The History Dish: Maple Syrup Brittle

maplebrittleA glass-like maple brittle.

The warming weather means the end of maple sugaring season. It’s not a sad thing, it just means it’s time to enjoy the spoils!

I’m experimenting with a recipe for Maple Sugar Brittle for an upcoming family event at the New-York Historical Society. Now through August 2014 they have an exhibit up called Homefront & Battlefield: Quilts & Context in the Civil War. The primary focus is on 19th century quilts, but it looks at larger material culture with items like a pattern for a homemade mitten–with the index finger separated for a trigger finger.

Trigger finger mittens.

Free labor dress: noble, if a little dowdy.

One item I found particularly interesting is the “Free Labor Dress,” a dress made from cloth not produced by slave labor. Before and during the Civil War, advocates in the North were choosing clothing made from wool, silk, linen in an effort to not support slavery. Cotton was only used when it was certified from a free labor source.

There’s a parallel to this idea in food: many people encouraged the use of maple sugar instead of cane sugar. Cane sugar was also produced on plantations using slave labor, while maple sugar was made in the North by “…only the labour of children, for that which it is said renders the slavery of the blacks necessary,” as Thomas Jefferson put it. Yep, it only took underage farm children hours of collecting sap and boiling it down to make maple syrup.

With this idea in mind, I uncovered a recipe for Molasses Candy by Catherine Beecher. Catherine, a famous cookbook writer in the 19th century, was the sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Her brother, Henry Ward Beecher, was also an fervent abolitionist. And although not as outspoken on abolition as her siblings, Catherine does suggest the use of maple syrup instead of cane molasses in her candy recipe.

Molasses Candy, from Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt-book, 1871.

I’m working on a fussier interpretation of this recipe, but in the meantime, I stumbled upon a process that’s quite simple and exceedingly delicious.

To make my maple sugar candy, I boiled maple syrup on high heat until it began to darken. While the sugar was boiling, I greased a rimmed baking sheet with spray Mazola oil, and spread roasted, salted nuts in an even layer. Catherine suggests roasted corn–we know it better as “corn nuts“–which I think would make an awesome brittle.

I poured the maple sugar over top of the nuts and then used a fork to press and then gently pull the sugar and nuts into a thin layer. The sugar is very stretchy after just a moment of cooling and gives you plenty of flexibility before it gets too brittle.

After the sugar was cool to the touch, I broke it into pieces with my hands. Done. Super simple, super beautiful, and incredibly delicious.

The Razor Blade in the Apple: A Modern History of Trick or Treating

halloween Pine Crest School student carving a Halloween pumpkin: Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 1966 or 67.

Over on Etsy, I recently investigated the early origins of Halloween traditions, including Trick or Treating.  But my research turned up a 20th century twist that I had never considered: the old “razor blade in the apple,” and the fear associated with Halloween candy.

In my Etsy article, I began with my own memories as a trick-or-treator:

I was a trick-or-treat migrant. My mom would import me from my rural home to the neighborhood where she grew up in, an urban suburb with houses closely packed on postage stamp-sized lawns. These city blocks, not the country ones that stretched for miles, were prime candy-collecting territory…I’ll never forget the feeling of adventure, pressing onward into the night, my pillowcase getting heavier and heavier with my candy treasure.

The neighborhood Mom took me to was old-school, meaning in between the houses that passed out Tootsie Rolls and pennies, there were places where elderly couples passed out King Size Snickers bars–king sized! And I’ll never forget the night when a tiny, teetering old lady came to the door with a sheet of freshly baked cookies, still warm from the oven.

I took the cookie to my Mom, terrified. Every year, teachers and television had beaten into my brain to only accept store-bought, wrapped candy. Even then, the treats had to be inspected for tampering. My mom laughed at my nervousness–”If you don’t want it, I’ll eat it!” And she did. And she said it was delicious.

I’ve never forgotten that little old lady. To this day, I wish I had eaten that cookie.

That cookie was from an earlier era: through the 1950s, a trick-or-treator could receive a bevy of homemade treats, and in many cases, could expect to be invited in (to stranger’s homes!!) for punch, snacks, and games. But that all changed in 1964 when a woman in New York got fed up with kids she thought were “too old” for trick-or-treating and began passing out bags of “dog biscuits, poisonous ant buttons, and steel wool” as a trick (source). No one was injured in the incident, but it gave birth to the legend of dangerous Halloween candy. The news media ran with the story, warning parents to inspect candy for tampering, and throw away any homemade treats like apples–lest they contain a razor blade. The “razor blade” motif began emerging in the late 1960s, when the Times reported on more than 20 cases of apple tampering in New Jersey. The razor blades were found by children eagerly chomping into their apples, who then revealed their discoveries to their parents. Except, stop to ask yourself what child is wildly biting into apples on Halloween, when there is a pile of candy as an alternative? It’s ludicrous–and all the incidents were found to be hoaxes (source).

