There are a lot of legends behind that quintessentially eastern Kentucky seasonal treat, cream candy.
The light, airy, creamy, melt-in-your-mouth goodness of the confection is hard to resist, at least for some of us. The fact that it's usually only made for the holidays adds to that allure, and knowing it is not likely to be made again for another year makes each bite precious.
Sure, there are commercial versions available. Even good ones. But they aren't the same.
Then there are the stories about how fickle a candy it can be.
'Not everyone can pull it,' Brandy LeMaster said, laboring over a batch of the candy. 'Some gets grainy and falls apart.'
For example, a cousin of the family has tried the same recipe that she uses, she said, and hers is always crumbly.
The recipe is surprisingly simple. It's three cups of sugar, around 3/4 of a cup of hot water – ('Just enough to wet it and melt the sugar,') LeMaster explained – in a pot set to boil.
To that she adds four tablespoons of real sweet cream butter, and a half a cup of whipping cream. She doesn't stir it at all the entire time. Instead she lets it come to a boil, before reducing the heat to medium, and then adds the whipping cream, a little at a time so that it doesn't cool the mixture below boiling. Then she does the same with the butter.
This part doesn't sound hard at all. But this isn't the end. After heating the mixture to 260 degrees, or to the hard ball stage, LeMaster turns it out onto a large marble slab that she keeps in the freezer.
Once it's on the marble, she pours vanilla extract over the cooling candy, and then begins to fold it over, onto itself. She coats her hands in butter or margarine, so that the hot candy doesn't stick to her hands, helping her begin folding the still scalding candy. She does so repeatedly, shaping it into a rough rectangular length, until it's cool enough to pick up and begin pulling.
This is where the magic happens.
Working a length of candy, pulling and folding it over onto itself repeatedly as she spoke, LeMaster explained how she learned to make the candy.
Her husband's grandmother, Helen LeMaster, taught her to make pulled cream candy when she was just 16 years old. It's her recipe that LeMaster uses.
'It was my favorite,' she said. But she only got to have it at festivals and special events. When she was around 16 years old she found out Helen knew how to make the candy, and began making it with her. They made it together every year, 'until she couldn't make it anymore.'
LeMaster said that she has heard the stories about how it can only be made in the winter, and that it can't be made when it is raining or when the humidity is too high. In the days before climate control, she said, those things may have been more important, but she hasn't found those candy making legends to be true. She said it may have only been made in the winter because the cold marble slab is necessary to quickly cool the candy. In the days before indoor refrigeration and large freezers, the only way to cool the marble slab would be to wait until deep winter. The marble will get cold and stay cold, she said, continuing to pull the heat away from the candy.
As for the other legends, she has made the candy at various times of the year, and while it was raining, and it never affected the quality of the candy.
But the pulling? Now that's something that retains that mystical aura.
'You can't really write out and explain how to pull it,' LeMaster said. 'You have to show how to do it.'
It has to do with the changing color of the candy as you pull it. It starts out with a yellow tint, then grows lighter and lighter as you pull it.
'You pull until you get ribbons,' she said. It will also lose its gloss and grow more stiff.
The ribbons? Those come from all those small layers, and they give the candy its distinctive look.
It's so light and airy, you could be forgiven for thinking it's something whipped up, almost like a meringue, that then has the pattern pressed into it with the back of a fork before it firms up. But it isn't. That pattern comes from those 'ribbons' that LeMaster looks for. Those layers are what make the candy so soft and scrumptious. Like the layers of butter folded into a croissant.
But it isn't soft and buttery delicious yet. It's quite hard at this point.
'It turns hard as a rock,' she said.
She said her husband, P.R., likes it at this point.
'It's like taffy,' P.R. said. '(But) it's so sticky you can't chew it. It'll pull your teeth out.'
When it gets to this point, LeMaster uses a pair of kitchen shears to cut off small lengths of the candy. Because they will stick together, P.R. helps, quickly moving the pieces as they fall and lining them up on wax paper lined tray.
Once they've cooled, she'll transfer them to wax paper lined tupperware and store them there. The candy will soften up over the next 24 hours.
She said she's heard some folks swear to leave them out in the open, and concedes that may work too. However the tupperware storage is how she was taught to do it, and it has always worked for her.
It's worked very well for her this winter. She has sold over 100 pounds of the candy so far this winter, all to support her daughter's Delta Gamma Dance Blue team at U.K., and will continue to make it through Christmas.
They'll all be the classic vanilla cream candy recipe that she and Helen used to make together.
'Helen would get out her cookbooks when I made it with her,' Le Master said. 'There were several recipes, and we had made them all. This is the simplest and the best.'
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