Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Day 136 - Making an Heirloom Recipe

I have never made an heirloom recipe. While the act of doing so has been a task I have wanted to take on for some time, making an heirloom recipe is something I have consistently placed low on my list of priorities. It wasn’t that trying to replicate one of the many recipes handed down through my family wasn’t important to me, it was just that there always seemed to be something demanding my time that distracted me from completing the process. With so many amazing foods in my family’s heritage, my inaction on making an heirloom recipe only meant I was missing out on delicious food that carried with it a hint of nostalgia. As a result, I knew making an heirloom recipe for the first time was something I needed to make time for during my “I have never...” year.  I just didn’t know when I would make the time to do it.

That perspective changed with the recent passing of my Grandmother, who was known for a variety of dishes and desserts that stood out among an endless array of foods. As I did my best to prepare for her passing, I thought back to all of the holidays, birthdays, and other celebrations I spent with my Grandmother. In every memory of such events, my Grandmother always had a beautiful buffet of foods she hand crafted at the ready. She would literally put together appetizers and meals for dozens of people each time we gathered for an event, and the amazing thing is I could still taste each of the foods she made when the memories hit me. Her seasoned pretzels, caramel popcorn, grape salad, scalloped potatoes, baked beans, pumpkin tort, caramels, and any other number of foods always left people in a state of bliss. In fact, they were so good they were unforgettable, and the most amazing thing is she always threw these incredible banquets together with such ease it left us baffled at her skill and grace.

Given my Grandmother’s talent in the kitchen, I decided today was the perfect day to make an heirloom recipe. In my mind, doing so was a sort of way to remember my Grandmother and, in a way, was the first effort I could make at carrying her legacy forward. As a result, I started sifting through the variety of heirloom recipes my Mother had provided to me over the years and began narrowing in on a few I thought I could make in a way that would make my Grandmother proud. Eventually, this effort resulted in me landing on my Grandmother’s caramel recipe, which has actually carried through four generations in our family. As a relatively simple food to make and a food I remember looking forward to every time I visited my Grandmother as a child, it seemed the best choice for my first attempt at an heirloom recipe. Additionally, I have never attempted to make candy before, so the decision to try to make the caramels provided an added layer of relevance in my “I have never...” journey.

The stuff
With my plans to make my first heirloom recipe in order, I took time this evening to put together the ingredients I needed to make the caramels. Unfortunately, doing so proved a bit of a challenge given I had come down with a nasty virus over the period of the last day. As a result, I found myself in a persistent haze as I tried to put together the pieces of my Great Grandmother’s caramel recipe in a way that made sense and helped me develop a plan of attack for my cooking endeavor. Ultimately, those efforts proved somewhat successful, which gave me the sliver of confidence needed to dive into the recipe for the first time. I didn’t know what to expect from giving it a try, but I was going to give making my family’s heirloom caramels my best... I just hoped whatever came from it was edible.

As I began the process of making the caramels, I was very careful to double-check every step of the recipe before taking any action. As directed, I first added sugar, corn syrup, vanilla, and salt to a pot and mixed the contents until it began to boil. Realizing temperature was everything in the process of making the caramels, I was quick to add a confectioner’s thermometer to the pot as I watched the mixture slowly began to bubble and roll over the stovetop flame. With periodic bursts of air turning to an endless churn of bubbles in the thick, clear liquid, I did my best to prepare the next phase of ingredients as quickly as I could. As I worked, my eyes remained fixed on the thermometer in preparation for a key temperature called for by the recipe, which my Mother had previously told me was essential to the texture and consistency of the caramels. If I was going to be successful in my first attempt at an heirloom recipe, I needed to be dead on the next phase in the process.

