When I was growing up, we'd make hard tack candy nearly every Christmas. When I was very little, I would just watch as Mom and Dad worked feverishly and painfully against the clock, pulling and rolling and cutting the hot sugar before it cooled. When I got a little older, I could join in (hot sugar isn't so great on wee children's hands). The taste of the sweet and flavorful hard candy is one of those tastes that instantly transports me back in time. I haven't had hard tack in years, but when I ate a sweet cinnamony piece last night it was like I was eight years old, staring in amazement as Dad snipped ropes of colorful sugar with a pair of kitchen shears.
Hard tack is ridiculously simple, and as long as you've got the right tools (heavy-bottomed saucepan, candy thermometer) you might find yourself as I did today...making batch after batch, all day long. My copy of the recipe is typed on a yellowed index card that Mom estimates dates back to 1955. She determined that date based on the fact that her sister, my Aunt Dolly, took typing in high school and practiced with the hard tack recipe:
2 C. Sugar
2/3 C. Karo
1/2 C. Water
Cook ingredients without stirring to crack stage.
Wash down sides of pan to remove crystals. Remove from
heat, add few drops of coloring and 1/4 Tsp. of oil Flavorin
Pour quickly on Greased tray. Start to cut as soon as it
cools slightly. Dust with powder sugar when cold.
Such a solid recipe, such a delicious result. It's no wonder to me that homemade hard tack has been a favorite in my extended family for 53 years (and counting). And I haven't even gotten to the best part: the dangerous fact that hard tack is a little painful to make. It must be rolled and cut while it's still hot, otherwise it will cool into a glass-like pool on the baking tray. You might (will) burn yourself. You might (will) get a blister or two. This is OK with me. I like to live on the edge when making Christmas candies. It's like a fun game! See who can cut the hot sugar the fastest with the least amount of injuries to his or her digits. Sometimes, confections = pain.
I in no way wish to dissuade you from hard tack, however. Once you get the hang of the method, I promise you can make the stuff without having to engage the burn unit. And the resulting candies are so yummy -- so festive to display in pretty bowls around the house or to package up as tasty gifts -- you will forget the hot mess just as soon as you're finished with it.
Sugar, corn syrup, water, food coloring, flavoring, a little pain, a lot of sweet nostalgia.
Flavored oils can be found at the pharmacy counter of your local supermarket. As I wandered the baking aisle, searching in vain for the oils and planning just how many stores I'd have to visit before I found them, I called Mom for some advice. "Check the pharmacy. That's where they had them in 1955." That's also where they have them in 2008. I asked the pharmacist why the flavored oils for candy making were located next to the pill splitters and those little plastic snap-lid day-of-the-week pill cases and she said her father used to have a pharmacy when she was growing up, and he carried the oils, too. Another pharmacist chimed in: "It's tradition." So, like a fiddler on the roof, look for the flavored oils in their traditional place: at the pharmacy.
1 c. sugar
1/3 c. light Karo syrup
1/4 c. water
1/8 t. flavored oil (cinnamon, peppermint, lemon, cherry, clove, spearmint, etc.)
Line a baking sheet with a Silpat (or grease a baking sheet with vegetable shortening). Set aside.
Prepare a small bowl of ice water and place it next to the baking sheet -- this is to give your hot fingers a nearby cool place to go, should you burn yourself.
In a heavy-bottomed saucepan combine the sugar, Karo and water. Fit the pot with a candy thermometer and cook over medium heat, without stirring, until the sugar reaches the hard crack stage, 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Brush down the sides of the pan with a pastry brush dipped in water to prevent any crystallization. (I find that if your saucepan is heavy enough, this step is not necessary.) If you don't have a pastry brush, secure a strip of cloth or paper towel to the tines of the fork with a rubber band, then dip in water and "brush" the sides of the pan. That's the old-school, Aunt Dolly way.
When the mixture reaches 300 degrees/hard crack, turn off the heat. Remove the thermometer and add the flavored oil and food coloring. Mix well with a heat-proof spatula. Carefully pour the mixture onto the Silpat-lined (or greased) baking sheet.
Allow the candy to cool slightly, about 1 minute. With your fingers and a pair of kitchen shears, begin to lift up the outer edges of the sugar. Cut a piece of the candy, then roll between your hands into a rope. Snip the rope into 1/2-inch pieces. Then lift another edge of the candy "pool," cut another piece, roll and snip. Repeat, working as quickly as possible, until you've cut the entire batch.
Let the candy cool completely before placing it into a medium bowl. Spoon about a tablespoon of powdered sugar over the candy and mix with your hands to coat.
Makes about 2 c. of candies. You can double the recipe, but I do not suggest doing so unless you have someone to pull and cut with you; otherwise, the candy will cool before you can get through all of it.