Cut in half lengthwise:
25 vanilla beans*
Using the tip of a spoon, scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean pods. Place the pods and seeds in a quart jar....
Candy-making is one area of cooking that I have very little experience with. I make a mean salted caramel, and I do a pumpkin seed brittle on occasion that can make you swoon, but generally speaking, I don't enjoy making candy because the results are too sweet, and you wind up with more than you could possibly eat. Of course, as a baker, I understand the beauty of creating magical treats with lots of sugar. But the last thing I need in the world is a tin full of candy lurking in the pantry.
I do make exceptions, though, at certain times of the year and for certain special treats. Halloween is one. Since I'm not a kid anymore, I can't exactly go out with a pillowcase and collect the goods, and since we don't have any kids, we can't steal miniature candy bars from our children's stash after they go to bed (which I suspect my own parents of doing when I was little). So the answer is to make candy for ourselves. Grown-up candy.
Of course, we could buy candy. We live in Portland, so we could go to any number of artisan confectioners and get a classy, sugary fix with a really nice, design-y label slapped on it. But because we live in Portland, we're obviously going to get all small-batch on you and make our own.
Brittle-style candy is one of the best kinds to make at home for its relative ease of preparation. You don't need special tools or molds. You just boil some sugar to the right temperature and pour it out on a well-greased baking sheet. Of course, there's slightly more to it than that, but not much.
Sponge candy is one of my favorite brittle-style candies. It is also called honeycomb candy or seafoam candy in different parts of the world. It has the caramelized, nutty flavor of brittle but with dramatic and very crunchy air pockets that give it its characteristic appearance. To me, it has the flavor of charred marshmallows, which of course I love.
To make this recipe our own, we wanted to gussy it up something special. If you're going to make candy, it should be fabulous, after all. For starters, we replaced the honey in traditional honeycomb candy with sorghum syrup. Sorghum is similar to molasses, but less bitter and made from sorghum cane rather than being a byproduct of sugar-making. For this recipe, if you can't find sorghum syrup, mild molasses will work, but sorghum is really worth seeking out. I like it better than maple syrup (Vermonters, please don't take offense!).
While the resulting candy was complex and delicious, we felt it needed a little push to take it from sweet curiosity to phenomenal. And so, we took a hint from the Violet Crumble bar of Australian fame and coated the candy in bittersweet chocolate. Because we can, we sprinkled the top with very coarse, flaky sea salt. Victory.
Some pointers to success:
-Have everything ready to go before you get started. Make sure your sheet pan is ready and the baking soda is at arm's length in a small sifter (I use a little metal sieve as a sifter). Also have a spatula and a whisk within reach.
-Do not even attempt to make this on a humid or wet day. Sugar is hygroscopic, meaning it will draw moisture out of the air. This makes sugar very unstable in its solid form. Making this on a humid day will get you a sticky, goopy mess, not the crunchy candy it should be.
-You are dealing with molten sugar syrup here. There's no need to be alarmed, but do use caution. You may want an oven mitt handy so you can measure the temperature of the syrup without burning your hand.
-You can make this candy without covering it with chocolate, but it will not last as long. Even in fairly dry conditions, this candy will get sticky after a few days. The chocolate provides a barrier between the candy and the air, keeping it crisp and tasty indefinitely.
-I did not temper my chocolate when I made this, largely because time is one thing I always run short on, and tempering is kind of a pain. If you do want to temper the chocolate, here's a great little how-to.
-Do yourself a favor and use a digital thermometer. Inexpensive ones are readily available, and you'll be able to use it for a variety of things--not just candy. You need to be able to measure temperature accurately for this recipe. If you already have a thermometer, make sure it is calibrated properly--even a few degrees can affect the outcome of this candy.
-One commenter alerted me to the fact that not all sorghum syrup is created equal. Depending on the producer, you may find sorghum that is very dark, like molasses, or fairly light, like dark honey. If you can find a lighter-colored sorghum to use in this recipe, that's preferable. Sorghum is already cooked quite a bit, so if you get a dark sorghum it may burn with any additional cooking.
Line a 12x17-inch rimmed baking sheet with a silicone baking mat if you have one. If not, grease or butter the pan, line it with parchment, and grease or butter the parchment. Whatever you do, do not attempt to make this without some kind of barrier between the candy and the baking sheet or you will rue the day you were born.
In a large pot (this candy swells up several times in volume once you add the baking soda, so use a bigger pot than you think you need), combine:
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup water
Over medium high heat, bring the mixture to a boil, stirring constantly. Once the sugar has completely melted, stop stirring. Bring the mixture to 265˚F, and add:
1/4 cup sorghum syrup or mild molasses
This will reduce the heat of the syrup considerably. Continue to boil, without stirring, until the syrup reaches 300˚F. Immediately remove from the heat and sift over it:
1 tablespoon baking soda
Whisk vigorously and quickly to disperse the baking soda. Use caution--it will bubble quite dramatically. Pour the mixture onto the lined baking sheet. Do not spread the candy with a spatula or you will destroy the honeycomb structure. Allow to cool completely.
Break the candy into pieces for a rustic look, or you can use a serrated knife to saw it into regular-sized pieces. Melt in a double boiler:
1 pound bittersweet chocolate, chopped
Using a fork or your hands, coat the sponge candy with the chocolate. Place dipped pieces on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Sprinkle the chocolate-coated candy very sparingly with:
Flaky sea salt or Maldon salt
while the chocolate is still wet. Refrigerate to set the chocolate. Store these candies in an airtight container in the refrigerator.