Step two at the ready

Eventually, the thermometer rose to the exact temperature I was looking for, which set me into motion adding the next ingredients called for by the recipe. After melting a stick of butter into the mixture, I blended the contents of the pot a pulled the temperature back to the level necessary to continue the rest of the recipe. Then, I slowly began adding two cups of cream to the pot, being careful to never let the mixture stop boiling in response to the cooled liquid. To my surprise, the process of adding the cream was taking a significant amount of time as the temperature of the liquid cooled in response to the cream and refused to climb higher once more. The process was so long I actually became a bit impatient at one point, which caused me to nearly stop the boil of the liquid twice. Considering the words “DO NOT STOP THE BOIL” appeared immediately after the line about gradually adding the cream, I decided I wouldn’t press my luck, and I prepared to take as long as I needed to ensure I complete the rest of the recipe as instructed.

Temperature check!

Over a period of about one hour I slowly added the cream until the last of the ingredient was in the pot. As directed, I then began stirring the pot rapidly as I waited for the mixture to reach the second critical temperature in the recipe. As before, I kept my eyes focused on the thermometer as my hand moved a wooden spoon in circles through the mixture, but there was little change in the heat of the mixture. Minutes passed as I continued stirring endlessly, waiting for some change in the temperature of the mixture. Unfortunately, such change did not come quickly, and I found myself stirring the pot to the extent that my arm began feeling fatigued from the consistent motion. I had no choice but to switch hands and keep stirring as I waited for the temperature to climb further. A few minutes became 15 minutes, which slowly drew into 30 minutes. Needless to say, in time it became obvious to me making my family’s heirloom caramels was a labor of love and one that required a lot of patience, both of which I welcomed given their reflection of the person my Grandmother was.

Patience... Just patience

My efforts ultimately paid off as my mixture of ingredients boiled down to a light caramel color and hit my desired temperature. In response, I pulled the mixture from the heat, added one last touch of vanilla, and gave the pot one final burst of mixing. Then, I quickly poured the contents of the pot into a pan to let the mixture cool into the soft, sweet caramels that had been a part of my life since birth. The familiar color and smell of the mixture as it spread across the base of the pan forced a smile onto my face as I looked over my work. The initial appearance of the caramel mixture made it appear I had been successful in my first attempt at the heirloom recipe, but I knew the true test would come in taking the first bite of the candy once the caramels had cooled.

The final ingredient

After several hours of waiting, I decided I would sample the caramel before I prepare for bed this evening. As I cut off a piece from the pan of golden brown caramel, I took note of the sticky strings of candy sticking to my knife. The sight was something I recalled from watching my Grandmother wrap the caramels in my younger days, which made me excited to taste the results of my efforts for the first time. As I bit into the caramel, I noticed the candy was slightly harder than I remembered my Grandmother’s caramel, but the smell and the taste were unmistakable. While the resistance of the candy was likely thrown off by a slip on the temperature of my mixture, I had nailed the ingredients exactly. By all accounts, my efforts produced my family’s heirloom caramels, which gave me something to smile about, even if I was under the weather.

Today’s experience making my first heirloom recipe is one I will likely never forget. The time and expertise required to make my family’s caramel caught me by surprise, and it gave me new perspective on the effort my Grandmother put in to make her grandchildren happy. Although the caramel recipe looked simple from the outside, it required real focus and a great deal of stamina to make it happen. What’s more amazing is that my Grandmother made batches and batches of this caramel (among any number of other things) every time we had a family gathering. If today’s experience showed me anything, it is that my Grandmother regularly took hours of time out of her day to make something that existed solely to give members of our family a fleeting, simple pleasure when we saw her. That alone says a lot about who she was and about where she put her heart. I’m just glad I was able to have some degree of success attempting to replicate her efforts to do just that. To me, it is a simple way I can honor and remember her for all that she was, an amazing, loving woman that lived solely to see others smile. I’ll miss her for the rest of my life, I know, but at least I now I have a little way I can recapture glimpses of some of my fondest moments with her. I just need some simple ingredients, a few hours of my time, and a little bit of heart to make it happen.

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