American lore tells us that fudge first made its grand debut at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY, at a senior auction in 1892. Whether this is true or not will remain a mystery, but what we do know is that chocolate fudge is a confection that the U.S.A can call its own. Many speculate that its invention was pure chance. Fudge is no more than a drier cousin of fondant, that pliable sugar dough we cover cakes with and use as the center in fine chocolates. But, really, who makes fudge anymore? I mean real fudge, not the “easy” recipes you can find on the backs of a Baker’s Chocolate box or on the tub of that sticky white mass that comes labeled merely as “Fluff”. No one. Real fudge making is a lost kitchen art survived by a handful of grannies. A terrible tragedy in my mind.
And who would want to make traditional fudge, the kind that should never see the inside of a fridge? The kind that forms a thin crust that gives way to an impossibly creamy center? If you have ever tried to make it from scratch, you know what a pain it is. Fudge is fickle. It needs lots of attention and care to come out right. Fudge is one of the recipes that requires what I like to call “muscle memory”. Rare is the cook who makes a perfect batch the first time… or the tenth time. Fudge asks a lot of you, it asks you to not give up on it, to keep ruining batch after batch till your body simply “knows” you are doing it right. I was ten years old the first time I took a crack at making fudge. My grandmother’s Better Homes and Gardens Dessert Cookbook, published in 1960, promised glossy squares of perfectly set fudge with its “Old-Time Fudge” recipe. Suffice it to say, I failed. I stirred the pot too long and the fudge set stiff right in the bottom of my grandmother’s Magnalite pot. We scooped out spoonfuls. It tasted like everything you hoped fudge tasted like. I was hooked. I was determined to master this culinary feat.
The next batch got out of the pot, but it never set up. It stayed semi-liquid in the pan like a really thick syrup you put on ice cream, which we ended up doing. The next batch set up (hooray!) but the texture was grainy, indicating the sugar had crystalized. This went on for a decade. Yes, you heard me right, a decade. Each batch would have a flaw or I’d burn the pan beyond recognition. My hands saw endless sugar scalds and oh, did I cry. Liquid sugar is no friend.
A decade of failure turned out not to be failure at all. I began to realize there was a very scientific thing going on between ingredients and heat. Temperature and technique were everything. Each attempt, I learned something. As I look back on this one recipe and the ritual I created from it, I see that failure is the art of childhood. In this age where my children are growing up in an expectation of instant mastery – reading by the end of Kindergarten, doing algebra in preschool – I find that I am now the unofficial guardian of failure for my boys. It is my duty to ensure they fail at things and keep chipping away at those epic projects that went bust, encouraging them not to give up. For what came naturally for me a generation ago, to keep plugging away even if the stove catches on fire or you spill ten pounds of sugar on the floor, is almost alien to my kids. Fudge has proven to be a good teacher on many fronts and so now that my boys are both in the double digits of their lives and thankfully both of them love to cook, I will pass the torch and this recipe to them and step back and watch the glorious trials and tribulations as they quest for that one perfect batch.
For those of you, clear-eyed and strong of heart, I leave the recipe below:
The Notorious Better Homes & Garden’s Old-Time Fudge Recipe
2 cups sugar
3/4 cup milk
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, cut up
1 teaspoon light-colored corn syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup chopped nuts (optional)
2 tablespoons butter
- Line a 9x5x3-inch loaf pan with foil, extending foil over edges of pan. Butter foil; set pan aside.
- Butter the sides of a heavy 2-quart saucepan. In saucepan combine sugar, milk, chocolate, and corn syrup. Cook and stir over medium-high heat until mixture boils. Clip a candy thermometer to side of pan. Reduce heat to medium-low; continue boiling at a moderate, steady rate, stirring frequently, until thermometer registers 234 degrees F, soft-ball stage (20 to 25 minutes).
- Remove saucepan from heat. Add butter and vanilla, but do not stir. Cool, without stirring, to 110 degrees F (about 55 minutes).
- Remove thermometer from saucepan. Beat mixture vigorously with a wooden spoon until fudge just begins to thicken. If desired, add nuts. Continue beating until the fudge becomes very thick and just starts to lose its gloss (about 10 minutes total).
- Immediately spread fudge in the prepared pan. Score into squares while warm. When fudge is firm, use foil to lift it out of pan. Cut fudge into squares. Store tightly covered. Makes about 1-1/4 pounds (32 pieces).