Among my fondest memories of growing up in an Appalachian holler is the food, specifically the sweets. Late last year, foodie trend watchers predicted old-fashioned candy is going to be hot this year. I have yet to see Google return this recipe in response to my request for "old-fashioned candy." Trust me, it's a goodie.
As a kid, I never gave much thought to why January Thaw was called that -- we sometimes made it in months other than January -- but a Web site that printed a recipe similar to my mom's says it’s because it looks like muddy slush. I assure you it's much tastier. And as the foot or so of snow outside my house has melted this week, the candy doesn't much resemble what's in my yard.
Nor does the batch I made tonight exactly match what I remember from 25 years ago. I chalk that up to ingredients and technique and I'll throw in different elevation for good measure. While not "perfect", it's still pretty good -- who could find fault with two cups of brown sugar and butter in any configuration? I prefer mine without nuts so the flaky hunk of sugar and butter melts smoothly in my mouth without obstruction. Think cake of maple sugar. But I'm getting ahead of myself. While still good, when I make January Thaw next time, I'm going to try to do things more like Mom did -- except drive down the mountain to her kitchen, which is about 800 feet closer to sea level than mine. We both use Domino Brown Sugar, but it occurred to me too late that when she says "butter" she means "margarine", specifically Parkay or Blue Bonnet. I used 1 percent milk tonight and then I realized that she used canned evaporated milk.
In the meantime, let's talk about technique. I think I have a handle on the forms-a-ball-when-dropped-in-cold-water method of judging candy temperature so I think my error lies in not beating it long enough. My candy failed to set up into the firm, flaky wafer I remember. Beating the sugary syrup traps air in it to cool it and thicken it. It's been a long time since I watched my mom make January Thaw so I'm not sure what it's supposed to look like before it's poured. This batch I whipped with a fork initially and brought out a wire whisk that I later handed off to the husband. (No, my mom never used an electric mixer for this, I'm sure.) Tongiht I probably gave in too soon -- maybe because we were anxious to lick the pan. It's gooey but still good.
This home candy-making attempt was not as disastrous as one from my childhood. I'm not sure how old I was -- maybe 11 or 12, definitely old enough to be allowed to cook on the stove. Perhaps I should've been more closely supervised during serving. I was making sour cream candy -- something our family had never made and hasn't tried to make since. I boiled and poured and waited for it to set up on the old (as in antique) platter we poured candy on. It did. So hard I couldn't cut it. Though I expected its texture to be more like January Thaw than fudge, it was closer to hard-tack. Well, I thought, "no problem, I'll just stick Mom's butcher knife in the middle and rap it hard on the end of the handle." The candy broke. So did the platter. My mom tried hard not to laugh while she was yelling at me.
Here's that January Thaw recipe y'all -- stay warm and look for more old-fashioned candy recipes from me in the near future.
2 cups brown sugar
1/2 cup canned evaporated milk
Butter the size of a walnut (about 2 1/2 tablespoons I reckon)
1 cup nuts, such as black walnuts (optional)
Put sugar and milk in a saucepan and let it dissolve slowly. Add butter and let boil until it forms a ball when dropped in cold water. Remove from stove and add the chopped nuts and beat well. Pour into a buttered pan and when cooled cut into squares.