Food media has spent decades emphasizing that candy making is a science, and while that’s both true and fascinating, it’s had the unfortunate side effect of scaring the damn bejesus out of people. Throughout history, humans have made candy without scales, thermometers, air conditioning, machinery, specialized equipment, or our modern understanding of crystalline structures. In the church cookbooks I inherited from my Iowan grandmother-in-law, there are dozens of candy recipes that feature no more than three sentences of instruction, and, somehow, they work! Take, for instance, “Kentucky cream pull candy,” which I’d never even heard of until a few short weeks ago when I found a recipe scribbled in pen on a rumpled piece of scrap paper stuffed inside one of those church cookbooks.
The origins of Kentucky cream pull candy are unclear, but it became popular in central Kentucky around 1900. It’s made in the same way as taffy, but when left to sit for 24 hours, “magic” (chemistry) happens: the candy’s texture transforms from something chewy and sticky into something that gradually melts in your mouth. It’s unbelievable that this remains a regional delicacy and not a national phenomenon.
While you shouldn’t be intimidated by making candy, you should remember that there’s a ton of different variables that can affect the candy’s final texture, and in this recipe, the biggest one is how fast you can pull the taffy. You can do this solo, but it is extremely helpful to divide the taffy between a few people so you can all work sections of it at once. If you don’t get it perfect the first time, it’ll still be good, so just have fun with it. Science can be fun sometimes.
- 3/4 cup heavy cream
- 3/4 cup water
- 1/4 cup corn syrup
- 3/4 tsp. fine sea salt
- 2 3/4 cups sugar
- 1 tsp. white vinegar
- 2 Tbsp. butter, melted
- 1 tsp. vanilla extract
Fill a sheet pan with ice. Tightly cover a second sheet pan with non-stick aluminum foil, or heavy-duty aluminum foil that’s been rubbed with butter. Put that sheet pan on top of the ice, then set on your counter directly next to the stove.
Rinse out a 4-quart saucepan with water, then add all the ingredients except for the vanilla extract. Stir well, then put on the stove. Cover, turn the heat to high, and leave it alone for 4 minutes. Remove the lid, gently stir, then and use a wet pastry brush or damp paper towel to wipe down the sides of the pot. Turn on your exhaust fan, turn the heat down to medium-high, clip on a candy thermometer, then stand back and let the candy cook without disturbing it in any way.
At this point, it’s important to remember a few things:
- It will take a good amount of time before the candy reaches 245 degrees Fahrenheit (firm-ball stage), so be patient, and watch the thermometer, not the clock.
- The thermometer is going to spend a lot of time hovering around the 220-degree mark as all the water in the mixture evaporates away. Once that happens, the temperature is going to shoot up quickly, so keep your eyes on the thermometer, no matter how boring it may be!
- When the mixture is ready, you’re going to have to work fast, so make sure you have a silicone spatula by your side, and a cup to move the candy thermometer to as well.
- It is possible to make this candy by yourself, but it really is much better to have two or more sets of hands to do it, so if you’ve got other people in the house, tell them they need to get into the kitchen ASAP. Now, back to the recipe!
When the mixture reaches 245 degrees Fahrenheit, remove the candy thermometer and quickly dump the candy onto the icy-cold sheet pan. Let it sit for about 30 seconds, then pour on the vanilla extract and use your silicone spatula to move the candy around, folding it on top of itself as it thickens, until the candy has cooled down just enough for you to safely handle. Rub your hands with a little bit of butter, then begin pulling and twisting the candy (like how they do at the 5-minute mark in this video) for 8-10 minutes until it becomes almost too hard to handle. When that happens, stretch the candy out into a rope, and use kitchen shears or a serrated knife to cut into pieces.
Put the sliced candies onto a sheet pan or tray lined with parchment or plastic wrap, making sure they don’t touch each other, then cover loosely and put somewhere cool to rest overnight (I stash mine in the oven). The next day, wrap each candy with small pieces of wax paper, and try your best to enjoy them in moderation.