Fireworks and barbecues are great, but how about celebrating Pioneer Day the way the pioneers would have, with an old-fashioned candy pull?
David Bench, executive chef at the Lion House, teaches occasional classes called "Old-Fashioned Pulled Candy" with his mother, Karla Bench, of Moroni. Children can also hone their candy-pulling skills during birthday parties at the Lion House, where they dress in pioneer bonnets and play games that were popular during the 1800s.
"We learned candy-pulling from my grandpa, Jay Blackham," said David Bench. "He always said that when they were younger, they didn't have TV and all these things, so they entertained themselves. The different families got together and had taffy pulls."
Blackham passed the skill down to his posterity, and grandson David found it fits right in with the Lion House's home-style cooking.
"When I began working here, I wanted the cooking to be like what it would be if you came to my mom's house to eat," he said, noting that the Lion House walls still sport some large iron hooks that were once used for taffy pulling. His mother makes the butter mints sold at the Lion House.
David Bench said the main skill in making pulled candy, such as taffy and butter mints, is in the stretching and pulling.
"That elongates the sugar crystals to make the candy smooth, and aerates it, so it's not just a solid lump," he explained.
It's easier to show the technique than explain it. Generally, you take a lump of the thick candy mixture and pull it out about to arm's length. Fold the top third of the rope down and bring the bottom up to meet the folded end. Give a slight twist, and begin the stretching motion again. Repeat until the candy is firm, thick and satiny in appearance.
"You use a fluid motion, and the candy should hang just on the tips of your fingers," David Bench said. "You don't want to mangle it. My mom has a great technique, but I tend to get big knots in it."
"The more you get it glopped in your hands, the harder and more awkward it will be to stretch," Karla Bench said. "A lot of people don't stretch it long enough. It should look satiny rather than clear. I usually do it for at least 10 to 15 minutes."
You can also practice your technique with Silly Putty to avoid wasting a lot of candy ingredients.
For novices, the Benches advise starting with honey candy. "Honey is an invert sugar, like corn syrup, so it tends not to crystallize easily," David Bench said. "You can pull it for a long time."
Butter mints are more challenging, because the cooked candy mixture tends to crystallize fast. Although honey candy could be poured into a buttered shallow pan to cool, Karla Bench said it's essential to cool butter mints on a marble slab. Marble stays cold and allows the candy to cool quickly.
When the candy has been pulled into a long, thin rope, it's cut into pillow-shaped pieces. Overnight storage in an airtight container allows the mints to mellow into the melt-in-your-mouth texture.
Humidity also influences candymaking. Cold, dry weather is best.
1. Stretch the candy out to about arm's length so that it's like a thick rope.
2. Fold the top third of the rope down and bring the bottom part of the rope up to meet the folded end.
1 cup honey
1 cup sugar
Place all ingredients in a heavy saucepan and bring to a boil. Cook to 275 to 300 degrees, or hard-crack stage (when a few drops of the candy, dropped into cold water, separates into hard threads). A hotter temperature will make the finished candy more brittle.
Pour out onto a well-buttered marble slab, without scraping the pan. (If you don't have a slab, use a chilled, buttered jellyroll pan.)
With liberally buttered fingers, begin stretching and pulling the candy as soon as it is cool enough to handle.
To pull the candy, stretch it out to about arm's length so that it's like a thick rope. Then fold the top third of the rope down and bring the bottom part of the rope up to meet the folded end. Then give the whole thing a slight twist and stretch it out again. Repeat this for 10 or 15 minutes.
3 cups sugar
1 cup water
1/2 cup butter
In a heavy aluminum saucepan, mix sugar, water and butter. Cover, and leave on high until mixture boils. Remove cover; wash down sugar crystals from the sides of pan. Insert candy thermometer and cook without stirring until it reaches 252 degrees (for Wasatch Front altitude).
Pour onto a well buttered marble slab. Dot the hot candy with the mint oil or extract. Fold edges into center of the hot candy to keep the edges soft. When candy is cool enough to handle, pull and stretch until porous and satiny.
To pull the candy, stretch it out to about arm's length so that it's like a thick rope. Then fold the top third of the rope down and bring the bottom part of the rope up to meet the folded end. Then give the whole thing a slight twist and stretch it out again. Repeat this for 10 or 15 minutes, or until candy is porous and satiny. Pull candy into a long twisted rope and cut with scissors into small pieces.
Store in plastic wrap-lined layers in a tightly sealed container for at least 24 hours to cause the mints to mellow.
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