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It's always more fun to DIY. Every week, we'll spare you a trip to the grocery store and show you how to make small batches of great foods at home.
When I asked Kateri, my younger sister by four years, what she wanted to eat for her most recent birthday, my guess was a thick strawberry milkshake or vanilla cake slathered in chocolate buttercream frosting. But to my surprise, she said, "Peanut butter salt water taffy."
Five years ago, no one (least of all my sister or I) would have guessed I'd be cooking a birthday request for her—not to mention that we’d be best friends. Growing up, I made her cry on a regular basis, she'd tattle on me to our parents, and I'd make her cry more. It was a viscous cycle. When exactly things changed, I can’t be sure. It was partly maturity and partly me leaving for college that shifted our sister relationship. We began talking every day. When I cried, she held me. When she cried, I made her cookies—and wasn’t the cause of the tears.
Now, I’d do anything for Kateri—the least of which includes cooking for her every whim when we're together. What she wants, she gets. Pie? I’ll make one and then bake a bunch of hand pies in case she wants to pack one for lunch. Roast chicken? That bird will be brining faster than you can say “truss.”
Birthdays are especially big. That day, I’m her indentured cooking servant. Everything has to be perfect. Perfection eases my guilt from all those years when I should’ve been better. Which brings us back to salt water taffy—the mammoth of all of Kateri’s birthday requests, inspired by her favorite flavor from Salty Road.
More: Feed your sweet tooth—here's how to make salted maple honeycomb candy.
Although I have a degree in pastry, I’m no candy maker. An unfortunate fudge incident left a scar on my wrist and on my confidence, which is to say that if I can make salt water taffy, so can you. There was a lot of trial and error. Here are a few tips, which I aquired from my own mistakes:
- Don't crank up the heat to bring the sugar mixture up to temperature faster. You'll be left with a burnt pot and a sore arm from scrubbing. Sugar just takes a long time to heat up (and the closer it gets to the target temperature of 250° F, the longer it takes for each degree to rise).
- Don't walk away from the taffy. If the temperature goes too far above 250° to 260° F, also known as the hard-ball stage of candy making, and reaches 300° F (the hard-crack stage), the taffy will turn to a brittle-like thing as soon as it hardens on the baking sheet. If this happens, though, it's okay! It's like peanut brittle minus the peanuts.
- Don't even think about pulling the taffy without buttered hands. You'll be wearing the taffy and not eating it.
- Just keep pulling. If you think, while you're pulling taffy, Oh my gosh, it's so sticky and definitely not taffy, just keep pulling. Arm strength goes a long way. Think happy thoughts and pull like you mean it.
- Stick to the processed, unnatural ingredients. Substituting an all-natural alternative for the corn syrup or processed peanut butter will not result in better taffy.
- Use kitchen shears to cut the taffy. Even buttered knives stick to taffy and you'll be left peeling it off the blade, which is both dangerous and not-fun.
- Salt water taffy doesn't actually have sea water. If you think it'd be cool to make your taffy with actual sea water, skip the ocean adventure and consider this: The name is just a marketing device. Add some salt to your water and go about your taffy-making business.
In the end, taffy making comes down to thermometer watching, trepidatiously handling a scalding sugar mixture, and taffy-pulling that gives both your arms and patience a workout. But, really, when all’s said and done, you have taffy. It’s slightly caramel-y (thanks to the untraditional maple syrup), peanut buttery, and tinged with salt. And it's wonderful—especially when your sister looks up at you and says, “These are the best I’ve ever had.” She eats taffy after taffy and you smile. This, here—this taffy, this moment—is perfect.
Adapted from Salt Water Taffy Co.
Makes about 50 pieces
1/3 cup creamy, processed peanut butter (none of that natural stuff here—we’re talking Skippy)
1/3 cup water
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1 cup maple syrup
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon unsalted butter (plus more for greasing)
Wax paper wrappers (you can buy these or just cut squares out of wax paper)
Thoroughly butter a rimmed baking sheet (I used a 9- x 13-inch pan, but a similar size will work fine). Get in the corners, but don’t worry so much about the sides, as the taffy won’t come into contact with these.
In a deep pot over low heat, add all of the ingredients at once. Stir until the sugar dissolves.
Once the sugar is melted, stop stirring and bring the mixture to 250° F. Use a candy thermometer to monitor the temperature and don’t rush the process by cranking up the heat. I’ve tried and ended up with a burnt pot (the taffy did turn out, but so did a ruined pan). Once the mixture comes to temperature, after about 15 minutes, turn off the heat and pour the taffy base onto the greased baking sheet. Let it sit until it's cool enough to handle, about 30 minutes.
This is where arm strength comes into play. Grease your hands thoroughly with butter and pull the taffy: Stretch it into a long rope about 1 inch in diameter and fold the rope in half, onto itself like you’re closing a book. Twist it completely together, then pull into a long rope again, and repeat.
Continue this process until the taffy is firm and hard to pull, about 4 to 5 pulls. Stretch it into a long rope about 1-inch-thick and, using buttered kitchen shears, cut it into bite-size, 1-inch pieces.
Wrap each piece of taffy in wax paper. You can either buy this kind of candy wrapper or go the D.I.Y. route and cut squares out of wax paper. Gift the little squares to friends, or keep them all to yourself. The taffy will keep in an airtight container for up to 2 months—or until it's too hard to chew.
Photos by James Ransom