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Peanut brittle is my favorite candy to make.

I know, it’s not chocolate, and it may not be considered a connoisseur’s delight, but good peanut brittle is a joy to eat.  It is also very fun to make.  Anyone can make it, but to make it well requires a mastery of a variety of candy making skills.  It can separate the men from the boys. 

I learned to make peanut brittle at Disneyland (my first candy making job).  The small show kitchen was the perfect environment for perfecting the necessary skills and I was taught by the best.

Sugar, corn syrup and water (this mixture is called a “bob”) is cooked in a copper kettle over an open flame.  Butter and peanuts are added in order at specified temperatures.  When the final temperature is reached, the batch is poured onto a buttered, floured, pre-warmed slab.  The hot, thick mixture is carefully spread with a palette knife (they used to be made of carbon steel and would flex easily while still providing even pressure along the entire length of the knife - nowadays they are made of stainless steel (too stiff, resulting in too much pressure at the tip (so now they offset the handle so you don’t have to flex the blade))) (I like the old pallet knives better).  The batch must be spread properly (or the final results will merely mediocre):  one nut thick, peanuts right to the edge and evenly spaced (easier said than done). 

Now the fun begins.  At this point the batch is a soft, leathery consistency.  It is broken loose from the slab and flipped over with a dramatic, crowd pleasing flourish.  Now the white gloved hands spread out the warm brittle until it fills the slab.  If done right there will be no holes and no thick spots and from end to end will be glorious, golden peanut brittle that bites easily with a pleasing crisp snap and is saturated with buttery roasted peanut flavor.

I know it's not chocolate, but peanut brittle is my favorite candy to make.  

Sugar used to come in 100 pound bags.  No ergonomic design in those days.  Desiccated (dried) coconut came in 100 lb bags also (huge).  Now everything comes in 50 or 25 lb bags.  The Disneyland candy kitchen had all of its raw material storage downstairs.  Access was by an old fashioned freight elevator or a wrought iron spiral staircase.  You know, the real skinny kind designed to save space.  We were too manly to use the elevator, so, we used to carry 100 lb sacks of sugar on our shoulders up a narrow spiral staircase back behind a candy case and through a narrow (2ft) doorway.  I have the sore joints to prove it.

I remember the time one of the cooks had just weighed up a batch of candy (divinity, I think).  We used to weigh every each ingredient by placing the copper kettle onto a balance beam scale (if you don’t know what that is, ask your Mom).  Corn syrup was pulled out of a five gallon pail by wetting the hands and working the dense syrup into a ball and throwing it into the kettle.  (A good candy maker could pull over five pounds at a time.)  Sugar was scooped on top of the corn syrup and other ingredients were usually added later.  So this guy carefully weighed out his ingredients and set the kettle on the fire ring.  You have to get the picture to appreciate this.  A big plate glass window; hundreds of wide eyed tourists on one side and a quaint, serene little candy kitchen on the other.  In the kitchen sits a big, round bottomed copper kettle sitting on a low stove filled with ingredients topped with a mountain of sugar.  The tourists crowd the window as the candy maker pours a pitcher of water over the sugar and as the mountain melts away, three big cockroaches scurry out of the sugar, fleeing for safety.

You can imagine the rest of the scene.

I’ve got to get back to work now.  By the way, we don’t have any cockroaches in Vermont:  too cold.


Did I tell you we had a red and white tile floor?

Cooking candy produces very memorable aromas.  The human nose cannot smell sweet but the smells that arise out of a cooking batch of candy are delightful.  Each type of candy is distinct.  When sugar, corn syrup and water are boiled together the mass is referred to as a “bob”.  Candies such as peanut brittle, nougat, marshmallow, all start out this way.  A cooking bob has a clean, moist, crisp sort of aroma.  Fudge smells richer and a little like cooking pudding because of the interaction of the sugar with milk, cream, butter, vanilla, chocolate, (a little salt thrown in)walnuts (or pecans)(mmm… pecans with caramel)(we used to drizzle hot caramel scraped fresh from the kettle at the end of a run onto a small (not too small) tray of pecans and eat it all as soon as it was cool enough to touch – now that’s good)(Rats, I just went looking and we don’t have a single pecan caramel cluster in the factory.  I just got to have a pecan caramel cluster)(Wait a minute, we just ran some dark almond caramel clusters.  False alarm – they got sent to the warehouse this morning) (Ok.  I’m good now the enrobing crew ran some 5 star caramel bars this morning; I’m eating one of the seconds)

The first time I had the chance to cook solo, was with Pecan fudge which was to be used in pecan rolls. (the fudge is poured into sheet pans and cut into rectangular shaped bars, dipped in caramel and rolled in pecans)(mmm… pecans with caramel)

The head candy maker, Lee, was out for the day and he had left me to cook alone for the first time.  I had been working with him for about two months and he felt I was ready.  I awoke that morning with stomach flu, but, undaunted, I came to work ready to make fudge.  All was well until I began to cook the first batch.  I soon noticed that the smell and the heat combined to push my nausea over the controllable threshold so I turned off the fire in the middle of the cook and went outside for some air.  In spite of the fact that this scenario was repeated multiple times for each batch, everything seemed to go smoothly enough and I ended the day with a slab full of beautiful pecan fudge. 

The next morning, as soon as Lee stepped into the kitchen, He exclaimed “What happened?!”  (I’m thinking “How does he know?”)  I described my previous day’s dilemma and he explained how the prolonged cooking time darkened the batches more than usual.  However, the candy was saved, and I still enjoy the smell of cooking fudge.  Even pecan fudge (dipped in caramel and rolled in pecans) mmm…Pecans with caramel…

My first candy making job was at Disneyland.  Making Candy At Disneyland And Getting Paid For It!!!  Yeah.  It was as fun as it sounds.   No production pressure, just a show kitchen.  This was a small room (maybe 15 by15) with red and white tile floor.  Plate glass windows completely covered two of the walls.  We were always on stage. 

Entering the kitchen through a narrow door behind one of the candy counters one would immediately step down onto a red and white tile floor.  The space was dominated by a heavy steel slab (front and center).  To the left was a small fire ring.  A fire ring is a natural gas stove with an open burner and a cast iron ring on which a round bottomed kettle is placed.  Early candy factories often used coke or steam heat.  The term “fire” set apart the natural gas stoves which are now ubiquitous.  A fire mixer includes a mechanical means of lowering a heavy copper bladed scraper into the kettle.  Ours was a big crank and chain system in keeping with Disneyland’s turn of the century theme.  Traditional round bottomed copper kettles, a big wooden counter, and antique candy making tools hanging overhead completed the warm, old fashioned feel of this sweet place…

In this quaint environment I learned to make caramel, fudge, peanut brittle, candy apples, divinity (remember divinity?), English toffee, chocolate dipped strawberries, sugar coated jellies, turtles, pecan rolls, candy canes, lemon drops etc...  I told you it was fun.

I turned 51 last month.  I’ve been making chocolates since I was 21. Some would think me just an old candy maker who never got out off the factory floor.  True.  But the way I see it, after 30 years in this business I still get to work in an environment that most people only dream about.  Did you ever take the lid off of a vat full of dark chocolate (2000lb!) and inhale deeply?  It can make you weak in the knees.

So, when Leann asked me if I would enter something in the chocolate blog, I decided to share a little about what it’s like to work in a candy kitchen/chocolate factory.   I’ll start at the beginning and meander through some of my experiences.  If it gets to boring, turn off the computer and go get some exercise or do what I do:  Eat some chocolate.  Or take the lid off a chocolate melter and inhale…