Confection Section: Taffy Duck

Confection Section is a new recurring piece, focusing on the history of candy and confections and how you can recreate these sweet treats at home, no matter what time of the year it is. Want to surprise trick-or-treaters with gummi spiders you made yourself? Want next year’s Valentine’s Day candies to come from the heart and not from a heart-shaped box? Ever want to make your own Reese’s cups or the kind of candy your parents/grandparents enjoyed in their youth? This recurring piece is for you!

If you live in the Southeast Pennsylvania/New Jersey/Delaware area, summer isn’t summer without a trip to Atlantic City and a box of salt water taffies from a boardwalk candy or souvenir shop. Of course, if you hate the sand between your toes and all the pain that comes with organizing a beach trip or don’t live in or near a coastal state, you can order some salt water taffies from an online bulk candy company and enjoy your balmy, sunny days lounging in a cheap beach chair or an inflatable kiddie pool in nothing but your swim trunks/a cheap, ill-fitting Speedo/thong bikini bottom and a flimsy, brightly-colored T-shirt with a risqué slogan (“F.B.I.: Federal Bikini/Booby/Booty Inspector” or one where it has an arrow pointing down and some lewd command for women to perform oral sex on whoever’s wearing the shirt), a parody of a TV show/cult classic movie/Internet meme (those “Keep Calm and…” shirts or a spoof of Breaking Bad), or the last place you went on vacation (usually Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; New York City, New York; or Williamsburg, Virginia), but it’s just not the same. On top of that, you will get neighbor complaints over public indecency and/or bring down property values, like on the season four Simpsons episode “New Kid on the Block,” when an interracial couple goes to buy a new house next to The Simpsons, but turn it down after seeing Homer naked in a kiddie pool, fishing out a half-eaten hot dog and passing out from drinking Duff.

Salt water taffies, much like the Philly cheesesteak and the Coney Island hot dog, has long been associated with East Coast food – in this case, salt water taffy has been associated with Atlantic City, New Jersey. The confection got its salty taste from a flood that soaked candy store owner, David Bradley’s, supply of regular taffy (Fun fact: the Atlantic Ocean is the saltiest out of the four major oceans in the world, but the Red Sea in the Indian Ocean has the saltiest sea water in the world, courtesy of the Dead Sea, which is so brackish, you can easily float in it – unless you’re so fat or inexperienced at swimming that you can sink right through, like Selma Bouvier on The Simpsons episode where Moe steals Homer’s idea for a fiery cocktail and Aerosmith becomes the first band to guest star on the show as themselves).

You’d think a disaster like this would ruin Mr. Bradley’s livelihood, but you would be wrong. When a young girl came into his shop and asked if he had any taffy for sale, he said he had “salt water taffy” instead. The girl didn’t understand the sarcasm behind it. She thought it was a new confection he created. David Bradley’s mother was in the back and overheard the conversation. She loved the moniker for Bradley’s ocean-soaked treats and, thus, a beachside sweet that’s not tanned and in a sexy swimsuit was born.

Though a flood accidentally created this candy and David Bradley sold it, it was Joseph Fralinger who popularized the salt water taffy as a souvenir for tourists and Enoch James refined the recipe, making it easier to unwrap (though I’ve unwrapped salt water taffy and there are times where it still sticks to the paper – or, the paper becomes part of the taffy and I get an untentional dose of fiber), cut the candy into bite-sized pieces, and is credited with mechanizing the process of taffy-pulling.

Salt water taffy is still sold widely on the boardwalks in Atlantic City, including shops in existence since the 1800s, like Fralinger’s and James’ and the Atlantic Maritime provinces in Canada (Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick), but has found its way to places like Salt Lake City, Utah and even the West Coast (the picture of the salt water taffy in barrels is from a candy store at a popular San Francisco tourist spot, Pier 39. I’ve been there a few times during my stay in San Francisco, and I have been at that exact candy store – along with a pizzeria that had the best S.O.S [spinach-onion-sausage] pizza and got me into watching and rooting for college basketball) and comes in an array of flavors, from blue raspberry and banana to guava and maple.