But the nail in the coffin came in 1982, during the Tylenol tampering scandal. Consumers began to fear commercial goods and homemade treats alike, and the heyday of trick-or-treating began to come to an end.

An early 20th century Halloween prank.

It’s interesting how this scenario turns the trick-or-treating tradition on its head. The practice evolved, sort of tongue in cheek, as a bribe to prevent young pranksters from wreaking a little holiday havoc on your house (common prank: remove gate from hinges and leave in street).  But in the modern situation, the person who would have been the victim is now pranking the pranksters. And it resulted in a culture of fear.

More and more, general warnings about dangerous candy have resulted in parents and community organizations throwing Halloween parties as opposed to trick or treating. These parties are a throwback to the games and treats of early 20th century Halloween celebrations and they’ve also revived many of the old Harvest celebrations like bobbing for apples. I enjoy a good Halloween party–but I still hope I can give my children the thrill of hunting through the darkened streets for the King-Sized Snickers bars.

What do you think: will your family be trick or treating this year, or throwing a party instead?

Etsy Kitchen Histories: A History of Halloween!

Halloween costumes are just not as weird as they used to be.

Over on Etsy, I’ve got a history of Halloween with a focus on eating and treating. It’s a weird holiday when you really begin to think about it, right?

When Irish immigrants came to America in the 17th and 18th centuries, they brought All Hallows Eve traditions, which blended with American “mumming” traditions. Practiced on Thanksgiving and New Year’s, mumming involved parading the streets in rags or cross-dressing, playing music or making noise, and demanding food and drink from homeowners. Additionally, Harvest Festivals were celebrated in farming communities, which brought men and women together to shuck corn and dance. Women paring apples might throw an apple peel over their shoulders; when it hit the floor, it would reveal the initials of the girl’s future husband.

Learn more about Halloween’s origins here.

Halloween party decorations from 1924.

Origin of a Dish: Candy Corn

candy_corn_blogA handmade candy corn.

I was recently charged with the task of coming up with a hands-on food activity for the New York Historical Society’s Halloween bash, so I’ve been thinking a lot on the origins of Halloween candy.  One of the first treats to spring to my mind is also the first candy to be associated with the holiday, the much maligned Candy Corn.

The celebration Halloween became popular right at the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th.  Theme parties were all the rage, so you could expect to head over to a friend’s (with the kids or not) for spooky decorations and refreshments.  The Book of Hallowe’en, published in 1919, gives us a sense of what these parties were like:

For the centerpiece of the table there may be a hollowed pumpkin, filled with apples and nuts and other fruits of harvest, or a pumpkin-chariot drawn by field-mice… Jack-o’-lanterns, with which the room is lighted, are hollowed pumpkins with candles inside… Corn-stalks from the garden stand in clumps about the room. A frieze of witches on broomsticks, with cats, bats, and owls surmounts the fireplace, perhaps…The prevailing colors are yellow and black: a deep yellow is the color of most ripe grain and fruit; black stands for black magic and demoniac influence.

Having marched to the dining-room to the time of a dirge, the guests find before them plain, hearty fare; doughnuts, gingerbread, cider, popcorn, apples, and nuts honored by time. The Hallowe’en cake has held the place of honor since the beginning here in America. A ring, key, thimble, penny, and button baked in it foretell respectively speedy marriage, a journey, spinsterhood, wealth, and bachelorhood.

Along side the bowls of party nuts, you were also likely to find a dish of candy corn. Created around 1880, candy corn was not considered a seasonal sweet.  Better known at the time as “chicken feed,” which I think is a very cute name, it was  manufactured year round and was especially popular for the Fourth of July and in Easter baskets. But with its harvest-festival colors of yellow, orange and red it also seemed a natural fit for fall celebrations, and was slowly integrated into Halloween parties. From The Atlantic:

Candy-making oral tradition credits the invention of candy corn to George Renninger, a candy maker at the Wunderle Candy Company of Philadelphia…At that time, many candy makers were producing “butter cream” candies molded into all kinds of natural or plant-inspired shapes, including chestnuts, turnips, and clover leaves. The real innovation in candy corn was the layering of three colors. This made it taxing to produce (all those colors had to be layered by hand in those days). But the bright, layered colors also made the candy novel and visually exciting.

