Story and Photography by Lisa Fain
I come from a candy-making family. You’d know Christmastime was fast approaching when Great-Grandma Gibson and my great-aunt Pearl could be found buzzing around the kitchen, whipping up big batches of fondants, fudge, divinity, dipped chocolates and date-loaf candy. They’d lovingly package the homemade confections in decorated boxes and deliver them to their rural North Texas neighbors as gifts.
For some reason, though, the art of candy making appears to have lapsed with me. But before my elders write me off, I’ve decided that this is the year to remedy the gap in my familial dedication to the alchemy of sweets. The first step: getting my hands on the family recipes—especially the one for date-loaf candy, as it’s one I hadn’t heard about since my childhood.
When my grandma gave me a copy of Great-Grandmother’s recipe, I was struck by how few ingredients there were. What may seem simple, however, is indeed a science, and requires adherence to strict principles. Five things, I’ve since learned, are key to candy-making success: high-quality ingredients, correct proportions, constant attention, low humidity and a clean environment. It’s an exacting process not for the faint of heart, so go slowly and pay attention.
Sugar crystals are composed partly of water. As sugar heats up, the water evaporates and the liquid becomes extremely hot. Compared to plain water, which reaches its hottest state, or boiling point, at 212°, sugar can reach temperatures upwards of 380°. So when cooking candy, it’s very important to cover any bare skin (some even recommend protective glasses), as one hot-sugar splatter can cause serious skin damage.
There are terms in candy recipes—“soft-ball stage” or “hard-ball stage”—that refer to the physical state of the liquid candy at a particular temperature. If your goal is the soft-ball stage (between 235°-240°), this means that the molten candy will form into a pliable ball if a dollop of the hot syrup is added to cold water. Some seasoned candy makers can look at a boiling pot and determine the sugar’s stage, but others (like me) must use a candy thermometer.
Sugar is delicate and can misbehave if exposed to foreign objects that are not part of a recipe, so make sure your cooking tools (pan, spoon) are very clean before starting. It’s also advisable to use a fresh package of sugar. Candy making requires a low-humidity environment, so if it’s raining or very humid outside, the candy may not set properly.
When I began to make my great-grandmother’s date-loaf candy, I felt confident, as the process seemed simple enough—toss sugar, milk and chopped dates into a pot, bring the mixture to the soft-ball stage, stir in the nuts, roll out and chill—but I was well aware that one wrong move can spell disaster.
As I waited for the mixture to reach the magic temperature of 235°, I was struck by how long the thermometer’s needle hovered at the 225° mark. Ten minutes passed, and the temperature still hadn’t risen. Had I done something wrong? I turned up the heat a bit—still no change! Not wanting to burn the candy, I returned the heat to a lower temperature. Then, slowly, I saw the magic happen. Before, the mixture had been a light color—between white and beige. As the sugar cooked, the mixture darkened and the dates dissolved. And just when it was the most beautiful, rich shade of brown, the thermometer’s needle jumped past 235°. Quick! Pull it off the heat!
After stirring in the pecans and letting the candy cool a bit, I spread it out onto a cold, damp cloth. When it was cool enough to touch, I rolled the candy plank into a log—sort of like rolling up Play-Doh—then placed it in the refrigerator to chill overnight.
Unwrapping the loaf the next day, I was pleased to note that it hadn’t turned into a rock; it was solid, but still soft and sliceable. I cut off a piece and tried it.
If the essence of pecan pie could be condensed into one bite, it would be this candy—dark, nutty sweetness accented by vanilla and cinnamon. It tasted like the holidays! Not bad for a hundred-year-old recipe, especially on my first attempt.
If you’re looking to share something new with your friends and family, I highly recommend this simple yet exquisite candy. Its unique flavor makes it a classic long due for revival.