The appeal of salt water taffy is that the taste reminds you a lot of strolling the boardwalk on a July afternoon, taking in the ocean air, the energy of people of all ages enjoying a day out, the seagulls recreating the climax from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds as people foolishly throw French fries and other foods on the boardwalk floor…ah, memories. Yours may vary.

Taffy-pulling is one of those activities that many will tell you is a “lost art” in the sense that it used to be done by human hands – both for business and as Saturday night family fun – but now has been handed over to machines for efficiency reasons, but most candy shops that specialize in “from scratch” confections (particularly the boardwalk candy shops and any shop owned and operated by Amish farmers and their wives at the Reading Terminal Market in Center City) are keeping taffy-pulling alive, and you can too, if you want to create your own candy. Go to a place like Sur La Table or those craft stores like Michaels’ and you’ll see a lot of candy-making tools and molds, meaning that, yes, making homemade candy isn’t just for Grandma’s Sunday church socials or the Amish anymore.

The most important instruments in candy-making (especially if you’re making sugar-based candies or any type of sugar sculpting) are quality ingredients (as with any food you cook), a candy thermometer, and a sturdy pot (particularly a double-boiler or large saucepan that can handle high heat), though the candy thermometer can be substituted for a spoon and knowing what happens when sugar syrup boils.

Name

Temperature

What Happens to the Sugar Syrup

What Can You Use It For?

Thread

223-235 degrees Fahrenheit

The syrup drips from a spoon, forms thin threads in water

Glacé, candied fruits
, and sugar cages (complete with a marzipan wild animal or a scale model go-go dancer made of fondant, white chocolate, royal icing, and marzipan)

Soft ball

235-245 degrees Fahrenheit

The syrup easily forms a ball while in the cold water, but flattens once removed

Fudge and fondant

Firm ball

245-250 degrees Fahrenheit

The syrup is formed into a stable ball, but loses its round shape once pressed

Caramel candies
and caramel filling if you’re making homemade versions of name-brand chocolate candy bars, like Twix and Snickers

Hard ball

250-266 degrees Fahrenheit

The syrup holds its ball shape, but remains sticky

Marshmallows

Soft crack

270-290 degrees Fahrenheit

The syrup will form firm but pliable threads

Nougat (also nougat filling for homemade candy bars) and taffy

Hard crack

300-310 degrees Fahrenheit

The syrup will crack if you try to mold it

Peanut brittle, lollipops
, sugared glass if you want to make a gingerbread house with realistic windows in it (or a gingerbread model of the Crystal Cathedral in Orange County, California)

Caramel

320-350 degrees Fahrenheit

The sugar syrup will turn golden at this stage

Pralines

 

Above all else, it is imperative that you BE CAREFUL when handling hot sugar syrup. Working with hot sugar is not for the clumsy, the careless, or the easily-distracted (that applies to cooking of any kind, really). A lot can go wrong if you use the cold water method (that’s the method where you use a spoon and your own judgment to test how hot the sugar syrup is), as hot sugar has a tendency to stick on your skin as it burns, so you can’t just rub it off your skin. I don’t know if a hospital trip and a skin graft can be used to mend skin burned from hot sugar, but it seems like the logical conclusion should a sugar burn ever happen to you. I once burned a small part of skin near my elbow on my left arm with hot glue during a high school project. I didn’t go to the nurse about it, because, what was she going to do, give me Tums for it? I decided to cover it up with some tissues and, if anyone asked, just say I fell while walking home from school. My legs, feet, and ankles loved to play “Hey, how can we make Canais/The Philly Foodie a klutz today?” all through middle school and the first half of high school, so a nasty spill resulting in some scraped skin is more believable than “I wasn’t watching what I was doing while handling a hot glue gun.” The point of that is: hot sugar syrup is a lot like the glue from a hot glue gun before it sets, so treat it as if you were working with a glue gun.

