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The List: Scrupulous accounting of candy recipients

Saturday, December 23rd, 2006

The first year I made candy and shared some at a party in 1995, I had no idea the impact they would have on both myself and the partygoers. People were amazed that mere mortals could make dark chocolate dipped truffles. As the following year quickly passed and the holidays approached, I decided I would harness the power of candymaking in small gift packages for a dozen friends and family members.

Behold the creation of “The List” where there was none before. And the list was good.

Candy is a lot like love; the more candy you give, the more love you get in return. Naturally, within a few years I quickly ramped up from the initial list of one dozen recipients to more than thirty. Every year the volume of candy in each package has continued to grow, but it has recently reached an amount I think would make just about anyone happy. For every action there is supposed to be an equal an opposite reaction; with so much more candy, the size of the list crept upwards.

Setting boundaries
Finally, several years ago, to protect my own sanity, I swore the list would not exceed forty recipients. As new people come and go from our lives—usually not at equal rates—we typically have to make some very difficult decisions each year. It is never fun to go to a party months after the holiday season and have one recipient loudly applaud the last batch of candies in front of a former recipient—awkward! I do tell people that if they return the gift basket or tin , their spot on the list is guaranteed for another year*. I’ve even had one regular recipient unload more than a dozen random metal tins they had collected over the year.

*Offer excludes paper/disposable packaging. Not eligible in some states. Void where prohibited.

Ejection from the list
Several years ago one recipient moved and failed to notify us of both the change in his living situation and his new address. That February we received a very distressed looking package with “return to sender, no forwarding address” stamped on it. That’s it! He was banished from the list, making room for another.

Forecasting future demand
Filling more than forty tins takes time.This year, the list reached forty five recipients, four of which were sold to three lucky coworkers who heard about the option to purchase well in advance. “Oh, you can buy them?” other coworkers asked, clearly surprised. It’s evident I could sell more than twenty next year without even trying. With the addition of a slight, well deserved price increase I might even be able to offset some of the costs beyond the candies that are sold. Nevertheless, increasing the volume of candies is not without an added investment of my time, a cost I currently omit from pricing of packages. I may just need a second list to manage the individuals that are eligible to purchase.

2006 Holiday Candy Roundup

Tuesday, December 19th, 2006

What a week! I took three days off last week to give myself time make candies and ended up working straight through Sunday night. The past five days were still busy, but much less frantic with the extra time off. Tonight my wife and I—loosely include myself here—finished packaging all the candies into 45 decorative wrapped packages. I haven’t had any time to blog about candies until now. I’ll be going into more detail on some of the candies in the coming weeks, but for now here is a quick overview of the candies I made this holiday season:

English Toffee
This is an all time favorite of my regular candy recipients. This year I discovered that if you melt the butter too quickly and it separates, it won’t come back together again. The next three batches I was more careful as I melted the butter and they turned out great. I bought a new clip-on digital thermometer that I set on the pot while I still used my favorite alcohol based thermometer. Beyond 100° C, the digital thermometer accuracy was horrible, off by as much as 10° C. This is totally unacceptable. The probe was positioned about 1/4 inch above the bottom of the pan. Perhaps it needs to be immersed more than an inch?

Gianduja Truffles
I’ve been making these for several years now. This year I opted to try the melon ball technique for getting the centers going. They still required a chill and subsequent hand rolling to get nice and round, but much easier than the pastry piping bag and you don’t have to monitor the viscosity as the ganache cools. I made the truffles extra big this year. A bigger mouthful and fewer truffles to dip—who could argue with this logic?.

Mocha Truffles
Like the gianduja truffles, I also opted to skip piping centers with a pastry bag this year. In fact, it was so late when I finished rolling the gianduja centers in cocoa powder that I just left the mocha ganache in the refrigerator overnight. In the morning, it was too firm to smoothly scoop out, so I left it under the halogen lamps of our stove hood until it warmed up to mid 60s.

Pecan Caramels
This was a new addition to the assortment of candies this year. This first batch came out a little more firm than I wanted for dipping—but perfect for wrapping—so I made it again and added some maple syrup.

