The ABCs of Foolproof Fudge
Where in your home can you experience adventure and learn new skills? What can be your studio for creating and your laboratory for learning? Your kitchen, that's where. Your kitchen is a unique workshop for creating something uniquely yours.
Every great cook starts somewhere, and mastery arrives to those who are willing to try new recipes and make some mistakes. See what happens when you treat your kitchen as a playground by cooking with new ingredients and techniques. Cookbooks and magazines are filled with ideas of how to cook foods and combine flavors. Each dish you create carries you a little further down the road to understanding how ingredients interact when subjected to the forces the cook creates in the kitchen.
Recently, I volunteered to be a recipe tester for Cook's Illustrated, a great source for precise instructions and some of the best recipes for classic dishes. The opportunity to be an early user of the magazine's recipes appealed to me, as well as the chance to perhaps work with foods that are not familiar.
Without recipe testing, critical steps that are obvious to the recipe author may be forgotten, driving subsequent cooks into the culinary ditch. Good testing requires the recipe writer to think clearly about each step and every tool required to prepare a dependable recipe. A trusted recipe source gives you clear instructions that produce reliable results, even the first time.
Armed with a zeal for accurate instructions and for trying new foods, I eagerly anticipated testing recipes for America's Test Kitchens. With excitement I opened the email from Cook's Illustrated and discovered that I would be testing Foolproof Fudge. My reaction was "Oh, fudge!", and I meant it in both senses of the word - the candy and the oath.
The Oxford Companion to Food describes fudge as a confection of milk, sugar and butter boiled to the soft ball stage and then beaten until it acquires a smooth, creamy consistency. The Companion also suggests that fudge is a favorite for home sweet-makers as it is simple and easily flavored.
What is chocolate fudge?Not only is fudge a favorite of the home confectioner, it is a staple sold by merchants in tourist locales. My dad envisioned spending his retirement like this: he would offer samples of fudge on the street of a picturesque tourist town in New Mexico or Colorado, while my mother would be back in the candy kitchen whipping up the flavor du jour. Clearly, my dad did not recall my mom's bleak attempts at fudge-making. She would end up with grainy looking clumps of seized-up chocolate that were inedible. This is my fudge legacy; to my mother's credit, her gumbo-making legacy is notable.
Creating sweets is fundamentally different from creating savory dishes. The science is more precise and the tolerance for errors is narrow. Sugar and chocolate are not as forgiving as onions, olive oil and tomatoes.
Chocolate is very sensitive to rapid temperature changes, and can mutate from smooth and creamy to grainy and chunky -- a change called "seizing." Seized chocolate has broken down to its basic elements of cocoa, sugar and fat, rendering it unusable for candy. However, seized chocolate is good for my favorite default use of failed sugar recipes: Apply your mistake directly to vanilla ice cream.
Given the sensitivity of chocolate, I do not cook with it much. And like many cooks, when I'm in the kitchen, I'm usually working on a deadline: preparing dinner for my family or a client. Spending time making sweets can leave a family protein-starved. Who really wants fudge for dinner? Finally, in the best case of all going well, I have to tolerate 2-1/2 pounds of fudge in my home.
Now that I've created a fudge mountain out of a recipe molehill, how did my test go?
The ingredients were simple: semisweet chocolate chips, unsweetened chocolate, baking soda and sweetened condensed milk, salt, vanilla extract and walnuts. The 2 ounces of unsweetened chocolate I zipped through my small food processor as a shortcut to its status of "finely chopped," and combined it with the chocolate chips and baking soda.
I followed the instructions as precisely as I was able, heating the condensed milk with a dash of salt on the stove, but removing it before it turned golden because its consistency was beginning to look foamy and it was becoming clumpy. Here, I suspected, was where my mother's fudge had gone wrong.
After removing the milk from the heat, I began stirring in the chocolates. I was concerned that I would have problems stirring the melting chocolate so that it didn't seize. However, since the pan was not over the heat, there was no sudden temperature change and the melt went smoothly. I was beginning to think that maybe I could do this.
I continued stirring for four or five minutes and added the walnuts, which offer the perfect relief to the rich, sweet creaminess of the fudge. I stirred some more, hoping that the thickening of the fudge was a good sign.
Finally, the fudge reached the consistency recommended in the recipe, that of stiff cookie dough. After pressing the fudge into a pan and cooling it for several hours in the refrigerator, I reached the verdict: This really was a foolproof fudge recipe. I would not hesitate to recommend it to the novice cook or to an experienced confectioner.
What did I learn about The Recipe? I confirmed that accurate instructions are fundamental to sharing "foolproof" recipes. Again, I exhort cooks and non-cooks alike to get into the kitchen and play. Make friends with new ingredients. As I gained confidence in my chocolate-cooking ability, you may discover your culinary specialty!
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