Exploring the wondrously sweet - and a little intimidating - world of candy making

December 15, 2004



Candy thermometers unnerve me.  So does that mystical culinary process whereby a tiny drop of hot syrup is plunged into cold water to see how firm it is.  Hard ball?  Soft ball? How on earth do I know? As soon as a recipe tells me I need to determine the temperature of boiling sugar, I flip the page, looking for something a little less scientific and precise, something better suited to my “a-handful-of-this, a-handful-of-that” cooking style. 


As you might guess, I don’t make much candy.


But despite my syrup-phobia, I am a candy-making wannabe at heart.   One of the all-time most fun food things I have ever done was watching real pros make my favorite candy at the Arnaud Soubeyran nougat factory in Montelimar, France.  Nougat is a cousin of divinity, but, oh, so much better – crunchy, chewy and sweetened with the efforts of a thousand busy bees.  I was in thrall, watching the oiled-up men handle masses of voluptuous sticky white candy, studded with pistachios and almonds.  I was dying to get my hands on it, to feel the smooth, elastic, pillowy stuff.  “What a food fantasy!” I wrote in my journal that night.  “I bet I can make this at home.”


Yeah, right. 


That was 2001.  Since then I have eaten nougat, and talked about nougat and collected nougat recipes, but my kitchen has stayed nougat-free.  Why?  The recipes all require that pesky candy thermometer, along with other mysterious procedures about which I know nothing.  When I learned that David Fletcher and Scott Jackman of BLU Culinary Arts would offer classes on any aspect of dessert making, I wondered: Could they teach me to make nougat?  Most certainly, they said.  I signed up for a private lesson on the spot.


David proposed that we make both nougat and marshmallows (nougat’s less complex but stickier cousin) since they use similar techniques and ingredients. He also suggested that we make his cocoa mix.  A tin of that, he thought, packaged up with a bag of marshmallows, would make a great holiday gift from the kitchen.


Now I have never made a single holiday gift in my kitchen, but I read Martha Stewart Living religiously. Visions of crinkly cellophane bags of candy and cocoa mix tied up with festive red ribbon danced in my head.  I agreed immediately. 


The BLU kitchen is a fun place to play at any time.  They have tons of cool stuff – all shapes and sizes of cookie cutters and tart pans, a million kinds of chocolate, food coloring pastes and powders, and more exotic things picked up here and there to provide inspiration.


But the focus for the lesson is the large steel table in the center of the room.  This is no cooking lesson a la Emeril, where the audience watches as the chef performs.  This is hands-on – I will learn to make candy because I will be making candy.  How simple is that?


David begins by explaining “sugar work.”  Convinced that people find things intimidating when they don’t understand why they are doing them, he sets out to demystify the process.


Making candy, says David, is all about changing and controlling the form of sugar. 


When we melt sugar we are asking it to become more of a liquid.  We sometimes help it along by adding water (which we then need to boil out) and mixing it with sugars that are naturally liquid, like corn syrup and honey (called invert or inverted sugars).   Sugar, a contrary ingredient, wants to return to its crystallized state.  Our job is to stop it.


Whether the resulting candy is chewy or brittle depends on how high the sugar is heated and how much liquid is boiled out.  The hotter the mixture, the stiffer it will be and the harder the resulting candy.  A hotter, thicker mixture also makes the incorporation of air by mixer or by hand (think taffy pulling) more difficult. High temperatures, brittle candy; lower temperatures, chewier candy.


There are other ingredients in candy, of course, like proteins and fats and stabilizers, all of which help to keep the sugar from crystallizing, but handling the sugar is the main thing.


That didn’t sound too daunting after all, so we got right down to work.


Soon the water, sugar, corn syrup and honey were boiling like mad while David skimmed the dark foam from the top (eliminating impurities that encourage recrystallization.) Once the water boiled off, the mixture settled to a simmer and we clamped a candy thermometer to the inside of the pan.  Piece of cake.


The mercury moved oh-so-slowly.  I itched to give the syrup a stir but David wouldn’t let me.  If you agitate it, he said, you encourage it to return to its natural state (i.e., the dreaded crystals.)  The one thing I was allowed to do was to brush water around the inside of the pan with a pastry brush. This keeps crystals from forming on the sides and then falling back into the syrup, starting a chain reaction that would form even more crystals.


When the temperature hit 277 degrees, we started whipping the egg whites in the mixer, bringing them just to soft peak stage (when you pull the whisk out, the peak will droop, wet and shiny.)  By then the syrup had hit 280 degrees and was taken off the heat.  With the mixer on, David poured the hot syrup down the side of the bowl, where it continued to spin until it cooled, about 15 more minutes.


When it was “touchable temperature” we scooped it out of the bowl onto a buttered surface and worked in the nuts.  This was my French nougat memory, and the stiff, shiny, sticky candy felt just as pliable and plastic as I had imagined. We patted it into a pan and let it set up.  Then we cut it into squares, and ate it all in one sitting.


(I’m kidding, really we didn’t.  We cut it up into squares, and put it into little cellophane bags tied with gorgeous red bows and gave it to friends. Martha Stewart, eat your heart out.)


BLU Culinary Arts offers cooking classes on topics of their own, or your devising.  See their web site ( or call 334-8460.  Classes average about $60 per person, depending on the degree of difficulty and the cost of ingredients.


1/4 cup water

2 1/4 cups sugar

1/4 cup light corn syrup

1 1/2 cup honey

2 egg whites

2 tablespoons vanilla

1 1/2 cup almonds, shelled

1 1/2 cup pistachios, shelled

Toast the nuts in a 350 degree oven for 5 to 10 minutes to heighten their flavor. Watch carefully so they don't burn — they will continue to cook after you pull them out of the oven. Allow to cool.

