Note: Yes, I’m a bit of an absentee blogger at the moment. Work is particularly crazy, I’m preparing for three separate and unrelated concerts in two weeks’ time, and I’m too tired to feel like eating, let alone cooking anything exciting. Except confectionery. And my sugar thermometer is broken…
So I think you are going to be living in the land of book reviews for a bit. Which is not so bad, because I have a whole list of books I’ve been meaning to review for you for ages… But I’m going to start with the brand new confectionery one, because broken sugar thermometer or no, this is a pretty awesome book.
I had plans for this week. I was going to get everyone’s RGMS CVs up to date (urgh), attend the Wednesday Seminar being given by one of my favourite postdocs, and take today as an RDO to finally get those potatoes into the ground.
Then I walked into my office on Monday morning and found this on my desk:
Anonymous gifts of cookbooks, and confectionery cookbooks at that. Sometimes, I love my workplace.
I know how to take a hint. Tuesday’s RDO featured a distinct lack of gardening, but it certainly did include some candy-making. It also included the death of my candy thermometer (it turns out that the analog ones wear out after a couple of years of regular use… which I probably achieved in a single month last December), so I can’t really speak to how well some of these recipes work, because I was completely misled by the thermometer on my first caramel, and had to go by guess on the others… (I don’t guess well. One of my caramels is currently gracing the top of a sticky date and banana pudding, because it tasted great but the texture was just weird).
This book is, in many ways, the book I would write if I were writing a book about confectionery. It’s chatty, it has plenty of silly jokes, it has lots of fascinating asides about the science of confectionery making (Liz Gutman’s father used to work at the Institute where I am now slowly going insane), and it has a whole index at the start of the book telling you which recipes are vegan, gluten-free, or nut-free, as well as which ones keep well, are quick to make, or are good to make with children or beginners. (My brain just started heading down the gingerbread house route there, but I think you know what I meant)
The chapter titles are also appealing “Chocolate loves you and wants you to be happy” “Gummy and gooey and chewy, oh my!”, and yes, there are lots of pictures. The first chapter, “Candy 101”, is particularly helpful, because it talks you through ingredients (“Candy: it is made of Stuff”), equipment, and basic techniques, as well as giving illustrated guides to tempering chocolate and what the different stages of sugar caramelisation look like, along with examples on how to use them. This is one of the most useful discussions of chocolate and candymaking I’ve read, actually, as it tells you both what and why, provides visual cues, and manages to make tempering chocolate sound non-impossible (and, in fact, tempering chocolate is not impossible at all – I’ve managed it myself once or twice – though keeping it in temper is harder). I also like their section on troubleshooting ganache, because I’ve had some very bad ganache experiences in my time.
The recipes are well-explained and detailed and have useful notes on what equipment you need for each, and any special things to keep an eye on. And they are delicious looking things – sea-salt caramel and chocolate caramels, truffles of many kinds, lollipops that keep pushing me online in search of lollipop molds, even cake pops (with recipes for good cakes and icings to use – no packet mixes for these girls). They have easy things like caramel corn and complicated things like multi-layered Smores chocolate bars, and there is fudge and marzipan and maple-syrup-laced honeycomb (maybe this will be the recipe that teaches me how to get honeycomb right?) and candied citrus peel and mashed potato candy made from mashed potato cakes and I can’t believe a book like this would perpertrate the sin of making mashed potato from a packet…
All this is excellent, but I did find one issue with this book, and having only made a handful of recipes so far (and without proper equipment), I can’t tell you just how major it is. Most of their recipes look right to me, and I’ve made several gorgeous things out of this book. However, I also had some issues with one of the caramels, and the agar jellies I made to their recipe were truly horrible. I’m not sure whether this is the result of an unfortunate typo or a difference in ingredients between countries.
I’ve made agar jellies before, quite extensively, and they were quite good, but they were also very sweet and entirely artificially flavoured and coloured, so Gutmand and King’s version, flavoured with fresh fruit purees, was very appealing to me. Sadly, they were truly horrible – it seems that the agar one gets in Australia is much stronger than that available in the USA (that, or there really was a typo in the ingredients list). In fact, the results I got would suggest that it’s about twice as strong, both in gelling property and flavour.
My beautiful jellies set with terrifying swiftness. Worse still, the texture was unpleasantly grainy, and the flavour of the agar agar drowned out my fruit purees entirely. Agar agar is not a pleasing flavour in a dessert, in case you were wondering. When I pulled out the recipe for agar jelly that I have used before, my suspicions were confirmed – a much larger batch uses about two thirds of the amount of agar. This was really a pity, because behind the agar, I could taste a lovely light, freshness in these jellies that I haven’t achieved with previous agar jelly recipes.
(I also had issues with the cream-based caramels, making me wonder if the cream I was using had a different fat content to standard USA whipping cream, but this one might well be user error, as I’m less experienced at caramels than I am at jellies, and the caramels were where I was having the biggest problems with my candy thermometer. They still tasted wonderful, but I did have some odd textural issues with one of them.)
So that’s a bit of a caveat emptor, really. On the other hand, the chocolate meltaways are gorgeous (and vegan!), and the salted caramels were really lovely, and were a big hit at work. And I have a whole list of recipes to try when my replacement candy thermometer arrives in the mail. Those chocolate bars with apricot and caramel ganache look amazing and now that the weather is getting warmer, I’m ready to give chocolate tempering another try. And I so want to make lollipops!
And I should probably note that in my experience, new candy recipes can take a few tries to get right at the best of times, and quite subtle difference in ingredients can have dramatic effects, especially with any kind of jelly – it took me about 8 tries to get my pectin jellies working (a combination of getting the right sort of pectin, the right ripeness of fruit, and learning to use my candy thermometer and not break it), so while I would be wary about trying that agar recipe, it’s definitely worth starting with something simpler and giving yourself a few goes at it before throwing up your hands in despair.
Toffees and brittles are a really good place to start if you haven’t made candy before – yes, they go to scarily high temperatures, so you want to be careful with them, but they are also pretty difficult to get wrong if you pay attention and follow the recipe. I will say that confectionery making is not something to multi-task with until you know a recipe very well, and maybe not even then. It’s amazing how fast toffee goes from light gold to burnt (you will stand there, watching a syrup bubble at just above 100°C for what seems like hours, and then it passes about 120° and suddenly the temperature is shooting up with every passing second…). The creamy caramels are also pretty straightforward.
Overall, I’d say the Liddabit Sweets Candy Cookbook is an excellent book to buy if you want to learn about confectionery making, and the variety and interest of recipes make it a very good buy for people who have made a bit of confectionery at home and want more ideas. I will definitely revisit this review when I’ve made a few more recipes, because obviously if there were typos or problematic ingredients in multiple recipes, that would be a serious flaw, but I suspect I was just unlucky. I actually love this book already, despite those horrible jellies, which should tell you something (possibly that I am neurotically fascinated by confectionery).
And now I need to go buy lollipop molds…
This time last year…Recipe: Warm Sweet Potato and Pumpkin Salad Recipe: Christmas Pudding