If any single ingredient is essential at holiday time, it is sugar. And surely there is no more delicious or efficient way to pump yourself full of the sweet stuff than candy.
Holiday candy is as traditional as all those elaborately decorated cookies, and for earlier generations, candy-making was often as much a family affair as cookie baking is today.
Time-frazzled households are apt to balk at recipes that call for specialized equipment like candy thermometers and fancy molds, or temperatures so high you can quickly burn even a careful hand. Besides, candy companies make it sinfully easy to satisfy a sweet tooth with a simple financial transaction - no heat, stirring or patience required.
Still, I suspect I'm not alone in associating the holiday season as much with my mother's fudge, peanut brittle and other confections as with wreaths, candles and ornamented trees. Nor am I the only parent who finds it easier to entice a child into the kitchen with the prospect of stirring up some candy rather than another doughy batch of cookies.
So I set myself a challenge to find confections that would satisfy some key holiday needs - something sweet to offer visitors during the coming days; a handful of treats tasty and attractive enough to present to teachers and friends; and, most fun of all, a few recipes with rewards sweet enough to keep parent and child together in the kitchen for a few hours.
Just as important, these treats had to be simple to make, requiring nothing fancier than a double-boiler setup. Experienced confectioners don't always need a candy thermometer to tell the difference between such crucial stages in the heating process as "soft ball" or "hard crack."
But for most of us, the difference between boiling hot and really boiling hot is probably best left to candy makers with either more experience or less fear of burns.
Those requirements narrow the candy field considerably. Yet when it comes to sugar and its endless ways of delighting the palate, even a narrow playing field is full of potential.
Need I add that when sugar and chocolate are involved, even less-than-successful experiments are seldom a total loss? Our attempt at chocolate-covered maraschino cherries produced concoctions so misshapen my 9-year-old was embarrassed to offer them to his buddies. Of course, we had to test more than a few of them ourselves before tiring of the gooey mess.
Likewise, our chocolate-strawberry balls with a cream-cheese base looked good and even passed initial taste tests. But they were outclassed by other chocolate-laden contenders: pungent rum balls, an easy peppermint-chocolate crunch and an attractive chocolate-peanut butter swirl.
Our first success was a creamy mint that offered a pleasant and painless initiation into candy land. All we had to do was mix cream cheese with confectioners' sugar, add flavoring and color, make balls and roll them in superfine sugar, then shape them however we liked. The reward was a delightful mint that proved all over again why commercial candies can never completely displace fresh, homemade treats.
Next we tackled the chocolate category. Tough work, but we soldiered on - and found some treats worth trying time and again. Our recommendations:
The rum balls are fast, easy and definitely worth the effort. Friends are already clamoring for more. So will kids, if you let them get close enough to catch the aroma.
Peppermint-chocolate crunch is another easy hit. Just melt the chocolate and press crushed peppermint on top. Refrigerate for a few minutes before shaping the crunch into pieces with small cutters or a knife or by breaking them into rough pieces. If the holiday season has already brought you an overdose of peppermint, you can try substituting butterscotch candy instead.
Peanut-butter-swirl squares offer an elegant way to express your budding candy artistry by swirling melted milk chocolate over a white chocolate-peanut butter mixture. As in all these recipes, top-notch ingredients can raise this simple concoction from an imitation of commercial peanut butter-chocolate candies to a gourmet treat as tasty as it is attractive.
Fortified with chocolate, you'll be ready for the next challenge: a light and lemony gumdrop that requires a fair amount of steady stirring, enough patience to wait three hours for the gelatin mixture to set up, and a child's affinity for sticky substances.
The trick in this treat is to believe the recipe when it suggests buttering anything that will come into contact with the gooey gelatin mess, including your fingers and culinary scissors as you cut and shape the stuff. Don't worry, the kids will love this part - as well as the thrill of offering homemade gumdrops to their friends.
We found we liked a bit more lemon flavor than the recipe called for, and boosted it with a half-teaspoon of lemon extract and the juice of an extra lemon. The result was more flavorful than the original recipe, but not overwhelmingly tart.