thrill of danger, the edge of bitterness, all the sugar in the world will only cloy.