As with all cooking projects (whether amateur or professional), keep your hair tied back and/or put in a chef’s hat or cap if it’s long and remove all jewelry before starting. Ideally, you’re only supposed to have a plain wedding band as the only acceptable piece of jewelry to wear when doing kitchen work, but I hate rings [which, if I ever decide to get married, will pose some problems] and wearing them while cooking hot sugar syrup is just asking for either the ring to fall in or the hot syrup to permanently glue your ring to your ring finger, leaving you no chance to either pawn the ring to cover your rent/mortgage/divorce fees or leave it to your children in the will unless you’re willing to have it amputated (or your insurance covers it).

You’re probably restless and waiting for me to give the steps on how to make salt water taffy, Atlantic City-style. Well, here we go. As with all the recipes here at “Take Back the Kitchen,” be sure to find a way to save it for later (print, transcribe, or download).

How to Make Salt Water Taffy

Atlantic City-style salt water taffy starts with these ingredients:

1 cup sugar

1/2 tablespoons cornstarch

2/3 cup corn syrup

1 tablespoon butter

1/2 cup water

1/2 teaspoon salt flavoring

Lemon, orange, peppermint, lime, strawberry, pineapple or Fireball flavorings.

Pink, green, yellow, or orange color pastes

 Yeah, not exactly the paradigm of healthy eating, but, like with all sugary, fatty, and overall decadent foods, it helps if you only have this once in a while…unless you have blood sugar issues, food allergies (specifically to food coloring, as there are people out there who can’t eat foods with Red Dye #3 or Blue Dye #2 in it), or don’t like salt water taffies. If corn syrup scares your waistline or you can’t find it (it shouldn’t be too hard to find, but you might live in a country where they don’t carry it in stores, like the United Kingdom or Australia), then substitute for simple syrup (which is just sugar and water boiled until it leaves a thin coat on the back of a spoon).

The first thing you do is combine your sugar and cornstarch and place it in a saucepan. After that, add your corn/simple syrup, butter, and water and stir. Next, you heat the mixture. To prevent it from crystallizing, do NOT stir the mixture until it reaches hard ball stage (refer to the chart above) or, if you’re doing the cold water method, until a small portion of it forms into a ball when you drip it into a bath of cold water.

Once it reaches the hard ball stage, add your salt flavoring. Immediately pour the mixture on a greased slab or section of marble table top that has a plastic mat made for sugar work (you can find those at any restaurant/cook supply store). Allow to cool slightly.

Since you’re working with hot sugar, it’s best if you have rubber gloves for this next part, unless you’re like my Pastry/Confections instructor, Chef Kin Joe (a kindly Chinese man from Texas whose cakes and confection work looks like they should be at some bigshot Hollywood celebrity’s wedding/divorce/engagement/sweet 16/finally 18/finally 21/finally got the necessary plastic surgery/TV milestone/just removed that kidney stone party or gracing the page of a food porn mag like Saveur) who can work barehanded with hot sugar and it only mildly annoys him.

As quickly as you can, pull the hot sugar mixture until light and pearl-like in color. Don’t overdo it, or it will end up looking dull.

Divide into separate portions. Color and flavor each portion as desired while it is being pulled. You don’t have to limit yourself to what the ingredients say. Experiment with different colors and flavors.

If you want to make two- three- or four-toned taffy, then layer the colored pieces next to each other. Let them heat up a little next to a heated stove or under a desk lamp (normally, for sugar work, you need a special type of lamp that looks similar to a desk lamp, but takes a higher wattage light bulb). Once the sugar ribbon is malleable enough, stretch it until the two ribbons become one with two or more colors.

Pull out the sugar ribbons to around 1½ inches wide and ¾ of an inch thick. Cut into pieces with a scissors and wrap in wax paper. Twist ends of paper to seal.

Store in a jar, a decorated candy box or dish, or give to friends, loved ones, or anyone with a sweet tooth. Or, if you have some salt water taffy from a beachside candy shop, do a blind taste test to see if you can tell the difference between your homemade taffy and the store-bought.

