There was a shameful period in my life when I preferred those rainbow-colored candy canes that taste of nothing so much as crystallized cherry cough syrup over the elegantly striped, red and white peppermint variety. Thankfully, I emerged from that vile transgression unscathed. I am now committed to the cause of peppermint, and happily shun the garish siblings twirled in greens, blues, and lavenders. At the end of the year when snow is glittering on pine needles, the flavor my brain calls out for is reflective of that sentimental weather: cool, crisp, fresh, and bright. Peppermint candy canes have stolen my heart.
And, as with anything that wheedles its way into my life, I desire to unlock its secrets. I have long admired candy canes but never once bothered to attempt their fabrication. Until now.
Candy canes have competing histories. We have evidence of a choirmaster providing his young charges with candy sticks bent like shepherd’s staffs in order to keep them quiet during mass in 1670. And then we have the tale of candy canes being introduced to America in 1847 by a German-Swedish immigrant who thought to decorate his tree with the curved sweets. Whatever you choose to believe, the popularity of these peppermint treats can be traced back to a Catholic priest in the 1950’s named Gregory Keller who invented a machine that could automatically make candy canes. Automation is the key to success in this country, and today over 1.7 billion candy canes are sold each year.
Of course, even though there are machines designed for the express purpose of twisting white and red sugar together in the perfect ratio, it is still worthwhile to attempt making these sweets by hand. A little science and a lot of patience will see you through to the end.
Candy canes are made from invert syrup, which is a mixture of glucose and fructose. Glucose and fructose are, you might already know, the individual components of sucrose (which is what we would call white sugar). When we separate sucrose into its constituent components it gains the ability to better retain moisture and is less prone to crystallization, both qualities that are essential in the art of candy-making.
Making invert syrup from ingredients you have on hand is incredibly easy, far more simple than you might think separating sucrose into monosaccharides could be. The very act of heating white sugar with water and corn syrup will induce the reaction. But, because we are good scientists, we now know that acids will help accelerate the process. As such, when making invert sugar we regularly add lemon juice, vinegar, or cream of tartar in order to speed things up a bit.
Heat the sugar/water/corn syrup/cream of tartar mixture to 290 degrees fahrenheit without stirring. If you stir, you will help sugar crystals slam up against each other. Eventually they will lock together and the entire pan of syrup will crystallize. When you’ve reached the appropriate temperature, add a few drops of peppermint oil into the liquid and gently stir. Remove the syrup from the heat and pour half of it onto a silicone baking sheet. Return the remaining liquid to the heat and stir in some red food coloring. Put the sauce pan in an oven dialed to its lowest heat setting and allow the red syrup to remain warm while you work with the clear syrup.
Caution: this will be hot. You see now, as the sugar is poured onto the mat, that it is clear or lightly amber colored. How will we turn it the bright white that is necessary in any candy cane? Simple science, again, will aid us. We need not add white food coloring, once the candy is cool enough to handle lightly we will stretch it and fold it into itself over and over. The repeated process of stretching and pulling sugar is called satinizing. Slowly, but surely, you are incorporating tiny air bubbles into the sugar syrup. These bubbles obscure light and transform something that was dense, airless, and translucent, into the white, shiny, opaque candy we know and love.
Repeat the process with the red sugar, except you won’t need to knead it as much. It’s already got great color from the red coloring, and if you pull it too long it will become pink. Once the red is complete, all you have to do is roll the two colors together into one long strand, cut it into appropriate lengths, then twist to achieve the barber-shop spiral and curve the top. Candy on demand!