Mary Cooks: Penuche

Fudge recipes are written by optimists. The typical fudge recipe is deceptively simple. I am going to write the truth about fudge.

First, some context. I had the day to myself, and a lengthy to-do list. Out of all the highly productive things I could have done, why did I decide to make fudge? This week, I wrapped up a particularly lengthy and frustrating project, one of those projects that lingers in the stabilization phase as more and more issues with the software are discovered and need to be addressed until finally there is no more money, and the project is declared complete. It was a long, rough ride for the team and I wanted to make a special treat for them. I decided on fudge as it is phonetically very close to an oath that was uttered so often during the project that many of us forgot it was a cuss word.

In my search for a fudge recipe, I came across a treat from my childhood - brown sugar fudge, also called penuche. One of the ironies of my mother is that despite what she served for dinner, she was capable of incredible desserts. Penuche was one of them. So when I found the penuche recipe in the Gourmet cookbook, I had to try it.

Mis en place

For Penuche, you will need:

1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp evaporated milk

2 cups packed light brown sugar

1 1/2 sticks butter, cut into tbsp

1/4 tsp salt

1/2 tsp vanilla extract

1 3/4 confectioners sugar

Simple enough, right? Keep in mind that fudge is actually a candy, and candy is an art that must be practiced. If you are a regular candy maker, you will not have any trouble with this. If you are out of practice, though, or a beginner, proceed with caution and understand that you will spend a lot of time stirring and waiting.

OK, so combine the milk, brown sugar, butter, and salt in a 3-quart heavy saucepan and bring just to a boil over moderate heat, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. From these instructions, I wasn't sure if I should have a liquid like a caramel sauce or what. I actually had something thicker than a liquid but not quite a solid. I also thought I would know when the sugar had dissolved. In retrospect, I did not.

I let the mixture come to a boil and then reduced it to low heat to simmer as the recipe instructed. In less than a minute, it no longer looked like my mixture was simmering, so I brought it up to a boil again. I did this several times over the next ten minutes until I felt I had everything at the right temperature.

Is my sugar dissolved now?

Is it dissolved now?

So, back to the recipe. Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring frequently, until mixture registers 238 F on a thermometer and a teaspoon of the mixture dropped into a small bowl of cold water holds a soft ball when pressed between your fingers. This will take about 30 minutes.

The best part of this recipe is the reference to the old school method of checking on your sugar mixture. When you are cooking this stuff, it will hit 180-200 fairly quickly, and then will hover around 200 for so long you will feel as if your candy thermometer is broken. The old fashioned soft ball test will let you keep track of how far along you actually are. Then, after about 20 minutes at just over 200, the sugar mixture will change rapidly. I noticed a burnt sugar smell that I found disconcerting. But the temperature was rising and quickly reached 238. I did the soft ball test just to be sure.

Get comfortable - you're going to be here for a while

Still not sure if that burnt sugar action is right, but we are at temperature

Transfer mixture to a heatproof bowl. I used a large Pyrex measuring cup. Beat in the vanilla with an electric mixer at medium speed. Which was also disconcerting. When I added the vanilla to my 238 degree soft ball mixture, it bubbled, boiled, and seemed to evaporate. Undeterred, I proceeded with my hand blender and began adding the confectioner's sugar, a little at a time, as the recipe instructed.

Not fudge

Now the recipe says that in about five minutes, the whole thing will be thick and smooth. After five minutes, my fudge resembled course gruel. But if I've learned anything from my counterpart, it's that there are few things in the kitchen that cannot be salvaged with a little heavy cream, egg yolk, or both. I reached for the heavy cream and added a generous dollop to my mixture. A few minutes later I had a smooth mixture, albeit a bit grainy. And that is the sign of fudge failure. If you get to this point and still have graininess, you do not have fudge.

Heavy cream to the rescue

I divided my mixture evenly between two small pans - the intent was one for my team and one for Gareth's - and placed the pans uncovered in the refrigerator to set. While today's efforts are not fit to share with the team, I think we can work this into our ice cream activities.

Looks can be deceiving - a pan of grainy fudge is not worth sharing