…And that’s how you make Atlantic City-style salt water taffy without the trip to the boardwalk. Good night, and good eating!

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Exotic Fruits of My Labor

Whether it’s traveling the world, publishing that novel that’s been in your head and on paper since high school, or living to see your kids grow up and have families of their own, we all have something we want to do before we die. For some foodies (be they world-class chefs or lowly bloggers and food writers who write about world-class chefs), their goal is to try new and exotic foods. Cuisines from around the world, a healthy spin on a favorite snack, a meal/snack that was popular in the past and can be recreated today, anything locally grown/made from scratch, a popular dish from a hole-in-the-wall eatery– those are all common items on the culinary bucket list. My culinary bucket list is no different, only I have a few culinary things I’ve done that some either wouldn’t have put on the list or haven’t done yet.

  • I got involved in a culinary education program and graduated (Job Corps does count. I know it’s not as glamorous as The Restaurant School, but I don’t want to put myself deeper in student loan debt).
  • I ate at Claudia Sanders (a Kentucky restaurant created by the wife of Colonel Sanders [the man behind Kentucky Fried Chicken]).
  • I went to two culinary expos (one in Kentucky and one in San Francisco)
  • I went to a wine tasting — one year as a greeter and another as a…well, I don’t know what I was. I originally came in to be a prep cook for one of the booths, but then I was put in charge of refilling the water pitchers, then put in charge of dishwashing. I was tossed around more times than a salad, but it was worth it, because when does someone like me get to see wine snobs up close?
  • I experienced firsthand what it’s like to work in the foodservice industry (and now have a better appreciation of those who do. I may never get another job in foodservice, but at least I know about the trials and tribulations of front- and back of house service, especially when I worked as a waitress for Chef Ron Schoenberg’s class and when a miscalculation caused me to run out of aioli for fried calamari in the middle of service. Мне очень жаль, Chef Valdet).
  • I learned baking from a German baker (Dankeschön, Kopf Egon!)
  • I ate at In-and-Out Burger. Sadly, I didn’t have any secret menu items from it, but it’s nothing a copycat recipe can’t fix. For my money, though, I like Carl’s Jr. better. Maybe I should have gone for the Double-Double special if I wanted a hamburger meal that will put me in a temporary food coma on a lazy weekend afternoon.
  • I got to work with sugar and chocolate art in pastry class. I even have pictures:

Chocolate Designs 1 P01-09-12_10.50

The sugar flower was very hard to do. I don’t know if you know this, but working with sugar that’s been heated to almost near-boiling point (by water standards) is not for those with delicate hands or a low tolerance for pain from burns. Once you get used to it, though, it’s almost like working with glass — and I should know. I went to a college where making art from molding and coloring glass was a legitimate major.

  • I got to try milk and cheese that didn’t come from a cow. Might not seem like much, but when you’re away from what you’re used to, you do begin to realize how boring it is and want to try something different.
  • I traveled to San Francisco and went to the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market. It’s a very nice place to go on sunny weekends (which is almost always in California. It only rained, like, twice when I was there, and snow is almost unheard-of, unless you live in Northern California) and you get to sample most things there, from homemade soda to foods I’ve never tried.

…Which leads me to my next point. Thanks to my time at Job Corps for Culinary Arts (February 2010 to September 2012), I’m still on the look-out for foods I haven’t tried, recipes I want to do for the family, and relatively unknown eateries I want to visit. One of the items on my culinary bucket list: trying out exotic fruits.

Now, this may not seem much like a feat, but some of the supermarkets around my town only have the “safe” exotic produce (and by “safe,” I mean “Everyone has tried this at least once in their lives”), like pineapple, coconut, banana, lime (which I love sliced in wedges or in circles and sprinkled with salt for a bare-bones margarita. You can dip the wedges or rounds in tequila before you salt them if you like your margaritas the way you like your women or men: not a virgin), blood oranges, mangoes, and papaya. I’m interested in the kinds of fruits  that either aren’t readily available in the United States or are only available either at a farmer’s market or as juice or part of a juice blend.

