Is there anything more delicious, more purely self-indulgent, than a square of dark, creamy fudge or a piece of crunchy, buttery toffee? And when it's homemade, the treat is sweet indeed.
This year, we're bringing back the tradition of candymaking.
At its elemental best, most candy is nothing more than sugar and a few flavorings, transformed through sweet alchemy from a syrup base into old-time favorites like brittle, toffee, and fudge.
Some simpler confections - like our white chocolate bark studded with cranberries and pistachios - require no sugar syrup or cooking at all.
All our recipes and tips for making these treats have been tested by novice and experienced candymakers alike, to give you the information you need for great results.
Homemade candy is wonderful to have on hand for nibbling or offering to drop-in guests. Beautifully packaged, it also makes a personal gift for the holidays: Five-spice cashew brittle, rich maple fudge, or crunchy peppermint bark will inspire visions of sugarplums for everyone on your list.
Before you begin, read the recipe all the way through and assemble all the tools and ingredients you will need. Many candy recipes require that you act quickly once the sugar syrup reaches the desired temperature. Use care when working with hot sugar syrup, as it can cause severe burns.
Choose the right pans. Heavy-bottomed stainless steel pans are best for cooking sugar mixtures. Thin, lightweight pans tend to conduct heat - and cook sugar syrup - unevenly.
Use a candy thermometer when called for. They measure temperatures up to 400°. You'll find them in the kitchen-gadget section of many supermarkets, priced between $10 and $20.
Submerge the bottom of the thermometer completely in the sugar syrup to get an accurate reading. Using a narrow pan with tall sides makes the mixture deeper, but, if necessary, you can gently tilt a shallower pan to submerge the thermometer bottom.
Melt chocolate gently for best results. If chocolate gets too hot, it may not set properly and will develop "bloom" (white streaks) on the surface when stored. Stirring chopped chocolate in a pan or bowl over hot, not simmering, water maintains an even, low temperature, resulting in glossy, firmly set chocolate.
Dissolve the sugar completely over low heat before bringing the mixture to a simmer. Using superfine sugar, also sold as "baker's sugar," makes this easier. To check whether the sugar has dissolved, scrape the pan bottom with a heatproof spatula, pull the spatula up, let the syrup on it cool for a few seconds, then rub a drop between your fingers. If you can feel grains of sugar, it hasn't dissolved yet.
Prevent sugar crystals from forming on the sides of the pan by brushing down the sides with a wet pastry brush a few times.
Let the mixture cool to lukewarm (exactly 110°) before beating it; otherwise, the fudge may stiffen and become grainy. Pouring it into a large, shallow bowl helps it cool faster, but don't stir it too early.
Beat the fudge well once it has cooled to 110°. Chocolate fudge thickens more than maple fudge at this stage, but both dull slightly and take on a lighter color after beating; that's when they're ready to pour into the pan.