Earl is as laid-back as she is charming as she happily passes on the secrets she's learned through 30âÑyears of practice.
Instead of using a candy thermometer, she tells how long to boil mixtures in saucepans on the stove top. Better yet, Earl has perfected the art of candy making in the microwave.
After her workshop, I went home and tried the microwave caramels, which basically involved mixing butter with four kinds of sugar, zapping the mixture in the microwave for 6 1/2 minutes and pouring the goo into a greased pan to cool.
The only time-consuming part was cutting the cooled caramels into squares and wrapping them individually in wax paper. The finished product truly was fabulous, and I began a tradition of passing them out to neighbors and friends at the holidays.
Before long, I was getting requests for my homemade caramels, which were a cinch compared to other recipes.
This year, I attended another of Earl's workshops at the Christmas Craft Festival presented by the Utah State University Extension, Weber State University and the Standard-Examiner. Afterward, I decided to experiment with more of her tried-and-true recipes.
Earl made promises of never-fail toffee, peanut brittle in minutes, and faux Thin Mints that mimic the real thing. I decided to put her words to the test.
I started with the recipe that Earl promised could never fail. She claimed to have cooked the butter and sugar over too-high heat, substituted every cracker imaginable in place of saltines, and to have known a lady who skipped the step to bake the toffee in the oven entirely -- yet in all cases, the end result was delicious.
The rebellious part of me wanted to see if it really would "never fail."
It took about 30 minutes from start to finish to follow the recipe. I didn't know how long it would take for the toffee to set, but the kids and I took a few tastes while we waited. We were just testing if it was ready or not. OK, the truth is, all that chocolate, butter and sugar melted together was hard to resist.
To speed up the cooling process, I put the pan in the refrigerator, which turned out to be a mistake. When the toffee did set up, it was a little soft and didn't have the same snap that Earl's did. She later told me that the humidity of the fridge can cause that. It's best to set the pan in a cool, dry place.
Though it wasn't perfect, the end result was delicious and quickly devoured by my family -- and so it lived up to Earl's promise.
The unique thing about this treat is that it is almost impossible to identify the saltine crackers when it is complete. They add just the right crisp, salty flavor to the buttery, sweet toffee.
Peanut Butter Bites
The night a snowstorm moved in during a recent week seemed like the perfect time to cozy up in the kitchen for some more experimentation with Earl's recipes.
I started out with a box of Cheez-It crackers and a jar of creamy peanut butter. Within five minutes, I had assembled two dozen tiny sandwiches by dabbing a little bit of peanut butter between two crackers. Five minutes later, I had melted chocolate in the microwave, dipped the little sandwiches, and set them on wax paper to dry.
These tasty little treats, reminiscent of miniature Butterfinger candy bars, would make a nice finger food for a holiday party.
Since the first candy was so quick and easy, I decided to move right along to turning Ritz crackers into dollar mints. According to Earl, these are a time-tested favorite.
She recommends melting mint dipping pieces and dark or light chocolate together, or adding drops of mint oil to melted chocolate. She cautions to go easy on the oil, because the flavor needs time to blend and your cookies will taste mintier with each passing day.
I didn't have any mint oil on hand, so I decided to add peppermint emulsion to the chocolate I had already melted for the peanut butter bites. Earl had cautioned against using peppermint extract because it is not as concentrated as the oil -- and as soon as I added the emulsion, I could see it was a mistake. The chocolate turned into a pasty mint chocolate frosting. It was a very good mint chocolate frosting; however, it was useless for dipping.
I decided to make do and frosted the Ritz crackers instead. The frosting hardened when it dried and although the end result was not as attractive as it should have been, my kids did not seem to mind.
Next time, I followed the recipe using the mint oil, and they turned out to be a clever solution to fill in the gaps between annual Girl Scout cookie sales.
Next, I tried microwave peanut brittle. I'm a real fan of making candy by tossing a few ingredients in the microwave -- and this recipe did not disappoint.
The whole process could not have been simpler. In about an hour, the peanut brittle had cooled and was ready to be broken into pieces.
When I sampled the candy, I discovered a dreamy combination of sweet and salty goodness. It was so delicious, I decided on the spot that this peanut brittle will replace the annual caramels. It was quick and easy, and, as a bonus, it was less time-consuming to break it up than to cut and wrap the caramels.
Whether you are already an expert candy maker or a novice like me, my final word is that Earl's recipes are worth a try.
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup white corn syrup
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup chopped pecans (optional)
Melt butter in microwave. Add all other ingredients and stir well. Microwave for 6-8 minutes (time varies depending on the microwave). Remove bowl from microwave and pour contents into an 8-by-8-inch glass dish that has been sprayed with cooking spray. Refrigerate for 30 minutes before cutting into 36 squares. Squares can be wrapped individually in wax paper.
2 sticks butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup chocolate chips
Chopped nuts (optional)
Line a 10-by-15-inch cookie sheet that has 1 inch sides with foil. Spray with vegetable spray. Spread a single layer of saltine crackers on top of foil, cutting crackers to fit in gaps. In a pan, bring to boil 2 sticks of butter and 1 cup brown sugar over medium-high heat. Boil for 3 minutes, stirring as needed. Pour mixture over crackers and spread to cover. Bake in oven at 375 degrees for 7 minutes. Remove from oven and use spatula to press crackers down flat. Sprinkle 1 cup of chocolate chips on top and let stand for a couple of minutes to melt the chocolate. Spread the melted chocolate until smooth. Sprinkle with chopped nuts of your choice (optional). Cool and break into pieces.
Peanut Butter Bites
Creamy peanut butter
Melt dipping chocolate in microwave, stirring every 30 seconds until smooth. Place a small dab of creamy peanut butter between two Cheez-It crackers to form sandwiches. With a fork or candy tool, dip each cracker sandwich into chocolate and place on wax paper to cool.
Dark or light dipping chocolate
Melt dipping chocolate in microwave, stirring every 30 seconds until smooth. Add mint oil (6-7 drops, do not add more according to taste as the mint flavor will become stronger over time) and stir. With a fork or candy tool, dip Ritz crackers individually in chocolate. Slide coated cracker onto wax paper to cool. After the chocolate is set, store in a container with a layer of wax paper between each layer. Can be stored for several weeks. Mint flavor will become stronger as the flavors have time to blend.
Microwave Peanut Brittle
1 cup sugar
1 cup raw peanuts
1/2 cup light corn syrup
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon salt
Mix sugar, peanuts and corn syrup in a large glass container. Microwave on high for 4 minutes. Stir. Microwave for another 2 minutes on high. Add 2 tablespoons of butter and stir. Microwave for another 2 minutes on high (1 1/2 minutes will make a chewier candy). Remove from microwave and quickly add baking soda, vanilla and salt. Stir until foamy (a few seconds). Pour into an 8-by-8-inch baking dish that has been lined with foil and buttered or sprayed with vegetable spray. Spread evenly and allow to cool before breaking into pieces.