Here are some of these fruits I’ve tried, and some that I want to try.

Fruits I’ve Tried

1)

This first fruit I found was when I went shopping at this store called Produce Junction. They were labeled as “lychees,” even though a lychee’s skin is thinner and not as “hairy.” What I was eating was a rambutan, which is larger than a lychee, has a larger seed in the middle, and a flesh that taste vaguely like a white grape. My youngest sister, Ashley, took the last one I had (I bought four), then told me, “Don’t buy any more hairy grapes.” Siblings can be so cruel.

The rambutan, part of the Sapindaceae family and related to the lychee, the mamoncillo (Spanish lime), and the longan (but not the loganberry), is a Southeast Asian plant native to the Indonesian Archipelago, but has spread westwards to Thailand, Burma (Myanmar), Sri Lanka and India; northwards to Vietnam, and the Philippines. Much like humans, the tree of this fruit can be male (producing only staminate flowers and, hence, produce no fruit), female (producing flowers that are only functionally female), or hermaphroditic (producing flowers that are female with a small percentage of male flowers). The fruit is round to oval (described as being as big as a golf ball or an average-sized testicle, depending on who you ask) and the seed inside is flat and, in Southeast Asian cuisine, edible — something I wish I knew before I ate just the flesh of it. Oh, well, next time.

There’s another fruit that looks like this (or at least has the same flesh and seed) called the pulasan, which is native to Malaysia, but has grown in the same places as the rambutan (mostly The Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand).

2)

This isn’t an orange. It’s a kumquat, which tastes like a really sour-to-bitter orange, and, unlike the orange, you can eat the entire thing whole and don’t have to worry about the pith. Credit goes to Chef Georgia Murphy (the Fine Dining instructor I first met. Sadly, I never had her as a teacher because she left) for introducing me to this fruit. Like the rambutan, no one in my immediate family likes this fruit, except for me.

The kumquat fruit grows from a slow-growing evergreen shrub or hydrophytic short tree with dark green leaves and white flowers (similar to its more common citrus relatives). Depending on the conditions, can produce hundreds to thousands of kumquats annually. Like the rambutan, the kumquat is found in Southeast Asia, but the kumquat has also been found in other Asian countries, like Taiwan, India, and Japan, and has even been cultivated on some islands on the Pacific Ocean.

3)

You have probably seen this fruit a lot on beautifully-crafted fruit baskets (Edible Arrangements does them all the time) and assumed they were pineapples cut into star shapes. I thought that’s what they were as well, until I read in my culinary notebook that star-shaped fruit does exist.

Starfruit (real name: carambola) and the tree on which it grows can be found in the tropical regions of the world, particularly in the Asian countries of India, Sri Lanka, The Philippines, Bangladesh, and Indonesia, but the trees also grow in the South Pacific and even the Caribbean. Don’t let the bright orange color fool you. This is not a citrus fruit. Speaking from experience, the taste is more on-par with a honeydew melon with a hint of cucumber. Besides using it as an interesting piece in a fruit basket, you can use it as an interesting piece in fruit salad (or a green salad. Hey, if grapes, tomatoes, and cranberries can do it, then this fruit can too). And don’t rule this out when grilling fruit (it tastes just as good as grilled pineapple on a hamburger) or using it in making flavored water.

The best looking star fruit may not be the most ripe and delicious, so choosing the right one is important. Your best bet is to find the fruit with the least amount of green on the edges and the richest orange color. This could mean there are some brown edges, but don’t let that deter you. It’s still good.

4)

The stamen does look like something from a low-rent sci-fi movie about aliens, but what girl wouldn’t want this as a corsage or the centerpiece of a dress or wedding veil? I know I would.

