Sunday, October 16, 2016

Vinegar Candy: Good For What Ails You

"Take this.  It's good for what ails you."  Whenever Nana (my mother's mother) said that, I knew that I was (to use another family expression) "either in for a treat or a treatment."  ("Treatment" meaning probably something horrible, and sometimes it really was.)

Nana also often used to tell me to eat something because "it will put hair on your chest."  As a little girl, I took Nana's statement seriously and believed her.  It was quite awhile before my mother figured out exactly why the list of things I did not want to eat anymore kept getting longer and longer.  The simple fact of the matter was that I did NOT want hair on my chest.  Now, of course, I understand that things like scrambled eggs and peanut butter sandwiches do not cause hairy chests.

Anyway, one of the "treats" for "what ails you" was Vinegar Candy.  When I had bronchitis or pneumonia (which happened a lot back then and still does today with annoying frequency), Nana made me Vinegar Candy.  It helped to soothe the throat she said, and the vinegar was good for my digestion so it would help carry the congestion away.  She wasn't wrong.  Nana learned from her mother Caroline who was very wise about such things--she grew herbs for Lydia Pinkham's Famous Female Remedy, after all.  And I've learned since from a proper herbalist that Nana and GreatGrandmother Caroline were right about Vinegar Candy (even if Nana did flub the information about hairy chests).

Vinegar Candy is definitely old-fashioned stuff.  It's really so good, so simple.  But it seems many have forgotten it, and that is truly a shame.

My recipe comes from Aunt Ess's own cookbook (I'd tell you the title of it but you'd likely never find a copy; it is rare as hen's teeth), and she learned the recipe from Nana.

Viva Vinegar Candy
1 cup sugar
1 cup vinegar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons butter
Boil until hard, when tried in water.  Then add butter and vanilla.  Do not stir.  Pour into shallow buttered pan.  When slightly cooled, pull with buttered hands and twist into ropes.  Cut into pieces.  Makes 1/2 pound.

Now, of course, I have a couple of minor things to add to this venerable recipe.

First, be sure to use cider vinegar; not white.  As far as I'm concerned, white is for cleaning and not for cooking but never mind that--the apple cider kind tastes great.  A really good vinegar like Bragg's is best but you can get by with the grocery store brand (that's what I have to do sometimes, too).

Next, add a few grains of salt (maybe a quarter of a teaspoon or even less) to the vinegar and sugar when you start cooking.  Salt just helps things out, always.

By the way, the scent of the cooking vinegar is apt to take your breath away, quite literally, so stand back a step as you stir.

Then, be prepared to spend rather a long time waiting.  Vinegar candy takes time to reach the hard stage but you won't need to watch the pot every moment.  When I made candy yesterday, I put the pot on medium low, stirred until the sugar dissolved, and then pretty much ignored the stuff while I emptied the dishwasher, filled the dishwasher, tidied the kitchen, played a game of Mensch Argere Dich Nicht by myself at the dining table, held a conversation with the cat, and generally waited around--or, in other words, nearly 45 minutes.  I stirred the pot every five minutes or so.  What you're looking for is for the spoon to leave a clear trail across the bottom of the pot when you stir.  Once that happens, you cannot ignore the pot any longer and you need to start testing.

And I'm assuming that you know how to test?  Keep a small bowl of cold water next to the stove.  Drizzle a couple of drops of the candy into the water.  It should harden right away.  If it dissolves, it's not ready; replace the water and keep cooking.  Use your fingers to feel the candy in the water to see if it turns into a fairly hard ball--don't worry; the few drops will cool right away.

Please be aware that hot sugar candy can cause serious burns.  Be careful!  When you add that vanilla and butter, it can spit back and hiss, so use caution.

Buttering the pan quite well is necessary to keep the candy from sticking.  Buttering your hands well is also necessary if you plan to "pull" the candy. 

Pulling makes a lovely difference to the candy and turns it a beautiful shiny golden color.  However, I would suggest not trying to pull the candy unless you have at least one helper.  When I made candy yesterday, I decided to see how difficult it would be for just one person to pull.  It is possible for one person to pull BUT it is simply Not possible to pull fast enough alone because the candy hardens quickly as it cools and, once hardened, is difficult to cut.  (Don't even ask me about the large chunk that shot off the cutting board, flew across the room, and landed on the carpet under the middle of the dining room table.)

Instead of pulling, pour the hot candy out onto a buttered cookie sheet.  Once it has cooled, simply break it into pieces.  If necessary, put waxed paper on top and bash it up with a hammer.  This is the way I normally make the candy, and it turns out just fine.  (I plan to hammer-bash the big chunks I ended up with yesterday--they're huge.) 

Should I put a picture of the unattractive mess I made when I experimented with pulling?  Well, okay.  It is a very bad picture and the candy looks unpleasant.  Apologies.  (Tastes really excellent, though.)  You can tell the difference in color with the pieces that I began to pull.  If you have a group of people to work with, the pulled version of the candy can be very pretty.  As it is, the dark brown unpulled stuff is still really excellent.

Vinegar Candy.  One of my very best favorite things.
Life is good.

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