Jan Norris: Food and Florida

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How to Make Peanut Brittle and Divinity: Pick Your Weather Carefully

December 20th, 2009 · No Comments


Here in South Florida, where I’m picking up all the coconuts that blew off my tree during the recent storm, I’ve been waiting for today’s weather like a kid on Christmas Eve waiting for reindeer noises.

It’s dry. Humidity is very low – down around 35 percent – unheard of lately. And it’s time for serious candymaking that can only be a guaranteed success in this perfect weather.

Fish and Humidity are Kitchen Nightmares

rainfall-mapOther than learning to cook fish properly, baking questions are the tops to the experts from those coming to our state from elsewhere. No matter how close to the shore they were, bakers tend to expect altitude to be the reason for their failures down here, when it’s the humidity that does it. Water in the air causes countless troubles in the kitchen.

We get our share of rain down here. It’s a lot. And it always seems to hit during the holidays when everyone is trying to cook recipes like divinity, or brittle or caramel icings that don’t work well in high humidity.

It’s science – not magic

There is a lot of science behind what I say, but I won’t bore you with it. Instead, if you want to read how this works, pick up books by one of two great authors that I constantly use as reference: 

shirleycorriherIf you cook, go for Shirley Corriher’s Cookwise: The Secrets of Cooking Revealed, or BakeWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking. I like her down-to-earth style, and her recipes a lot – and they obviously work like a charm.

If you lean more toward science, read Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. Despite the more dull title, it’s a fun read and he’s got references that keep you digging deeper for even more. (Disclosure: By making it easy for readers to click over to Amazon and look at these books, I get a few pennies per book from a sale if you buy one.)

Make all your boiled candies today

Divinity – that egg-white foam candy with nuts – is another one that can be tricky  in humidity, so I hope to to whip up a batch of it, as well. I remember my mom and Aunt Johnnie burning up hand-mixers making it in years past — it’s so thick and beautiful, but problematic for the little mixers. I recommend a stand mixer for the job.

Measure ingredients before turning on the stove

measuringspoonsYou can use roasted peanuts in brittle, but classic style is to use raw (green) peanuts. If you can’t find them at the grocery store  – and they usually carry them this time of year for candymakers – look in Whole Foods or GreenWise, or health food stores.

Don’t wait till you’re in the middle of the candies to measure the ingredients – both require things to be done quickly and with boiled candy, temperature and consistency change in the blink of an eye.

Boiled sugar requires heavy pan

ironskilletI use my iron skillet for making brittle. It holds heat evenly – a must for boiling sugar or making chocolate stuff. It’s seasoned so well, it’s non-stick for me.

Have a baking pan buttered and ready. Clear the counters, and shoo the animals and small kids out of the kitchen and shut off the phone. Working with boiling hot sugar that’s like molten lava when it hits your skin is one of the most dangerous moves in the kitchen. Give it your undivided attention.

Peanut brittle recipe

Note: I like to use coarse sea salt in the pan when I pour out the brittle, so after buttering the pan I’m going to pour into, I sprinkle it with sea salt. It’s a separate amount from the recipe.

  • Butter for greasing pan
  • 1 tablespoon coarse sea salt
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 cup light corn syrup (dark will work)
  • 2 cups raw peanuts
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Equipment: Heavy pot or skillet, baking pan with lip, candy thermometer or small bowl of cold water

Measure out ingredients and have them near stove as you work.

Generously grease bottom and sides of a lipped baking pan (jelly roll size for thicker brittle, half-sheet cookie pan for thin brittle). Sprinke with coarse salt.

Stir together the sugar, water, corn syrup and peanuts and salt into a large, heavy bottled saucepot or iron skillet. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring only to combine, until mixture bubbles. Cook until mixture boils down and carmelizes to a dark golden brown, or reaches 300 degrees on a candy thermometer. (The recipe climbs from 250 to 300 in a heartbeat, so pay attention. No thermometer? Drop a tiny amount from the tip of a spoon into a little glass of cold water. If it forms a hard ball or the string from the spoon hardens, it’s done.)

Working quickly, turn off the heat and add butter and baking soda. The mixture will foam up; stir furiously at this point. Add vanilla and stir again to mix. Pour mixture into buttered pan and quickly spread with back of spoon.

When cool enough to handle, flip the candy in the pan and cool completely.

Break into pieces with a mallet or the edge of an iron skillet.

Keep in a tin between waxed paper layers indefinitely.

divinityDivinity recipe 

For this candy — heavensent clouds of sugar and pecans – I use a heavy saucepan, one with a lip for pouring the boiled sugar makes it easy to add to the egg whites while running the mixer. Clear off the counter around the mixer to make this easy and remember to keep kids well away from the process.

  • 3 egg whites, at room temperature
  • 4 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 cup light (not dark) corn syrup
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 cup pecans, chopped fairly fine
  • pecan halves, for garnish, optional

In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat egg whites till stiff.

Combine sugar, corn syrup, water, and salt in heavy saucepan. Cook and stir over medium heat until mixture starts to boil. Continue cooking until mixture forms hard ball when tested in cold water (or use a thermometer – 260 degrees is hard ball stage).

With mixer running at high speed throughout, pour a little of the syrup over whites to heat them.

Slowly add remainder of syrup, beating constantly, until mixture holds its shape. It will be quite thick.

Quickly stir in vanilla and nuts by hand.

Drop by teaspoonful onto waxed paper. Press a pecan half into the top of each candy.

Makes about 5 dozen pieces.


Cherry divinity: Replace vanilla extract with almond extract. Cut pecans to 1/2 cup and add 1/2 cup well-drained chopped maraschino cherries.

Other additions: Add 1/2 cup shredded coconut after adding nuts. Use walnuts or almonds in place of pecans. Use food coloring, if desired – 1/2 teaspoon – when adding vanilla.


Tags: Holiday cooking · Recipes: What's Cooking!

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