At the turn of the century, despite the fact there was themed candy for every other holiday (including marzipan cherries for Washington’s birthday), candy companies didn’t see Halloween as a candy-oriented holiday.  Desperate for a way to boost fall candy sales, “Candy Day” was invented, a day where you…buy candy. Later to be known as “Sweetest Day,” it’s the second Saturday of October and still celebrated in some areas, like my hometown of Cleveland.

It seems ridiculous that a candy-consuming holiday was invented when Halloween is RIGHT THERE, but it wasn’t really until after WWII, when sugar rationing was lifted, that candy companies finally caught on to the appeal, and started manufacturing Halloween themed candy in appropriate Jack-o-Lantern shapes, fall colors, and fun sizes. Conversely, Brach’s, established in 1904, is now doing its best to detach candy corn from its Halloween-only image, by producing new flavors like “Milk Maid Caramel Candy Corn” and manufacturing different seasonal colors like red & green.

candy_corn_blog2Slicing up the candy corns with my Velveeta Cheese Slicer. Handy!

I’ve never liked candy corn, but I decided to give them a second chance after I stumbled across Alton Brown’s recipe for “chicken feed” from scratch. It blends butter and powdered milk (I used Bob’s Red Mill Non-Fat Dry Milk Powder; is it weird that I love the way powdered milk tastes?) with boiled sugar. There is a bit of a learning curve with this recipe: the first time I made it, the dough turned out unusable, flaky, and weird. The second time, I was more precise: I measure my ingredients by weight instead of volume and boiled the sugar at a lower temperature. Round two was much better, and although my candy corns (pictured above) turned out looking very handmade, I find them endearing. And they taste waaay better than store-bought: they have a creaminess and tartness, a sweet and saltyness, an overall complexity of flavor that can only come from handmade.

Handmade, Chicken-Flavored, Marshmallow Peeps

A pretty miserable Peep.

As a teenager, I was obsessed with Marshmallow Peeps.  I would wait until after Easter and then descend upon Target to buy box after box of marked-down peeps, just pennies apiece.  As an adult, I can no longer devour peeps with quite the same enthusiasm, but they still fascinate me.  They represent some aspect of my personal history: a yearly spring awakening, marked by yellow and pink confections appearing faithfully on the store shelves.  The peeps eagerly peeked out from cellophane wrapped boxes, promising to be lovable and delicious.

Peep History

Marshmallows were originally made from “Marsh Mallow,” a plant whose roots produce a sticky, white, mucilaginous substance that can be whipped with egg whites and sweetened.  This treat was popular in France in the early 18th century.  By the end of the 19th century, the marsh mallow had been replace with gelatin. I have never been able to find fresh marsh mallow, but if I ever do, I’m going to make “original” marshmallows.

Sam Born, the founder of “Just Born,” the company that makes marshmallow peeps, arrived in New York via Russia in 1910.  Like many other Jewish immigrants, Born went in to the candy business.  Candy was cheap to make and easy to sell, the perfect start-up for a new immigrant looking for work.  In fact, many American candy companies were founded by Eastern European Jewish immigrants, in including Tootsie Roll and Double Bubble.

Born opened his first retail location in Brooklyn in 1932, and in the 1950s, acquired a candy company called Rodda that produced a line of marshmallow Easter peeps.  Despite the fact that the company’s owners are still observant Jews, they are copacetic with the decidedly non-Kosher peeps.  “We see no conflict in offering a non-kosher brand or one that is so associated with Easter. We are a candy company for everyone,” said Ross Born,  Bob Born’s son (source).

Making a Hand-Made Peep

When marshmallow peeps were first produced, they were entirely handmade.  Each peep was squeezed out of a pastry bag one at a time; they were sugared and the eyes were hand-painted, and then the marshmallow chicks were left to dry.  Each peep took 27 hours to produce from start to finish.   Now, automated peep-making machines churn out several thousand peeps a day–each one takes about six minutes to make.  Watch this video–it’s awesome when the shoot the eyes on.

After I read about the original, labor-intensive Peeps, I wanted to try making a Peep on my own.  I just took a marshmallow making class at the Brooklyn Brainery, so I was inspired to creatively flavor my Peeps.  But what flavor should a chicken shaped marshmallow be??

