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The ABCs of Foolproof Fudge

by Sally Daverse

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.

The stated goal of recipe testing at Cook's Illustrated is to 'investigate the fundamental principles of cooking' so that readers can become better cooks. Indeed, the folks at Cook's Illustrated's testing division, America's Test Kitchens, believe that good cooking is based on objective technique -- the right way to sauté or the best way to cook a pot roast.

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!

Easy Fudge

  • 2 ounces unsweetened chocolate
  • 3-1/4 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips (about 16 ounces)
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
  • 1/8 teaspoon table salt
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped
  1. Cut two 12-inch lengths of foil, folding the cut edges so that each sheet of foil is 7-1/2 inches wide. Press into an 8-inch-square baking pan so that ends of foil hang over the sides. Spray the foil with nonstick cooking spray.
  2. Place the 2 ounces of unsweetened chocolate in a food processor or blender and process until finely chopped, almost powdery.
  3. Add the semisweet chocolate chips to the chopped unsweetened chocolate in a large bowl. Add the baking soda and toss until baking soda is evenly distributed. Set aside.
  4. Using a Dutch oven, combine the sweetened condensed milk and salt and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, until bubbles appear along edges of the pan. Continue cooking, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens beginning to look caramel colored, about 4 minutes.
  5. Remove pan from heat and add the chocolate mixture and vanilla extract. Using your wooden spoon, stir until the chocolate is completely melted and the mixture is smooth, about 5 minutes.
  6. Stir in the walnuts and continue to stir until the fudge is no longer shiny and resembles stiff cookie dough. Transfer fudge to the foil-lined pan and spread evenly using a spatula. Place a sheet of wax paper on top and press firmly to distribute the fudge evenly. Chill in refrigerator for at least one hour. Using the foil lining, carefully lift the fudge from the pan and cut into squares.
Kitchen tools you'll need
8-inch Baking Pan, Blender or Food Processor, Mixing Bowls, Dutch oven
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