Butter and line a jelly roll pan or rimmed sheet pan with parchment paper, allowing parchment to cover sides and bottom. Don't skip this step. Nougat is sticky stuff, and the parchment paper is essential.

Combine water, sugar, corn syrup and honey in a heavy bottom saucepan. Mix to combine.

Stir the mixture while bringing it to a boil to ensure that the sugar is completely dissolved. Skim off any dark foam that forms on the top. It will boil rapidly as it expels the water you added to the mixture. The boiling will calm down when the water is gone.

Once the sugar is dissolved stop stirring and cook until the temperature reaches 280 degrees. Do not stir the syrup as it cooks, as this will encourage crystals to reform. While the sugar mixture is cooking use a pastry brush dipped in water to wash down the sides of the saucepan. Don't be alarmed if the mixture boils up as some water drips back in; it will settle down again when it evaporates.

Place the egg whites in a separate mixing bowl. When the sugar mixture reaches 277 degrees, begin whipping the egg whites so that they have reached the soft peak stage by the time the sugar has reached its final temperature of 280 degrees. At soft peak stage, the peak of the whipped eggs will droop a bit when the beater is pulled out, and they will still be wet and shiny.

Once the sugar has reached 280 degrees, remove from the heat and slowly pour the sugar syrup down the inside of the mixing bowl while continuing to whip the egg whites. Be certain to pour the syrup down the side of the bowl rather than across the whip or it will cool too quickly and become hard. Do this slowly and be very careful. Syrup is very hot and can burn you badly!

Continue whipping until the mixture is cool. This can take up to 15 minutes. Then fold in the vanilla and nuts. If the candy is very stiff, you may need to turn the mixture out onto an oiled surface and work the nuts in by hand.

Dump the mixture into prepared pan and press flat into place with buttered hands or a buttered rolling pin. It's up to you how thick you want it to be — ours was about 1/2- to 3/4-inch thick.

When set, cut into bite-sized squares.

David Fletcher's Wickedly Rich and Delicious Cocoa Blend

2 cups bitter-sweet or semi-sweet chocolate shavings or chocolate chips, chopped (Remember, the purpose is to enjoy a splendid cup of hot chocolate. You should use the finest chocolate available to you as it will influence the taste. Many of the lower quality chocolates chips used for baking have oils and waxes to make them more stable and it would be nice to avoid using those.)

1 cup cocoa powder

2/3 cup vanilla sugar (at least 1 week in advance take 2 cups sugar and one vanilla bean to place in an air-tight container. The sugar will take on some of the vanilla flavor. Reserve the remaining sugar for use in other baking. You can make the cocoa mix with regular sugar, but it's better with vanilla.)

2 whole cinnamon sticks

2 strips of orange peel

Combine the above ingredients and store in an airtight container. Makes enough for five to six servings.

When ready to make hot chocolate:

Combine 1 cup whole milk and 1/3 cup cream for each serving. Bring to boil. Add 3/4 cup of the cocoa blend per serving. Whisk until smooth. If desired, froth in a blender and serve with homemade marshmallows.

This makes a great holiday gift packaged up in an attractive jar with a bag of homemade marshmallows. Remember to include serving instructions for mixing with milk and cream.



1 ¼ oz. unflavored gelatin (about 5 packets)

2 cups cold water  

3 1/3 cups granulated sugar

1 ½ cup light corn syrup

1 ½ cup honey

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1-2 drops flavored extract, like peppermint (optional)      

Food color as desired (optional) 

Powdered sugar (you will need several cups or more)

Nonstick cooking spray


Butter a jelly roll pan or rimmed sheet pan and line it with parchment paper.  Dust it very generously with powdered sugar.


In a small mixing bowl add gelatin to 1 cup of the cold water to moisten the gelatin prior to use. Let it sit for 10-15 minutes. This is called blooming the gelatin.  Nothing visibly dramatic happens, but the gelatin absorbs the water.


Separately, combine the sugar, corn syrup, honey, and other 1 cup of water in a heavy bottomed saucepan. Bring to boil while stirring to ensure all the sugar crystals are melted. Skim off any foam that forms from the top. It will boil rapidly as it expels the water you added to the mixture.  The boiling will calm down when the water is gone.


Once the sugar is completely dissolved, stop stirring and continue cooking until the temperature reaches 250 degrees F. While the sugar mixture is cooking use a pastry brush dipped in water to wash down the sides of the saucepan. Don’t be alarmed if the mixture boils up as some water drips back in; it will settle down again when it evaporates.


Remove from heat, set aside and let cool to 210 degrees F.  While the sugar is cooling, melt the bloomed gelatin over a water bath of simmering water. A water bath can easily be made by bringing 2 cups of water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Once the water boils turn the heat down to a simmer. Rest the mixing bowl with the bloomed gelatin over the simmering water. The heat from the steam will gently melt the gelatin without burning it. This will take 2-3 minutes. Remove from the heat.


Add gelatin and vanilla to the sugar mixture. Using the whip attachment on high speed, whip until firm peaks are formed and the mixture is cool. This will take 8-10 minutes. As the mixture begins to whip add food color or flavoring, if desired.


Scrape the sticky marshmallow onto the prepared sheet pan and spread evenly using an offset spatula that has been sprayed with cooking spray to help prevent it from sticking.  Dust generously with powdered sugar and let it set and dry overnight.


Once set, the marshmallow can be cut into the desired shapes using a knife or a cookie cutter dipped in powdered sugar. Humidity in the air will melt eventually the powdered sugar. To help reduce how fast this happens keep the finished marshmallows in an air-tight container or package at room temperature.


Remember…these are homemade marshmallows and are meant to look hand-crafted. They will not last forever and are best used with 1-2 days.