I used Alton Brown’s marshmallow recipe, and replaced the water with–you guessed it–chicken bouillon!  I wanted a delicious, sweet and savoury, chicken-flavored Peep!  I followed Brown’s recipe, but something went wrong: I don’t know whether I cooked the sugar too long, or it’s because I used chicken bouillon instead of water, but my end result was less like marshmallow fluff and more like taffy.

I tried to squeeze it out of a pastry tube, and this is what I ended up with:

My second try was slightly better, and I formed it into one misshapen Peep.  I sprinkled him with yellow sugar and dotted his eyes on with a toothpick covered in vanilla extract.

He tasted just like ramen noodles.


Ancient Candy

At last night’s meeting of Masters of Social Gastronomy, we focused on CANDY, and I spoke on the origins of sweet treats.  Below, a few of the world’s oldest sugary snacks.

Sugar Cane

About 10,000 years ago, farmers in Papua New Guinea domesticated sugar cane.  It spread to the rest of Southeast Asia where, along with bananas, it was a staple food source.   Sugar Cane is about 17% sugar and is still eaten as a snack in the countries in which it is produced: there is something very satisfying about chomping down on a fibrous strip of sugar cane.  Sugarcane is sold, unprocessed, in many ethnic grocery stores.  I found these sugar cane strips at Kalustyan’s, a fantastic Middle Eastern and Indian food store in Manhattan.  You can also find them as “swizzle sticks” for cocktails; I first had a piece of sugar cane while enjoying Brazil’s national cocktail, the Caipirinha.

Jaggary / Gur

After sugar cane was domesticated in East Asia, it made its way to India.   The earliest method method of processing sugar was developed there: beating the cane to release the sweet liquid inside, then evaporating the water to produce crystallized sugar.  This primitive processing method produces jaggary, a brown sugar that still contain molasses.  It is still eaten in India, other parts of Asia, and the Caribbean.

It’s believed the some of the first desserts, which were largely milk-based, were developed in India.  Recorded references of sweets date back thousands of years; there are mentioned in the ancient epic the Ramayana as kheer, a type of rice pudding.

Rock Candy

From India, sugar traveled to the Middle East, where sugar production was refined.  Arab countries used sugar in both sweet and savory dishes and developed the first candy: rock candy.  To make it, sugar is dissolved in water, and then allowed to recrystallize.  It was flavored with rose or violet; above, is saffron rock candy from Kalustyan’s.

The word “candy” comes from the Arabic word for sugar, “qandi.”

Manus Christi

The Middle East was also the first place to develop candy syrups and confections, like Halvah.  After sugar spread to Europe, there was a greater understanding of the various properties of sugar cooked to different temperatures.  One of the candies developed at this time was called Manus Christi, which means Hand of Christ.  It was a stick or tablet of hard candy, flavored with rose or violet water, and blended with flecks of gold or ground up gemstones.  Rich people, like Henry the Eighth, took it like a vitamin.  Intense.

Much of my research came from the great book Sweets: A History of Candy.

Head over the Brooklyn Brainery’s blog to read some of my co-teacher Soma’s fascinating posts on candy science.

Events: MSG The Candy Lectures

Masters of Social Gastronomy: Candy!
Public Assembly, 70 North 6th Street in Williamsburg
When: Tuesday, February 28sth.  Doors at 7

We’re kicking off a new bar room lecture series all about food!  Each month, Sarah Lohman of Four Pounds Flour and Jonathan Soma of the Brooklyn Brainery will take on a curious food topic and break down the history, science, and stories behind it.

Sarah will talk about ancient candies with a connection to the present day: from the first sweet treats in Asia to the development of confections like Halvah, we’ll explore the story of candy from pre-history to Marshmallow Peeps.

Meanwhile, Soma will unravel the science behind all your favorite niche candy and show you how to whip up cunning imitations at home. From the explosive power of Pop Rocks and the spicy burn of Atomic Fireballs to the sour rush of Warheads and the soothing coolness of Orbit gum – it’s chemistry vs candy!

Help us help you by RSVPing on Facebook here.  It will ensure we bring enough candy.

If you have a candy-related question, leave it in the comments on this post.  Soma and I will answer them live on Tuesday.  If you live outside of New York, don’t fret: we’re going to begin podcasting these lectures, so you can listen from anywhere!

The Gallery: Peep Show

In honor of the talk on candy I’m giving next week (for more info, go here) and the fact that Marshmallow Peeps will soon start appearing on store shelves, I’ve busted out this little piece of ephemera from 2006.  I hosted a party at my home at which I made a dozen different types of marshmallows.  Inspired by my love of Peeps, I decided to try out some “new” potential peep flavors.

