An ode to that magnificent scoundrel named SUGAR:
Oh lovely Sugar, how you captivate and inspire me, with your endless incarnations and magical properties. You can be woven into cakes, stretched into taffy, whipped into frosting, and sprinkled on cookies, just to name a few of your beloved virtues. You are granulated, powdered, syrupy, white, brown, course, fine, pearlized; an unparalleled baking chameleon. Without you, foods would struggle to satiate my cravings for sweetness. Your absence would deprive beaten eggs of their glossy peaks; caramel would not exist without your magical crystals; crème could not be bruléed. Quite simply, life would grow bleak and dim without your sweet existence.
I cannot sing your praises loudly enough, oh great and precious Sugar. And yet, despite your distinguished and exalted characteristics… you frustrate the living bejeezus out of me.
I have such a love-hate relationship with sugar (in case that wasn’t evident). Its culinary capabilities are truly mind-blowing; the molecular structure of sugar is one of the greatest occurrences in the natural world, in my humble opinion. However, it can also be one of the most difficult and temperamental ingredients to work with, especially for a home baker without an intimate understanding of chemistry.
I wish I could say that this post will chronicle the fashioning of an elegant holiday confection with seasoned baking prowess, but that is really not what happened in my kitchen last night. This recipe is responsible for the death of my favorite bamboo spoon and a tragic mass of hardened sugar in my 2-quart saucepan, hitherto unseen. At the risk of scaring you off, I feel that it is my duty to be honest!
But let’s focus on the positives, shall we? The other star ingredient in this recipe, pumpkin seeds (otherwise known as pepitas), are decidedly less volatile, moody, and unpredictable. ‘Cause let me tell you, this recipe cannot handle TWO drama-queen ingredients! Pumpkin seeds can be used in either sweet or savory dishes, and if you’ve never tried them, I highly recommend toasting them in a toaster oven or skillet until they puff and pop and then toss ’em in a salad. I’m not sure if I’ve baked with them before myself, but I was eager to try this neat twist on the traditional holiday nut brittle for this week’s Baked Sunday Mornings assignment.
Everything started off well, with my pumpkin seeds toasting up beautifully golden. I used only 1 tablespoon of oil to coat the seeds (half the amount in the recipe), as this seemed like plenty, and I didn’t want overly greasy seeds. I *may* have made clear that I struggle with sugar recipes, so I was apprehensive to try this one. It’s not unlike a caramel, although the recipe calls for a bit of honey in addition to the sugar and corn syrup. Anybody who’s been reading this blog knows that I grovel before the brilliance of the BAKED trilogy of cookbooks, but I have to admit that the instructions for this recipe were not the most helpful for a brittle-making novice. If a recipe does not call for a candy thermometer, it is very important for the directions to be precise when judging the sugar by color. I was instructed to stir the sugar, corn syrup, honey, and water in a saucepan until the mixture was “almost clear”. I took this to mean that it would more or less resemble a syrup, similar to a boiled sugar syrup that eventually becomes caramel. I think a better description would be, “stir the mixture until all the sugar has dissolved”. Because of the honey, it never really approximated a state that I would call “clear”. I toiled over the pot vigilantly for about 20 minutes (seriously) before deciding that this brew would not get any clearer, and finally added the butter. At this point, you stop stirring and let the mixture boil until it takes on a golden brown color. Even at 10 minutes (the high end of the prescribed boiling time), it looked fairly light, so I let it keep going for another minute or two.
Again, to describe it as “golden brown” was a little inaccurate; I finally turned off the heat, then stirred in the baking soda, cinnamon, and salt. (Make sure to measure these out ahead of time and have them handy because you will need them quickly once your sugar/butter mixture is ready.) The instructions then say to stir in the pumpkin seeds once the vigorous bubbling subsides. My experience with caramel led me to expect the mixture to sputter, like when you add cream to a boiling sugar syrup. Instead, the mixture frothed up gradually and thickened as I stirred. It was golden brown at this point, but it actually got too brown. Because sugar transforms so quickly, I had to make an executive decision: I decided to abort this batch of brittle. As I was stirring, the mixture had begun to take on a texture approaching taffy, which I knew would not be right for a brittle. Rather than waste a batch of pepitas, I pulled the plug.
I wasn’t sure what to do with this scalding, sticky mess, so I left it in the pot. This was, needless to say, a VERY BAD IDEA. I ended up with a 2-inch-thick rock-hard mass in the bottom of my saucepan… with my spoon stuck in it. Just out of curiosity, I broke off a “thread” of the hardened sugar clinging to the spoon. Let’s just say it’s a good thing that I don’t have any fillings– this was undoubtedly a dental hazard!
It took a full day of filling the pot with hot water and pouring off layers of melted sugar to wash it out. Aaaaand this is the point at which my favorite wooden spoon met its untimely end. Trying to pry it loose from the hard sugar, I heard a crack and assumed it was the sugar giving way to release my spoon from captivity… But no, it was actually the spoon. Breaking.
(Do not try this at home.)
But I was not ready to give up on this brittle! As has been my recent habit with BAKED recipes, I decided to try the recipe a second time. I was so glad that I had decided not to add the pumpkin seeds, so at least I didn’t have to re-toast them. The second time making the sugar mixture, I stirred for about 15 minutes before adding the butter. Despite being a very pale gold, I took the pot off the heat after 9 minutes. I was wondering if it would bubble up more this time, but again, it didn’t bubble a tremendous amount. I decided that it’s simply not the same type of bubbling as I would expect when making caramel because I wasn’t adding cream. I had reached the point of no return; I took the plunge and stirred in the pepitas. The sugar mixture finally started to smooth out and become shiny like, well, a brittle!
I quickly poured the contents of the pot onto my prepared sheet pan and spread it gently with an offset spatula. Things were looking good! The instructions suggested adding a chocolate layer by sprinkling chopped dark chocolate onto the piping hot brittle and spreading it once the chocolate had melted.
Now, I am not one to pass up an opportunity to add chocolate to a recipe! Clearly this was a no-brainer. I decided to cover only half of the batch in chocolate, so I could taste both variations. I chilled the brittle in the fridge to expedite the setting of the chocolate and then carefully broke it into jagged pieces. For some reason I got a little chocolate “bloom” (discoloration due to untempered chocolate), but this was a minor disturbance… though I have to admit that it does tug at my OCD heart strings. 😀
Despite its rough, uneven shards, brittle manages to preserve a certain elegance. My mistake was not covering the whole thing in chocolate! I’m not a big fan of honey, and the non-chocolate version of the brittle tasted heavily of honey to me. It wasn’t bad, but I would probably make a point of using a milder honey next time (or maybe more cinnamon). I am a big fan of sweet and salty treats, and it did deliver in that regard. The chocolate-covered brittle, on the other hand, was delicious. I really enjoyed how the different flavors all came together, and I was totally stoked to have made successful candy! The second batch of brittle had a pleasant initial crunch and became increasingly sticky in my teeth as I ate more of it, though not so much that I felt it would dismantle dental work! (At least I hope not…) I *think* this is pretty normal for brittle and toffee, so I consider this recipe a success. I don’t think it was perfect, and I would like to learn more about the sugar chemistry, but I was pretty pleased with the results!
Brittle makes an attractive and tasty holiday gift, and I think this one is quite lovely, especially with the chocolate. Package it in individual clear gift bags or layer the pieces in a decorative dish and serve.
You can find the recipe for Toasted Pumpkin Seed Brittle at Baked Sunday Mornings. That’s how I roll lately on most Sundays; check out my fellow bakers too! 🙂