by Thomas Hardy
While I watch the Christmas blaze
Paint the room with ruddy rays,
Something makes my vision glide
To the frosty scene outside.
There, to reach a rotting berry,
Toils a thrush, – constrained to very
Dregs of food by sharp distress,
Taking such with thankfulness.
Why, O starving bird, when I
One day’s joy would justify,
And put misery out of view,
Do you make me notice you!
Thankfulness is my theme for Christmas every year. Fortunately I don’t have to find it in dregs of food, rather in indulgence with family and friends. Christmas for me has become about traditions. One of those traditions is the magic of making peanut brittle with my Dad. My Dad is a great cook and a chemical engineer, which comes in handy in the art and science of making the best peanut brittle in the world. Commercial peanut brittle that you buy in a store is a monstrous thing invented by dentists to suck filings out of teeth and break old molars in half. The peanut brittle tradition in my family is an aromatic caramel peanutty confection, wonderfully crunchy and filled with a million air bubbles to make it brittle but light.
There’s three keys to making the world’s best peanut brittle.
1). Buy a good heavy duty candy thermometer that can clip on the side of your sauce pan.
2). If at all possible, don’t make it alone – four hands come in handy at several key steps in the process and besides its more fun to share in this with someone else.
3). Don’t stop stirring, its how you stir in all the love that makes it taste good.
Here’s the ingredients to make one batch:
(You will make more than one batch when you realize how fantastic this stuff tastes so have extra of everything on hand. By the way Trader Joe’s peanuts come in 1 lb bags and are a good deal).
- 1 1/2 cups of white sugar
- 1 cup of corn syrup
- 3/4 cup of water
- 1 lb of roasted peanuts – salted or unsalted is your preference. I like salted. Don’t scrimp a little over a lb works even better.
- 3 – 4 tablespoons of butter
- 1 tablespoon of baking soda
- 1 tablespoon of vanilla
- 1 teaspoon of water
1). Prepare a typical full size cookie sheet with edges by spraying it with PAM, covering it with confectionery paper or covering it in non-stick aluminum foil. (We actually have sheets of silicon rubber that we line the cookie sheet with for the pour, but not many of you probably have access to salvage rolls of silicon sheeting.)
2). Lay out all your ingredients and proportions or have your helper do it while you start the first step. Be sure to have a good hot pad glove to cover your stirring hand to prevent getting burned, particularly on the last step. Be safe – this is going to be 300 degrees of burning hot brittle at the end, be careful.
3). In a typical 4 quart sauce pan with a sturdy handle add the 1 1/2 cups of sugar, the 1 cup of corn syrup and the 3/4 cup of water. On high heat, stir a bit. Fix your candy thermometer on the side of your sauce pan. It will start out milky and turn clear as the water evaporates off. Stir slowly to stay engaged at this point, but don’t be trying to do two things at once while making brittle or you will screw it up.
4). Let this clear mixture rise to 240 degrees F. It will go slowly up to about 220 and then fairly quickly the last 20 degrees so pay attention. At 240 degrees add your butter, stirring for 30 seconds and then your peanuts. The temperature is going to go back down, that’s normal. Keep stirring slowly but mixing all the time so that peanuts don’t burn on the bottom or behind your thermometer. This is when the rich caramel flavors are going to form with the butter. Inhale deeply. Throw a party, fill up your kitchen, let your friends in on these smells, have them bring a bottle of wine, set out some crackers and cheese. Make it an event. This is what your kitchen is supposed to be like during the holidays, smelling great and filled with people.
5). Either measure out ahead of time or have your helper in a small dish or measuring cup measure out the vanilla, the baking soda and the teaspoon of water. Don’t skimp on the baking soda a heaping tablespoon. Stir this mixture together and have a little spoon or rubber spatula handy for your helper to mix it up again right at the end and be ready to add it to your sauce pan for you.
6). Now is when you are going to be glad you bought a good candy thermometer. You want one that is sturdy enough to stay engaged with this thick peanut sugar mess you are heating up to 300 degrees. Cooking it to only 290 is going to make the final result soft and gooey and not a pleasing texture. Cooking it to 305 degrees is going to begin to introduce off flavors and make the end result darker. Cook it to exactly 300 degrees. This is chemistry. It will go very slowly from about 220 to 270 and that’s where you can get a little tired of this, but then it goes pretty quick the last 30 degrees. Like real fast, so pay attention.
7). As soon as it hits 300 degrees, turn off your burner. Remove your thermometer using your hot pad. Wearing your gloved hot pad in the hand that is going to stir, have your helper quickly stir up the baking soda/vanilla concoction with a few whips of the spoon and spoon it all into your pan. Stir it into the brittle mixture vigorously. It is going to shoot up steam and if you aren’t wearing your hot pad glove you are going to burn your hand. Mix for about 20 seconds and then stop mixing or slow down mixing. The baking soda and water/vanilla is going to react in the heat to create millions of tiny air bubbles. Begin walking over to where your cookie sheet is waiting with your spoon. Let the mixture rise right up to the top of the sauce pan, it will only take a few seconds. Using your spoon to suspend the peanuts more evenly begin pouring it out on the cookie sheet. Start on one edge and poor back and forth moving down the sheet coaxing out peanuts uniformly. Spoon out all the peanuts that are at the bottom, going back to where you started with this last bit, because it is probably a little light on peanuts where you first poured.
8). This next step is the hardest. Over come your urge to take your spoon and spread the mixture out on the cookie sheet. LEAVE IT ALONE Spreading it pops the air bubbles that are the key to making this the world’s best peanut brittle. Let gravity do its thing. It will spread out all on its own to a relatively uniform level as it cools. Do not leave this cookie sheet on a surface that can be damaged by heat. Either have it on a wood cutting board or a cooling rack. Remember it’s still close to 300 degrees as you do the pour. We take ours outside after about 5 minutes and put it on our metal patio table to cool in the 20 degree December air.
9). It is going to need to cool for 30 to 40 minutes. It’s ready to break apart when its cool to the point that it will fracture easily in chunks by just breaking it apart with your hands. Take a bite and enjoy the magic. Be careful who you give this stuff to. They will be asking for more next year.