Homemade candy canes are a challenging treat

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 20 2011 5:00 p.m. MST

The red rope and white ropes of candy that will be twisted into a candy cane. (Valerie Phillips)

Valerie Phillips, Valerie Phillips

As the song goes, "candy canes and silver lanes aglow," are signs that it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

In fact, candy canes have been part of the Christmas celebration for centuries, although not necessarily in the red-and-white version that is today's standard.

Making your own candy canes is a fun challenge, and they taste great, said Richard Port of Wales (in Utah, not the United Kingdom). The former professional baker enjoys candy making, and taught a hands-on class on making homemade candy canes at the Gygi kitchen store on Dec. 4.

"They are a great memory-maker," he told the class, which was sold out with 12 students.

But it takes some practice to work quickly with the hot syrup and pull it into long ropes as it cools. He had the students wear two pairs of gloves for protection.

"I was hoping this would be a fun activity for children, but it's not," he said. "It's too hot for small hands."

When Port first tried his hand at making candy canes, he was frustrated that his finished product didn't look like store-bought candy canes. But now, he's OK with it.

"If you want them to look like store-bought candy canes, go and buy them in the store. They are a lot less expensive," he said. "Homemade ones are different, they are more rustic, and they're not supposed to look store-bought.

And like the current homemade marshmallow fad, there's the novelty of doing it yourself.

"They are more work, but well worth the effort," Port said.

Two students in the class, Kim Hill and Jordan Hill, said the process was fun, once they got the hang of it.

"The trickiest part was getting the sugar to the right temperature," noted Jordan Hill. "Pulling it was the most fun."

Candy canes evolved from candy sticks that were straight and white, according to the folks at www.candycanefacts.com.

But that changed in about 1670. In Cologne, Germany, part of the cathedral's Christmas celebration included pageants of living nativity scenes, or crches. The tale is told that the choir master passed out sticks of candy bent in the shape of a shepherd's to children who attended the ceremonies (possibly as a way to keep them quiet). This became a popular tradition, and eventually the practice of passing out the sugar canes at living nativity ceremonies spread throughout Europe.

This was a time when European Christmas celebrations included tree decorations of cookies and candy. It wouldn't take much thought to realize that a crook on the end of the candy stick made it easier to hang on a Christmas tree.

The crooked cane made its way to America by the mid-1800s, when August Imgard of Wooster, Ohio, began using candy canes as a tree decoration, according to the Spangler Candy Co. Christmas cards made before 1900 show them as being pure white. It wasn't until the early 20th century that they appear with their familiar red stripes.

Some of the early candy cane makers are still in business today. The Spangler Candy Co. of Bryan, Ohio, was founded in 1906, and you can still find its candy canes in local stores.

Bob McCormack of Bob's Candies in Albany, Ga., began making candy canes in the 1920s, and was later the first to successfully mass-produce them. Now owned by Farley's & Sathers Candy Co., Bob's Candies also makes Starlight Mints and other hard candies.

More than 1.76 billion candy canes are made each year.

Some people have given religious meaning to the shape and form of the candy cane. It is shaped like the letter "J" in Jesus' name, and also like a shepherd's crook, which could symbolize Christ's role as the "good shepherd."