Cooking Up History: Candy Recipes for the Holidays

Five different kinds of homemade candy, cream caramels, Christmas keepsake fudge, peanut brittle, sponge candy and fondant stars.

Candy from the collections. From left, Cream Caramels, Christmas Keepsake Fudge, Peanut Brittle, Sponge Candy and Uncooked Fondant.

The winter holidays are almost here! If you can’t face any more shopping, prefer to make gifts, or would simply like to brighten someone’s day, this post has suggestions for last-minute treats you can whip up yourself. Homemade candy is a welcome seasonal confection that’s perfect to share. It’ll mean a trip to the grocery store, and some mess in the kitchen, but it’s still an ideal group activity to enjoy with kids or friends. The results are worth it too; they’re sure to bring a smile to faces and you’ll have a stash of goodies to hand out at short notice. The recipes and suggestions below are all from the Library’s online collections. They are delicious and old-fashioned, but this is the perfect time of year for some confectionary nostalgia. Perhaps they will remind you of candy from holidays past, or of similar family recipes and traditions.

 

Three children in old fashioned dress stand in front of an old kitchen range. An older girl stirs a pot on the stove; a young boy and girl are pulling taffy.

Cover illustration of When Mother Lets Us Make Candy, published by Moffat, Yard and Company, New York, 1915.

Some resources assume you’re already familiar with sweet-making techniques. If that’s not the case or you’d like a quick refresher, start with When Mother Lets Us Make Candy. This children’s recipe book from 1915 is full of easy-to-follow instructions, and provides clearer directions than some other sources do. Take a look at the helpful Rules and Rimes section in the Table of Contents to find advice for before, during and after you make candy. Page 19 explains how to use a sugar thermometer, but don’t worry if you haven’t got one; there are alternative methods for testing temperature.  If you’re ambitious enough to try pulling taffy, take a look at the recipes and detailed instructions starting with the recipe on page 56. There is a section on how to make natural food coloring for Uncooked Fondant. If you’d rather not use the raw egg in the recipe, look for pasteurized egg whites sold in grocery stores. Once your treats are finished, check out these clever ideas for packaging candy for gift giving.

A Little Candy Book for a Little Girl (1918) incorporates recipes and instruction into the story of Betsey Bobbitt. Betsey’s mother teaches her to make “pure and wholesome candy” rather than eating sweets made from “cheap, impure materials”. Chapters on cool weather candies, fudge, caramels and more chart Betsey’s progress from a sweet-making novice to an experienced confectioner and budding entrepreneur. If you’re short of time or want some easy no-cook recipes, try these stuffed marshmallows or the stuffed dates on pages 103-105. There’s also an interesting historical perspective on life for “home fighters” in World War I in the Appendix. Pages 136-137 outline how to support “our army boys and our needy allies” by cutting sugar consumption and using substitutes for homemade sweets.

There are candy recipes galore in historic newspapers. You can discover more in Chronicling America, the Library’s digitized newspaper collection, but here are a few of the Informal Learning team’s favorites:

A girl in old fashioned dress pours chocolate candy from a pan into a dish.

Illustration from A Little Candy Book for a Little Girl, by Amy L. Waterman. Published by The Page Company, Boston 1918.

  • I ate far too much of this delicious Peanut Brittle while recipe testing! It’s one of several recipes described as easy and child-friendly in an article from 1936. If you make the brittle, be sure to stir it occasionally after you add the nuts as they do burn easily. I learned this the hard way.
  • Candy’s in the Making (1949) features Mrs. Alvord Baker and her “best recipes”, including Caramel Hickory Nut Fudge, Sour Cream Fudge and Vanilla Caramels.
  • Candy and Candy Making (1953) describes different types of candy, and provides recipes for “No Cook” Fondant, Peanut Butter Fudge and Kris Kringle Balls.
  • Give Away Christmas (1956) offers “short-cut candy recipes designed for twelfth-hour preparation”, including the Christmas Keepsake Fudge pictured above.
  • Want to try Mamie Eisenhower’s Million Dollar Fudge? It and the Cream Caramels in the photo above are two of the recipes in this article from 1956.
  • If you’ve ever wondered about the history of the candy cane, it’s all explained in a column from 1957.
  • “Marzipan artist” Mathilde Mordell is the star of this 1958 piece. There’s a full description of the delicacies she makes and the history of the confection. It might be hard to match Mathilde’s impressive expertise, but marzipan potatoes are an easy way to hone your modelling skills
  • If you make this “down on the farm” Sponge Candy from 1959, be sure to use a large pan. It foams up in spectacular (and potentially messy) fashion once the baking soda goes into the mixture.
  • Instructions for Christmas Divinity, Filbert Penuche, Chocolate Brittle and Walnut Clusters are included in Holiday Candies Are Fun to Make (1961).

Once you’ve made your candy, store it in airtight containers to keep it fresh. For gifting, you can repurpose boxes, coffee cans or paper bags. Any packaging that can be sealed shut will do. Decorating these with festive paper or designs will make them attractive and seasonal and is another fun family project in itself. Enjoy handing out your homemade treats to lucky recipients – and try not to eat too many of the delicious creations yourself!

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 Comments

  1. Alison Noyes
    December 14, 2022 at 10:47 am

    Thank you, Rachel Gordon, for kitchen testing these recipes! It makes it so much fun to read, and gives a much greater level of confidence for any of us to follow your lead and try something new. The Library of Congress’s “Informal Learning” department is my new favorite with these tempting offerings.

    • Rachel Gordon
      December 14, 2022 at 11:46 am

      Alison, we’re so glad to hear that you’re enjoying the ILO blog. The recipe testing is great fun – do try that Peanut Brittle; it’s a team favorite!

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