I was never allowed in the kitchen when I was growing up. Primarily, my mom did not like us traipsing through and nosing around while she was fixing a meal. And the other reason, I had a few kitchen disasters while growing up.
The one that brings the most laughter, now at least, was my foray into candy making. When I was in high school, you had the option of taking Home Economics as an elective credit. This class wasn’t “just for girls.” Savvy guys took this class because they were surrounded by females and food, two things that are probably most dear to a teenage boy’s heart. I enjoyed this class. Among other things, we learned about nutrition, food safety and how to cook and bake a few things—lessons that are still worthwhile, especially in this age of fast food and microwaves. It was fun to walk into a large room filled with all the necessary equipment to put our lessons into action because I never got to practice at home! Until one Christmas…
During the holidays, Home Ec classes focused on desserts and candy making. If it had lots of sugar, chances are, we made it. Cakes, cookies, lollipops, fudge, hand-pulled taffy… Oh the taffy! How that fascinated me. It took skill and precision to make taffy. The sugar had to be boiled to the “hard-ball/soft-crack” stage—between 260 and 280 degrees. Now I know, for people who have never made candy or messed with boiling sugar, that term might make you chuckle but there is quite a bit of science behind it. If the taffy was undercooked, it was fudge and if it was overcooked, well, then you had a lollipop. When properly cooked, the sugar was poured onto a sheet pan, allowed to cool and then “hand-pulled” until it had the opaque, matte finish of what you find in the candy shops of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. It was then cut into pieces and wrapped in waxed paper.
I have to say, my parents were rather impressed with the samples I brought home from class. I begged my mom to let me make batch over Christmas break. Looking back, I have no idea what in the world possessed her to allow me to boil sugar in her kitchen (which is akin to making liquid fire) when I barely knew how to boil water but whatever the thought process, or lack thereof, I was allowed to make taffy.
One important distinction needs to be made about Home Ec class recipes and regular “home” recipes—the recipes made in class were in quarter amounts of the full recipe. Cakes would have never baked and taffy would have never been pulled had we made a “full batch” recipe. Our real world experience would have been limited to just reading and tasting so we made quarter batches in class and took home instructions for full batch recipes.
Now the day we made taffy in class, in preparation for pouring the cooked sugar into the sheet pan, we placed another pan underneath filled with crushed ice. This allowed the sugar to cool quicker so that it could be pulled. The quarter batch of sugar poured over the iced pan cooled pretty fast and we had to begin pulling almost immediately to avoid it becoming grainy and inedible. I added all this information so you would have the back story as to how I made my critical error of judgment.
So I am at home on the first day of Christmas break. I’ve got my sheet pan buttered and nested into another pan of ice, my full batch of sugar cooking and my mom, just steps away, watching me work my magic. The sugar finally reached the hard-ball/soft-crack stage (I say finally because it takes quite a while for boiling sugar to reach those temperatures) and I poured it into the iced sheet pan. Without further thought and just going on my quarter batch experience in class, I immediately plunged my fingertips into the liquid sugar. I vaguely recall Mom hollering at me when she saw what was happening. 270 degrees registered pretty quickly on my pain meter but not before the damage was done. I spent the next two and a half weeks with blistered fingertips, eating shiny, grainy taffy.
I took away two life lessons from that experience: as much as it pains me now (and more so, then), math matters, especially in cooking. One quarter is not equal to a whole! And there has be to an easier, less painful way to permanently alter your fingerprints!
This is a photo of my mom’s kitchen and the scene of my taffy debacle.