Pecan Maple Caramels
This was my second batch of these caramels. Before it was done cooking I decided to add 1/4 cup of maple syrup. For the last 2 years I have tried to make maple pecan caramels with no luck. It would always crystallize by the following day. This recipe uses some corn syrup instead of just relying on brown sugar and maple syrup for the sugar source. The touch of maple syrup makes these caramels simply delicious. I’ll be adding this recipe shortly.

Espresso Caramels
I first made these last year. A variation of the classic cream caramel recipe, I increased the coffee flavoring this year, which was too subtle last year. The coffee flavor politely introduces itself before intensifying and fading to reveal the classic cream caramel flavor.

Classic Cream Caramels
I usually make another batch for dipping, but just went for wrapping this year since I made the extra batch of pecan caramels.

 

Food Processor Smackdown: David vs. Goliath

Monday, December 11th, 2006

As many of you may know, I am getting ready to make candies this week. Making some 50 plus pounds of candy takes thoughtful planning. Items such as packaging, wax paper, cellophane, ribbon, chocolate, sugar, corn syrup, almonds and other less perishable goods can be purchased several weeks or more in advance. I time my candymaking marathon carefully to allow any candies that I will be shipping to reach their recipients by Christmas. Therefore, I should start making candies around December 13th and finish no later than one week before Christmas.

All of my non-perishable supplies are on hand by the end of November, which leaves a rather quiet first week and a half of December to do other holiday activities like decorating, shopping and celebrating my birthday. As the candymaking window looms closer, I do one of the few ingredient-related processing tasks that can be done in advance—the chopping of nine to ten pounds of roasted, unsalted almonds for the English Toffee. Yes, you can buy chopped almonds, but I don’t think they smell or taste the same. If you still buy your coffee beans pre-ground in a can, then you should buy your chopped almonds at the store; you won’t notice the difference.

For ten years I have been using a mini food processor to do the almond chopping, mainly because that is all we had and it worked. When my wife and I were engaged, we registered for a Cuisinart food processor. Every cooking show seems to showcase one as much as a KitchenAid, so we should have one, too, right? Ten years later and we almost never use it—maybe once a year, I would guess. My wife would ask me why I used the little food processor when chopping almonds and I would mumble some theory I had regarding the smaller machine.

Testing the hypothesis
My theory has always been that the larger food processor will produce more almond flour—dust essentially. I first started sifting my chopped almonds with a sieve after my third or fourth batch of English Toffee. I had some scorching and smoking on one batch and attributed it to the fine almond flour from the chopped almonds. The finished toffee, dipped in chocolate and rolled in almonds, also had a nicer appearance since there were fewer crumbs adhering to the chocolate. Sifting takes time (I don’t have a machine that does this—yet!) and the less I have to do the better.


An entire pound of almonds easily fits in the larger food processor.


The mini food processor required six grinding runs for one pound of almonds.


Sift the chopped almonds to remove the almond flour.


3 1/4 ounces of flour resulted from using larger food processor for one pound of almonds.


2 3/4 ounces of flour resulted from using mini food processor for one pound of almonds.


Almonds chopped in mini food processor (right) yielded more consistently sized bits than the standard sized food processor.

Conclusion: Goliath food processor yielded less chopped almonds by mass.
The almond pieces’ size range as produced by the larger food processor was not to my liking, though some may want more varied sizes for their toffee. I would have preferred to continue pulsing the processor to reduce the larger pieces further, which would have resulted in still more of the unwanted almond flour. The larger capacity machine was faster at chopping one pound, however, though some of the time saved would probably be lost to added sifting. The bottom line is that if you don’t have a mini food processor, you don’t really need to run out and buy one. I finished off the remaining 7 pounds of almonds with the mini processor. I’m just picky about the consistency and want to keep sifting to a minimum.

Measuring the cost of candymaking

Wednesday, December 6th, 2006

If you can afford the time, candymaking isn’t terribly expensive. You can actually get by just fine without a copper pot or a chocolate tempering machine. At a minimum you will need a good thermometer or two, but that should only set you back $10 to $30. Look for a recipe of candy you like to eat. Once you find a recipe that intrigues you, start off with a small batch for your first attempt. You will soon find yourself increasing production when you see how much people appreciate the effort and great taste experience.

