A real holiday treat: Make sweets.
Tuesday, December 21, 2010; 2:55 PM
Considering that I write baking and dessert books, you probably would not be surprised to learn that I have a sweet tooth. I first tried my hand at homemade fudge when I was 10. It was a bit gritty, much sweeter and less chocolaty than the versions that appeal to me now, but I was hooked then and remain that way.
After attempting dozens of recipes, methods and flavor combinations, I have found that a well-flavored fudge is still one of my top choices for holiday giving and serving - and the new recipe created for this story is the best I've made to date.
Lest you think my pursuit has been single-minded: My years of experimentation have yielded solid recipes for truffles and marshmallows as well.
I fell for handmade chocolate truffles during a trip to Switzerland in the late 1980s to research an international chocolate cookbook. For about a week, I hopscotched across the country, visiting popular local confectioners in Basel, Bern, Lucerne and Zurich, trying small-batch, hand-rolled and -dipped truffles at every turn.
These were not the gorgeous, decal-topped artwork truffles the boutique chocolatiers are creating today. Nor were they the glossy, perfectly shaped molded domes cranked out en masse by the modern mega-confectioners. They were fairly small, rustic-looking sweets featuring hand-shaped balls of chocolate-cream ganache dipped in pure chocolate, then usually coated with cocoa or nuts.
I loved them, and still do, because they are all about the taste, texture and aroma of fine chocolate and subtle, enhancing flavors. Happily, these simple yet elegant hand-formed truffles are quite doable for the home cook, especially when you finish them with just a coating of finely chopped chocolate.
I've made holiday marshmallows only in the past decade or so, and I wonder why I didn't do it sooner. They are much easier to prepare than most candies and, especially when chocolate-dipped, they are completely addictive. A few weekends ago, my 6- and 8-year-old grandchildren and I had great fun chocolate-dipping the peppermint marshmallows made from the recipe provided in this issue.
(As long as I'm sharing, I admit to a recent breakfast of those dipped marshmallows and chocolate truffles; chalk it up to research, but don't tell my grandkids.)
None of the recipes here require special confectionary skills, but because the chemistry of candymaking is complex, it is important to follow the directions carefully and not to substitute or omit any ingredients. There are sound reasons behind the occasional seemingly persnickety instructions, particularly those involving chocolate; see my accompanying "Tips on working with chocolate," which should help things go smoothly.
You will notice that my recipes are quite specific about which chocolate to use. If a 60 to 70 percent cacao product is called for, do not substitute something outside that range, as the texture and taste of the final candy will almost certainly be thrown off. But it is perfectly fine to combine several different brands that have different cacao percentages to come up with a mixture that is within the specified range.
For example, if the recipe calls for a 65 to 70 percent cacao chocolate, you can successfully use half 60 percent and half 70 percent cacao chocolate, because the blend will have the minimum 65 percent that's required. By the way, a high cacao percentage does not suggest the quality of a chocolate; it indicates the percentage of actual chocolate solids and cocoa butter in it.