You’ve probably seen this around — maybe not the actual fruit, but its juice has made appearances — both solo and with other juices (even if it’s artificially flavored). The top pic is a passion fruit (if you’re reading this in South Africa, then this is known to you as a purple granadilla; if you’re reading this in Hawaii, then it’s a lilikoi), a fruit from the vine plant Passiflora edulis. Its flower (shown below) looks like the kind of flower that has graced the wrists of many a dolled-up prom queen or a bride who wants a wedding that’s part fairy tale, part Polynesian/South Pacific paradise. Passion fruit gets its name, not because the fruit is said to be an aphrodisiac, but because parts of the flower will remind Christians and Roman Catholics of Jesus’ crucifixion (often referred to as “The Passion of the Christ”), in this case, the tendril-like petals circling the plant’s reproductive organs look similar to the crown of thorns Jesus had to wear as he was carrying the cross on which the Roman soldiers would nail him. Grisly, I know, after I said that the flower looked like it could be on a corsage or a wedding veil, but that’s the beauty of this blog: you get gritty, disturbing facts and whimsical opinion/kooky observation all in one sitting.

Passion fruit is native to Brazil, but have also grown in Central America (the countries between Mexico and South America, like Honduras and Costa Rica), the Caribbean (specifically Haiti and The Dominican Republic), the United States (California, Florida, and Hawaii, as those states have the right climate to grow this type of fruit), Asia (west and east, meaning that you can see passion fruit plants in Israel as well as Cambodia), and in Australia. Basically, any place that’s always warm and doesn’t have to worry about snowy conditions is where passion fruit thrive.

Passion fruit comes in two varieties: the purple one with the yellow and black seed sacs (which I have tried and is what is commonly used when bottling passion fruit for commercial use) and a vanilla type that’s elongated, yellow, and has a pale green flesh that (surprise, surprise) taste like vanilla. I don’t know if you can use it as a substitute for vanilla beans like people do with vanilla extract, but if you can find the vanilla passion fruit, it does make for a good frozen treat flavor. Can you imagine vanilla passion fruit ice cream with dark chocolate chips or vanilla passion fruit sorbet served as a tasty palate cleanser between meals?

For cost reasons, the actual passion fruit isn’t used often in the kitchen, unless you’re an ambitious pastry chef/pastry instructor with connections and/or money to burn, as I have seen pictures of passion fruit pulp used as a topping on high-end restaurant-style desserts. (You know the kind I mean: the kind served on plates with sauce fancifully drizzled over the dessert, the ice cream is molded into quenelles rather than scoops, the portions are small and the price is somewhat more outrageous than what you had to shell out for the entree, but the flavor usually makes up for it, and the dessert itself is often soaked in an after-dinner liqueur and lit on fire for dramatic effect — I’m looking at you, cherries jubilee, crêpes Suzette, and bananas Foster). Most chefs find that it’s just better to use canned nectar or passion fruit juice and only use the actual fruit if you’re making a jelly or pastry filling.

Like with the rambutan, I found and bought passion fruit at a produce store. In this case, however, it was Iovine’s Organic Produce at the Reading Terminal in Center City, Philadelphia last summer. It didn’t cost much ($2.99, I believe) and wanted to try it just for the purpose of making a blog post about it (in fact, this originally was supposed to be the second or third post, but I had a hard time making it work). You’d think a fruit like this would have a taste that’s out of this world. Well, it does and it doesn’t. It has a creamy flavor and its juice is infinitely better than what you can get at the store, but that’s if you can handle the tart flavor that almost parallels what pomegranate tastes like. Not saying I can’t handle tart flavors, it’s just that I expected passion fruit to be different since it’s a more-or-less rare fruit and not many people have tasted it. It’s similar to how people say most meats taste like chicken, despite how exotic and uncommon it is (though I’ve had lamb and goat before, and you will never hear me say that they taste like chicken, beef, or pork).

And that’s where I am in trying rare/weird fruits on my Culinary Bucket List. I want to reach ten, so that means I have six more to go. I know the next fruits I want to try are dragonfruit (pitaya), mangosteen, and, the smelliest fruit on the planet, durian.

Which exotic/tropical/rare fruits do you, my readers, think I should try. The comments section is yours to offer suggestions.

Thanks, and Happy Eating!