I invited a panel of my friends over and had them vote on their favorites: they used a scale from one to five, with one being the worst and five being the best.  This above participant was rather kind; on other ballots Saffron and Curry peeps didn’t fare so well, while Honey, Maple and Rosewater scored consistently high.


Taste History Today: Clear Toys and Cleveland’s Early Ethnic Groups

I wanted to share with you two interesting, culinary history Christmas presents I received this year. My mom tucked a pair of “clear toys” into my stocking; made by Timberlake Candies, these little treast were popular gifts in the Victorian era:

Twisted sticks of Barley Sugar were originally made in the 17th century by boiling down refined cane sugar (a new product at that time) with barley water, cream of tartar, and water. During the 18th century metal molds were used to create the wonderful variety of shapes known as Barley Sugar Clear Toys. These became a popular Victorian Christmas treat.

“Clear Toy Candy” refers to the molding of hard candy into various three dimensional shapes without sticks (not a lollypop). The term does not imply the use of Barley Candy, though traditionally Barley Sugar and Barley Candy were used to make clear toy candy.

Timberlake Candy has hundreds of antique molds appropriate for any holiday or season, but they only make the traditional barley candy for a few weeks around Christmas. Buy barley sugar candy here.
My aunt gave me a tin of spices from The Olive and The Grape , a local business in Cleveland.  The tin contains a collection of seasonings “…Reflecting the history and foods of the ten major ethnic groups who were first to settle Cleveland–African-Americans, Chinese, Czech, German, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Polish, Slovenian and Ukrainian.”  I’ll have to cook a traditional Cleveland area dish appropriate to each of these ethnic groups!

The Historic Gastronomist’s Gift Guide

Curious where to find the best Christmas gifts for the culinary history enthusiast in your life?  Look no further: I’ve put together this list of gifts for the antiquated cook and contemporary gastronome alike..

Vintage and Historic Cook Books:

Kitchen Arts & Letters
1435 Lexington Ave, New York, NY 10128
(212) 876-5550

“Nach Waxman is owner of one of the largest food bookstores in the country, Kitchen Arts & Letters, in Manhattan. From his perch behind the counter, he sees customers—famous chefs, not-famous line cooks, and civilians alike—streaming in to peruse his bountiful, unusual collection. Waxman shows us the basement, where he’s got some truly rare books. (”

Joanna Hendricks Cookbooks

488 Grennwich Street, New York NY
tel. 212-226-5731

“Located downtown, on Manhattan’s far west side, the tiny unique shop is filled with a variety of vintage cookbooks, menus, photographs and tableware. There isn’t a lot of foot traffic on this part of Greenwich Street and it’s easy to miss the store. Look for a small copper plaque that reads cookbooks, affixed to a very old and heavy wooden door. (”



Measuring Spoons

Cast Iron Cookware from Lodge Cast Iron
$10 and Up

“Nestled alongside the Cumberland Plateau of the Appalachian Mountains is the town of South Pittsburg, Tennessee (population 3,300). Yet out of this tiny community comes the finest cast iron cookware in the world. Lodge Cast Iron began making cookware during the first presidential term of William McKinley. Amazingly, some of the first cast iron skillets,griddles and dutch ovens made over 100 years ago are still being put to good use.”


Economy Candy
108 Rivington Street
New York, NY 10002
(800) 352-4544
order online:
photo: petervh

This mega candy store on New York’s lower east side carries a plethora of hard-to-find historic cooking ingredients such as preserved citron peel, dried currants, and almond paste. Additionally, they carry “Old Time Favorites,” vintage candy bars like the Cherry Mash.

Deborah’s Pantry
327 Sumneytown Pike
Harleysville, PA 19438
order online:

Deborah’s Pantry specializes in obscure 18th century cooing ingredients and apparatus, including isinglass and pearlash.  The 18th Century Tea Sampler ($16) makes a great gift for the casual enthusiastic.

Cheese of the Month Club
Murray’s Cheese
254 Bleecker St.
New York, NY 10014

The Cheese of the Month club is on everyone’s wish list: “Murray’s Cheese of the Month is a 1½ pound selection of 3 varied and delicious cheeses, sent to your door for 4, 6 or 12 consecutive months. Each selection includes a variety of milk types, textures and flavor profiles, with a special focus on seasonal cheeses.”