Maple Taffy: The Pioneer Treat

February 3, 2010 § 4 Comments

If you read the Little House in the Big Woods, the great epic of a pioneer childhood in Wisconsin, you might remember the girls making snow taffy, once with sugar, and once with maple syrup. (I gave a copy of this book to my four-year-old daughter for Christmas, and we discovered that their woodland life bore amazing similarity to our 21st century lifestyle on a farm just a little south of where the story is set.)

Not surprisingly, Josie wanted to make maple taffy – or sugar-on-snow, as it is also called, and because I am fearless like that, I, having never done this before, jumped right at it and… the magic was born! Of course, I was aided by the fact that my in-laws collect the maple sap and boil syrup every year, and, every once in a while, a jar or two wind up at my house. It’s the regional specialty, you know.

The great thing about maple taffy is that there’s no pulling or other nuisance effort involved – just boil it to the soft ball stage (or a bit past that), pour in thin strips onto the fresh snow, and watch it turn to candy before your eyes. It’s so little work, it’s like it’s been invented especially for me. We’ve been making it for months now, and so can you!

Here’s what to do:

(You guys are lucky. I used to charge money for that sort of cooking demonstration).

I just happened to have a heart-shaped Le Creuset casserole sitting around. I have a tiny matching heart-shaped dutch oven too. Don't ask.

Fill a deeper (1 1/2 to 2″ deep) casserole dish with fresh snow (or finely crushed ice, if that’s all you got). Now, you can’t be worrying about whether the snow is pure enough for human consumption – becoming preoccupied with that sort of thing spells death to many a creative cooking idea. Go ahead, live dangerously! Just makes sure it is reasonably clean. Or, as my honey would put it, “Just make sure it’s not yellow.” I love my funny honey.

Keep it outside until ready to use. Porch swings badly in need of painting are especially good for that.

Don't you just love the amber shadows on the counter?

Next, you gonna need some real maple syrup. No artificial stuff, please. I cannot provide any guarantees with the imitation kind.

Note how there’s two kinds of syrup here – this is not because we are going to use both kinds, but just to show you the difference. You can use any kind you have, but the darker stuff is bound to be more deeply flavored, and, as such, I find it more suitable to this end. Save the lighter stuff for your pancakes.

You are also going to need a small heavy-bottomed sauce pan, a bowl filled with cold water, and a glass Pyrex cup…

…along with some heavy cream, half-and-half, or milk. You will soon see why.

Now pour the syrup into the pan – about 1 C.

About this much.

Now set it on the stove over medium heat.

Don’t even dream of walking away. It will start boiling within seconds.

You may want to turn the heat to medium-low or low, if this is making your nervous. Either way, the syrup will boil violently, produce lots of foam, and try to spill out of the pan and go to town. This will happen very, very soon, so be ready with your…

…Cream! Add a few drops of cream to the syrup in the pan at this time, and watch the magic happen…

The drops of cold fat will break the surface tension, taming the syrup back down to a gentle boil. Well, maybe not that gentle. But, the point is, it’s not going to no town anymore.

Very soon (within a minute, really) you gonna wanna start testing the temperature. You may use a candy thermometer if you wish, but a thermometer has nothing on your watchful eye. As I said above, the idea is to cook it to a soft-ball stage or just a tad hotter, depending on how thin/thick/soft/firm you like your candy. However, if you try to cook it to the 234 degrees, which is known as the “soft-ball” temperature, you’ll find that the candy is on a much softer side, and frankly I prefer it a bit firmer. So I highly recommend to just stick to the cold water test. The cold water simply allows you to chill your syrup rapidly to show you what the texture will be like when it cools. Now this cold water test is a useful skill to learn – you can use it for making your own dipping caramel, maple butter, maple flan, and so forth.

The theory behind boiling something to a soft ball stage (234 degrees on a candy thermometer) means that, when you drip your syrup into a bowl of cold water, you’ll be able to gather it together into a soft ball with your finger in the water.  The resulting ball of syrup will be soft, NOT firm. If you keep boiling it for just a tad longer (I’m talking seconds here, really), and then do the test again, you will find that the drops of syrup will fall into the water and form into balls all on their own. Personally, I prefer to boil my syrup to this point, when it comes to maple taffy.

Here’s what it is going to look like:

If your syrup looks like this when dripped into the bowl of cold water, it is way too soft, because…

…when you try to gather it into a ball, this happens. The unwieldy little drops run away from your finger.

If it looks like this, and you like your candy on a softer side (of course you won’t know until you try it both ways)…

…it means you have arrived! Because if you try to form it into a ball at this point, it will work. But your ball will still be very, very soft, almost ethereal. This is exactly the 234 degrees. If you choose to do this, the following will happen, when the syrup is poured over the snow:

The syrup is gonna want to spread into a wide strip, sink deep into the snow, and produce a thinner, softer candy.

There’s nothing wrong with it being softer, and here’s what it would look like – your candy will just be thinner and wider.

However, I prefer mine to have a bit more definition. That’s why I boil my syrup until it looks like this (this happens only seconds later, so test yours every few seconds):

See how firm the syrup drops are? I didn’t do anything with them, they just took the shape of tiny balls on their own – this is especially obvious with the two on the left. Now that’s how I like it.

At this point, remove your syrup from heat and pour immediately into the Pyrex cup. I prefer to do this instead of pouring directly from the pan in order to better control the thinness of the stream. I am controlling like that.

What I like to get is this – thicker, darker, more defined, somewhat firmer taffy strips.

Here's some Baltic amber I picked up on my recent stop in Riga...

You can compare the two kinds here – the softer candy is at the top, and the firmer one is at the bottom. It’s really up to you to decide which way you like it better, so try it both ways.

Josie’s holding it (the firmer kind) up for me. Too bad I didn’t think of having her do this in the sunlight. I bet that would have looked so much nicer.

When the candy is done, it will be sort of firm and even somewhat brittle, so you can crack it into a couple of pieces, but it has a quality of warming up rapidly and softening in your hands and in your mouth. That’s why I want you to know these two rules about eating maple taffy:

1)This is not meant to be stored, this is meant to be eaten right away, so don’t make a lot. If it is meant to be stored, I don’t know how – because it warms up and gets sticky really fast if you try to transfer it onto a plate. That’s why I recommend to keep it in the snow until ready to eat. The candy will be gone much faster than the time it will take for the snow to melt.

(Good thing we don’t have to bathe in the melted snow anymore, because a large pile of snow doesn’t yield very much water. I’ve tried that before.)

2)Don’t chew it with your teeth – just suck it (on the account of it wanting to stick to your teeth). I would hate for this negative experience to turn you off of trying maple taffy ever again.

This is what your children’s hands will look like when they are done. You better not have any problem with it. Getting sticky and dirty is a necessary component of a happy, balanced childhood. You’ve got running water to clean this up, right? Or you can always heat up that melted snow.

About cleaning the pan and the Pyrex cup: Just soak them in hot water for a few minutes to melt all the sugar, and rinse them out.


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