Economies of scale in candymaking
It generally does not take twice as long to make twice as much candy. It does, however, take twice as long to elegantly wrap twice as many packages. Shipping costs also do not scale well, though I prefer not to ship to anyone within an hour’s drive. Although delivering candies also takes up valuable time, it is a good excuse to see friends with whom we may not have seen since the last delivery. Somehow, people are rarely busy when it is their turn to receive candy!

I bake throughout the year, but usually save candymaking—toffee, truffles and caramels—until the holidays. I typically will spend just over $500 on ingredients, packaging and shipping during my annual holiday candymaking run. This candymaking marathon will yield approximately 40 – 45 gift packages, depending on how judiciously I choose to ration the candy. At roughly $14 a package, it’s a bargain of a gift. When I think about this, I sometimes feel guilty about the apparent frugality.

Are gifts a commodity?
Somehow, in this materialistic, marketing driven holiday craze that now seems to begin immediately following Halloween, my conscience is rife with messages encouraging me to spend excessively for each person on my list; that the candies are somehow insufficient, even when paired with other thoughtful gifts. But then I stop to ponder the time and effort that actually goes into making the candies. The 40-plus hours of chopping, melting, stirring, dipping, more stirring and still more dipping late into numerous evenings—while I work full time as a web developer during the day—makes me realize that my gift of candy is a very generous one, indeed.

I have to admit that last year I scheduled a couple days off from work before the holidays—just to maintain my health and sanity while making candies. I’m planning on taking a couple days off this year, too. It’s only my time, after all.

Why you should make your own candy

Sunday, December 3rd, 2006

People love candy! It doesn’t matter what age they are, people love to eat rich chocolate sweets. Apart from the gratification of making something from scratch, making your own candies allows you to control the ingredients. No complex chemical names to be pronounced when recanting ingredients to tasters, but do spare your audience the truth about just how much fat and calories they contain. I once made the mistake of describing both caramel and toffee as a “critical mass”. As much as they loved the candy, nobody wanted to hear this. Nevertheless, they are the hydrogen bomb of candies; you just can’t pack that much sugar and fat together as densely any other way. Ergo, delicious, no?

Making candy yourself gives also you the power to choose and alter the recipe. If you like milk chocolate more than dark, change the recipe to suit your taste. Do you want to use only organic ingredients? Go right ahead. Finally, home-made candies bring another factor that many people don’t always know how to appreciate: freshness. Have you or your friends had a truffle that was only a day old? Less than a week old? Freshness—combined with quality ingredients—yield a taste experience that few people are accustomed to.

There is a mystique surrounding candymaking.
People assume candy is very difficult to make—the truth is that only some candy is hard to make. Granted, for some people, baking cookies from store-bought dough is a feat, but making the candies you will find on this site is not very difficult. Most people simply have not even tried to make their own candies. Home-made candies make for good eating and great gifts.

I have been giving candy as gifts since 1996 and I am still amazed at how praise will continue to roll in months and even years after people have received my candies. For the gift goes well beyond the pool of intended recipients, who then proceed to share the candy with their close friends and family. Then, when I finally meet these people for the first time, they experience a flavor flashback and extol the enjoyment the candies provided them. It’s like they had a kidney transplant and just found out I was the donor.

I have heard stories from people that don’t give any of the candy to their children. One parent rationalized, “My kids don’t appreciate candy like this—they think all candy is good. I’ll share when they are old enough to know.” I typically prefer to deliver my candies in person, usually during a holiday gathering. Some of my regular recipients have recently adopted a far less deceptive strategy when receiving their candy.

Seasoned recipients know best.
Although everyone present at the gathering receives one of my candy packages, each recipient will graciously accept theirs and quickly place it to the side. They learned in years previous that upon tearing open the packaging to sample—or even only to witness—the candy inside, proper etiquette would obligate them to offer samples to others in the room. What a noob! Seasoned recipients thus truly appreciate the ornate cellophane packaging that cannot easily be opened with the bare hands, as it offers another excuse to save them for later. Once the others depart they can retire alone to a locked bedroom and indulge upon their prize.