Monday, December 12, 2011

Peanut Brittle

Has it really been 3 weeks since my last post?  Wow.  Traveling out of town for Thanksgiving + being in charge of about half of the big meal + the school semester coming to a close = Insanity.  At least Thanksgiving was an enjoyable kind of insanity.  My niece, Celeste, took an instant liking to my brother Drew, and we all enjoyed hearing her call him "that guy" and "mister."  "Mommy, can I sit next to that guy at dinner?" she would ask.  Priceless.

So now it would seem the insanity of the Christmas season is upon us and, while crazy, this is my favorite time of year.  I'm a sucker for tradition, and developing new traditions as I get older.  When I was young, I remember wrapping presents one year while The Grinch was on tv (the good old animated version), so then the next year I played and replayed and replayed our video tape of it while I was wrapping.  Like, literally for hours.  It became my thing.  I could barely stand to wrap gifts without having The Grinch on in the background.  I still play it when I wrap, but at least now that I'm older I don't replay it over and over again.

One of my more recent holiday traditions is candy making.  I think this is my 5th year of doing it and every year I add to my repertoire.  It started as an attempt to do something other than Christmas cookies with a version or 2 of fudge and probably some buttercrunch, and has become a ridiculous, all-out affair that sucks up at least one entire weekend of December every year.  Of all the things I do in the kitchen all year long, candy making may just be my favorite.  I get so excited about it that pretty much by Thanksgiving, I already know which weekend is going to get sucked into the candy black hole and have a list of all the things I'm going to make.  After I hit the grocery store to buy all my supplies, I unload them right onto the counter and leave them there like a trophy, so I can watch the raw materials turn into something wonderful.  When I'm finished, I divide everything up so that Marc and I can each take a little of everything to work and I also give some to friends and family.  One year when I was still living in St. Louis, I took so much candy to work that the 40 some-odd people in my department plus the random passers-by from other departments could not finish everything I brought in even after a full day of grazing.  I was almost embarrassed by the amount of stuff, but in the end it kind of made me an office legend.  My boss even gave me a $50 gift card on behalf of the company to offset the cost of the ingredients.  HA!

I get a thrill out of candy making for 2 reasons: (1) usually the results taste awesome and (2) it is such a challenge.  Cookies taste great, and there is certainly some skill involved if you want to make really good ones, but candy is an art and a science where you live and die by the thermometer and your level of preparation.  The magical transformations that sugar undergoes at certain temperatures can be wielded in such a way that exactly the same ingredients can turn out totally different just depending on how hot you cook it.  How cool is that?

I have some regular items that I make every year.  I always make pralines for my mom, some chocolate covered coconut almond candies that kind of taste like an Almond Joy for my husband, and a 4 layered fudge that tastes like a Snickers bar for myself.  Another one of my usuals is peanut brittle.  I have faithfully made it every year that I've made candy, and over the years I've gotten better and better at it.

I want to just take a minute to be a lame-o and encourage you to practice good kitchen safety when making candy.  Boiling sugar is much, MUCH hotter than boiling water, and if you burn yourself on it, it will stick to your skin which means it's also in contact with your skin longer than boiling water would be.  Please do not make this recipe if there are little ones or furry kids under foot.  Get them out of the kitchen first.  Also, it's imperative to be prepared.  Prepare your pan and all your ingredients first.  Make sure you have a trivet or a potholder where you can set your hot pot, and a spoon rest where you can put your boiling hot candy covered spoon or scraper, should the need arise.  Know where your oven mitts are.  And for God's sake, wear shoes or at least socks.  One time I dropped a little drop of boiling sugar and it landed on my bare foot - you don't forget a thing like that, even if it is a tiny drop.

Also, if you're cooking on an electric stove like I am, first of all, my condolences.  Do you dream about this at night, too?  No?  Ok, maybe I need to get some help.  At any rate, if anything makes candy making even more of a challenge, it's an electric stove because it is so hard to control the heat.  Always make sure you have an unused burner or a cool place to set the pot so that when you hit the right temperature, you can immediately remove it from the heat.  Speaking of temperatures, unless you are well versed in the whole put-a-drop-of-candy-in-some-water-and-see-if-it-makes-a-hard-thread thing, you MUST have a thermometer to make candy.  My old faithful one recently crapped out and I replaced it with this one, which I really like had potential to be great but then broke after the first time I used it.  I didn't figure out that it wasn't working properly until I had already ruined a batch of brittle.  Screw.  That.

Now I'm off to put the last layer on my Snickers fudge.  And in Whoville they say that Sallie's stomach grew 3 sizes that day!

Peanut Brittle

Warming the sheet pan in the oven first is optional, but I think it provides a couple extra seconds to get the candy in an even layer before it hardens.

1/4 cup water
1/2 cup corn syrup
1 cup sugar
dash of salt
1 1/2 cups Spanish peanuts
2 Tbs. butter, cut into about 6 to 8 cubes
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. baking soda

Preheat the oven to about 200 and put in a sheet pan covered with parchment paper to warm up.  Measure out all ingredients first before cooking and have them sitting near the stove.  In a heavy saucepan over medium heat, bring water, corn syrup, salt and sugar to a boil, making sure all sugar dissolves.  When the mixture reaches 240 degrees, add the peanuts.  Continue to cook, stirring constantly until mixture reaches 310 degrees.  When the mixture is getting close to the right temperature, pull the warm pan out of the oven.  When the temperature reaches 320, pull the saucepan off the heat and quickly add butter, vanilla and baking soda and stir to combine.  Immediately pour the mixture onto the warm pan and spread out.  Cool and break into pieces.

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