Sunday, April 12, 2009

The art and the science of making fudge

I made some great fudge. Actually, it was yesterday, but I didn't get around to blogging it until now. And this is a really long post. I don't know how many people will really be interested in reading this. But, interestingly enough, I blogged about the science of making fudge a while ago, and when I looked at my sitemeter to see who is looking for what information on a search engine that directs them to my blog, Fudge turns out to be one of the big topics. So, I figure maybe someone will be interested.

So this is REAL fudge, not just microwaving chocolate chips or whatever passes for fudge a lot of times. It's SCIENCE. And it's an art, and it's been passed down for generations.

I have Gram's recipe. My Gram was an old hillbilly from the hills of West Virgina, and a good southern farm cook. She made a lot of great food and told a lot of great stories while she cooked. But fudge was a real challenge for her.

Plus, I had all of the pages from the science website that I'd printed out last time I made fudge-- ages ago. Can't make fudge too often, it's beyond fattening. I can feel myself blow up like a great big fat balloon for days every time I make it. But it's Easter, so I wanted it.

Gram always worried about her fudge being "grainy." She worked on it for years. She'd make a batch of fudge, it would be too grainy, and she'd heat it again, and cool it again, and never be happy with it. Even when it was pretty near perfect -- she still thought it was grainy.

Before she got too old for making fudge -- she was already in her 90's -- I realized I needed to get her recipe. So I started writing it down while she was making it one day. But as I was writing, we switched places I guess, and she started writing and directing me as I made it. So now I have a faded penciled fudge-spotted recipe, half in my messy handwriting, and half in her extraordinarily neat, old fashioned script. (If you know anyone with recipes that you want, or stories that you want to remember, get them today. There's no point in waiting. How many family stories and family recipes are lost because everyone always thought they had plenty of time?)

I don't have the recipe in front of me right now, so don't hold me to this. You should google fudge recipes. But as I recall from making it yesterday, it was three cups of white sugar, 1/3 cup of cocoa, 1 1/2 cup of milk, a dash of salt, and 1/4 teaspoon of cream of tartar, all put in a pot. A really big pot -- it always bubbles up the sides while it's cooking.

There are a lot of rules to cooking fudge. Gram always said you shouldn't make fudge on a cloudy day because it'll be grainy. According to the science website it's all about crystallization. The crystals that form need to be small and supersaturated, and not large, something like that. They are small if they form at certain times in the process, and large if they form at the wrong time. I think.

Anyway, first you mix up those ingredients, and then you cook it and stir it until it boils. And you have to be sure not to get any grainy crystals stuck to the sides of the pot, because if ONE sugar crystal falls into the pot, it can make the fudge crystallize all wrong.

Once the fudge is boiling you can't stir it again until it hits 235 degrees. Gram always said to keep heating it to the "soft ball" stage. She had a tea cup and cold water. She would try pouring a teaspoon of the molten fudge liquid into the water, and she would stick her fingers into the tea cup and try to pick it up. Before it hits the soft ball stage, the water gets all cloudy when you pour the fudge in. Once it hits the soft ball stage, when you pour the teaspoon full of fudge into the water, it kinda stays together. You can gather the drop of fudge together into a ball in the water and pick it up whole, even though it's rather soggy -- still soft.

While you are waiting for the fudge to hit 235 degrees, you butter the serving plate that you are going to pour the fudge onto.

Keep boiling the fudge, it takes a while. At first, the boiling liquid fudge grows up and up and it seems like it's going to boil out of the pan I used -- which seemed plenty big enough at first. I don't have Gram's old fudge pan, my mom does. I gotta get a bigger pan. It bubbles up and then at some point it shrinks back down, which seemed to be a sign that it's almost hot enough. The candy thermometer helps. Soft ball stage appeared right about at 235 degrees.

At that point, Gram said, you need to cool the fudge in the pot until you can hold your hand on the bottom of the outside of the pot without burning your hand. The website recipe said, "110 degrees." And you should cool it slowly. I think this might be where Gram always went wrong, because I was always in a rush to eat fudge at this point. So she'd put the pot in the sink with cold water to try to cool it down faster. I think this may have been a bad idea.

So yesterday, when I made the fudge, I tried not to be in such a rush. I left the fudge sitting on the stove, with no fire on, and I went and read my book for a while. It took a lot longer than I expected for it to reach 110 degrees. But it was a good book, so I didn't mind.

At some point in the cooling process, you add 1/2 a stick of butter and a teaspoon of vanilla. I waited until it was almost cooled down before I added it.

Then, at 110 degrees, you start beating the fudge. This is some serious work. You beat it until the butter blends in and the glossiness of the fudge turns dull. You beat it and beat it and beat it and your arm gets REALLY tired... How did Gram do this at 90??? And then you beat it some more, and you don't stop. You keep watching it. You have to be quick to put it on the plate at the exactly correct moment... right before it turns completely dull and solidifies, but it can't be still too sticky and shiny or it won't ever get solid.

So I did it, and it worked pretty well. I must say, it was some of the best fudge I ever made. And I've probably gained about 10 pounds since yesterday.

And now I have another idea. One of my favorite old fashioned candies are called French Creams. Gram used to get them in Virginia for me, and now Aunt Patty found them in a catalog called the Vermont Country Store. I love them too. But I came to the conclusion that they are probably the same thing as fudge, only without cocoa. It has orange or lemon or mint flavoring instead. It's got the same kind of crystallization effect. So I'm gonna experiment.

But right now, I'm going for a walk. I've gotta walk off about ten pounds that I didn't have yesterday.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I had one piece before Frankie finished it. It was perfect! And Gram did at times get it right.

Sue said...

It was really good.

And even when Gram did get it right, which was pretty frequently, she always thought it was grainy anyway.