Eight years ago, I was a freelance food writer just a couple years out of college. I was fascinated by food, but I was young and broke enough to still be in the process of assembling an adult kitchen. I didn’t yet own a Dutch oven, or a meat thermometer, or an immersion blender. I was perpetually out of parchment paper. All that turned out to be an asset when an editor assigned me a cooking feature for the food section of a Chicago newspaper: “Test these candy recipes. If you can do it, anyone can.”
Backhanded compliment? Whatever, it came with a prestigious byline and a few hundred bucks. The article was pegged to Halloween; it was a collection of pastry chefs’ recipes for homemade candy bars. My job was to collect the recipes, make them in my own kitchen to ensure their accuracy, and write a short intro about the Martha Stewart-esque joys of Halloween candy. Easy money, I figured.
How wrong I was. How naive.
(Thankfully, this story is no longer online.)
I didn’t expect candy-making to be as simple as Easy Mac—after all, confectioners are more obsessive than even pastry chefs—but I figured I was smarter than the average bear and would end up with some picture-perfect, delicious candies that my friends would swoon over. Instead, I ended up coating my kitchen in dried caramel spackle, fossilizing sugar inside two sauce pots that I eventually had to throw away, and creating lumpy marshmallow bars that looked more like dog poop than Snickers. The show wasn’t didn’t yet exist, but I was a shoe-in for Nailed It.
Where did I go wrong? No idea. I used my credit card to buy a candy thermometer and plastic molds and those no-stick, silicone pastry mats. I set timers. I turned on the exhaust fan. I donned a heavy apron. I looked the part.
And yet. And yet my caramel sauce turned to scalding lava that quickly turned to cement, gluing my spoon to the side of the saucepan in the 0.5 seconds they rested in my sink. My chocolate shell never turned shiny or crackly shell-like, instead dribbling like lumpy paste across the marshmallow- and graham-cracker squares until they resembled aforementioned dog poo.
And dear god, the homemade marshmallow.
If anyone even begins to argue for making your own marshmallows, you look them dead in the eye and tell them to get off your lawn. Homemade marshmallow involves a hellish combination of gelatin and corn syrup which will turn your every kitchen appliance, surface, and container into a viscous tar pit. I lost entire spatulas to this protomarshallow; they never surfaced. The marshmallow sap crept insidiously around my kitchen, seemingly with a life of its own. A dollop would stick to my fingers, so I’d reach for a towel and smear that dollop across the stove, then accidentally touch that saccharine puddle with a pot holder, then inadvertently create a spiderweb of honeylike strands that had, of course, dried within a millisecond. I was like Midas except everything I touched magically turned into garbage.
I didn’t finish testing the three candy recipes until the evening. As the sun crept low in the sky behind my apartment’s alley view, it cast a golden glow over the candy carnage: spoons fused to dishes fused to pot holders, and on the counter, maybe a dozen small squares of passably attractive candy. One of my roommates cautiously peeked her head in: “Hey, is the candy—” She caught a glimpse of our wrecked kitchen and my dejected expression, hair plastered to my forehead with toffee goo. “Never mind!”
Twelve. Twelve amateur candy bars were what I had to show for six hours’ worth of boiling, whisking, cursing, and chocolate tempering. Fabergé eggs are probably produced faster than this. I started clean up: two saucepots had to be chucked completely, as did a few spoons. I don’t think I was able to ever completely unfuse some swipes of burnt sugar from the stovetop—sorry we didn’t get our full security deposit back, friends.
But it would all be just a funny anecdote if the candy bars were delicious, right? I took a deep breath, picked one up delicately between two fingers, and bit in.
The whole thing stuck like plaster to the roof of my mouth.