In the weeks preceding Christmas I get to fudge-making. Over the years, the many failures only drove me more determinedly to conquer the process. Though not the correct consistency, the failures were usually still edible: generally undercooked and eligible for fudge sauce. Occasionally the fudge was over-cooked and came out more like hard candy. Then there were the intermittent successes, when the fudge miraculously congealed into the perfect smooth and almost solid texture that we desire. When it comes out too crumbly, I save the crumbs to put into cookies in place of the chocolate chips.
After repeated attempts, note-taking and re-reading notes, here is what I have learned to be able to more consistently make the fudge come out right.
The recipe is slightly modified from Fannie Farmer for chocolate nut fudge:
Ingredients: 3 squares of chocolate, 2 cups sugar, 2 T corn syrup, 3/4 cup whole milk; 2 T butter, 1 tsp vanilla and 1 cup chopped walnuts.
Melt the 3 squares of chocolate in a 3-quart sauce pan. Add the corn syrup, sugar and milk. Stir til it all dissolves; bring to a medium boil and stop stirring. I've read those directions in the past, but it took me a while to recognize the significance. Bring to a medium boil and stop stirring - really! As a neophyte I had found it hard to resist the impulse to stir. I was afraid it would stick to the bottom. Why, it was getting stuck to the pan all around the upper edges! Well, there's a better way to deal with that than to stir it all back in. Instead keep a little bowl of warm water near the stove, and use a pastry brush dipped in the warm water to brush down the sides periodically. Stirring actually results in the re-formation of sugar crystals, and will not result in the proper fudge texture. Relax and let the swirling of the boiling mix it all up.
Fudge requires attention and obedience to the laws of fudge physics. It is not one of those cooking escapades that one can modulate according to one's desires. Once begun, timing is all, and the fudge tells you when it's time. The boiling phase requires patience and close attention; it needs to boil at a good pace, but not boil over. It generally takes about a half hour of boiling before it reaches that magical "soft-ball stage", but it might only be 15 minutes or closer to an hour. Different atmospheric conditions and humidity have their effects - it's actually best to make fudge on a dry, cool day. I get the impression that the addition of fattier elements such as chocolate or cream decrease the boiling time. I haven't had much luck with a candy thermometer - the one I used was probably off by 10º - so I'd given up on that. But if you have a good one, they say that 234º is the temperature of the soft ball stage.
I go by other signs. When the volume boils down to about one-quarter of the original volume, and drips from a spoon start to fatten, then the time is getting closer but there's no need to panic. You can even slow it down a bit at this point if needed, by turning down the stove a bit. The soft ball stage is defined as "a small amount of syrup dropped into chilled water forms a ball, but is soft enough to flatten when picked up with fingers". As the ideal stage nears, the last drops from the spoon briefly form small balls on the descent. In a blink of an eye, a tail forms and they look like little sperms before hitting the bottom. If you reach in and pick one up off the bottom of the glass, it does not disintegrate in your fingers anymore, but can be formed into a little ball and flattened too.
Now is the time to pounce! Remove from heat and throw in two tablespoons butter, cut into little pieces. It is the role of the butter to help cool down the fudge slowly. Once again, against all intuition, do not stir at this stage! Put the pot of fudge on a rack so it can cool down from all sides, and leave it alone. (Sometimes I hasten the process by immersing the pot in a larger container of cold water, but this can be risky, as the cooling can suddenly become rapid particularly on the edges.) If you haven't already done so, now is the last chance to butter up the 8-inch square pan, and chop the nuts. Keep an eye on the fudge, for once again you are waiting for the right moment to pounce again. This cooling stage generally takes about a half hour. We are waiting for it to cool to lukewarm, so that is pretty easy to spot. Once the sides of the pan are no longer hot, you can test it by poking a finger in the middle of the fudge. If it's still hot, then it needs to cool longer. Once it's just barely warm, approaching body temperature, then it's time to really whip into action!
Now all that pent-up urge to stir can fully express itself. Add the teaspoon of vanilla and mix it in gently, and then start to really get into it. Oh what activity for 10-15 minutes – muscles and breath! Do this on a solid counter at a good height to maintain good posture. Have a sturdy wooden spoon, as the fudge is now thickening rapidly as you stir, and you want to get the heavy spots on the bottom of the pan to mix in. Beat, beat, breathe, beat! Continue to beat til it just starts to lose its gloss. The gloss doesn't have to disappear entirely, but it must start to diminish. Add the chopped nuts. Now it is really impossible to mix – oh, hands don't fail me now! – you can drop the wooden spoon and roll up the sleeves. Hands always do the best job when things get really stiff. It's all in one glob now. Press it into the pan - no need to press it to the edges. Let cool on the rack and if you have the patience, watch how the gloss continues to dissipate until it's perfectly fudge. You know what to do now, with the knife.
My other favorite is penuche, which my aunt Sissybell made to perfection when I was a child. Unfortunately I never got her recipe or really watched her do it. But this recipe I found on the internet from the Christopher Kratzer Bed & Breakfast in Clearfield, Pennsylvania. It was passed down from the proprietor's grandmother who had learned it from her days in Atlanta.
Ingredients: 2 cups brown sugar, 1 cup milk or water, 1/4 tsp salt; 2 T butter, 1 tsp vanilla and 1 cup chopped pecans. Follow the same procedure.