Every year in Union County, Georgia, they hold a Sorghum festival. For most of my early childhood, this was a centerpiece in our autumn activities.
For those of you without enough Appalachia in your blood, sorghum is a sugar crop. Kind of like the South's answer to sugar cane. It was cheap, easy to grow, did well in places where sugar cane or beet didn't, and was a staple of Southern cookery for decades until refined sugars became more easily available. The Sorghum Festival is a celebration of this old-fashioned sticky treat, with suitable old-fashioned activities to keep a kid fascinated for a long, cool weekend. I don't know if they're still doing it, but in my youth this included log-sawing and greased-pig-catching competitions. Country fairs are so underrated.
Of course, I didn't know any of this when I was a kid, though. I just knew that sorghum syrup kicks ass on a hot biscuit.
I don't think I had thought about sorghum syrup or the festival in decades, though, until this past October, as we were quietly enjoying our own New England fall colors in the wake of my grandmother's (and the Critter's namesake's) passing. Sitting around one evening and telling the children stories of some of our adventures together, I remembered that we had once tried, unsuccessfully, to make homemade sorghum candy. We made a real botch of it, and I think ruined at least one pan completely in our attempts. Given how sticky hot boiled sugar can be, we were lucky that one or both of us didn't end up with 3rd degree burns in the process, given that I was 8, and she was well into her 60's. But I do remember having a lot of fun along the way.
The week of my grandmother's death, I ordered two small jugs of sorghum syrup (amazing what you can find on amazon), and told the kids we'd make candy like Nanny and I did when I was a kid. They sat in the pantry through the holidays, and occasionally the Critter would remind me that we were supposed to make candy. Shut up in the house with all the snow and ice outside, I finally broke out a jug this weekend.
The recipe is pretty simple.
- 1 part syrup
- 1 part water
- a pinch or so of salt.
OK, no problem. Even I can follow that kind of recipe. I used a cast iron dutch oven, but I think pretty much any stock pot would do. I figured, however, that if all went awry again, I wouldn't feel too bad about taking the steel wool or a power sander to the cast iron. My Bride would probably feel differently if I used the rather expensive le Crueset
Boil until you reach the "hard ball stage" or 260-270 degrees.
Hey honey, where's your candy thermometer? You threw it out? You think you could have told me this before now? What the heck am I supposed to do now?
Ah. Drop it in the cold water, and see if it forms a hard ball. Of course. How long is that supposed to take?
'You'll know it when you get there,' huh?
Yeah. Thanks. Really f#@%ing helpful, lady.
There was a lot of watching and waiting. Sugar isn't something you want to heat too quickly or walk away from. And I'm pretty sure this is where my grandmother and I went wrong - she was probably tired of hearing me ask "is it ready yet", and pulled it off the heat a bit early, resulting in a gooey, stringy mess.
Now that I've seen how long it really takes to get there, I can't say I blame her.
Hey look! Hardball stage!
At this point, the whole house was full of the gentle, earthy sweet flavor of sorghum. It's very like molasses, but with a more buttery scent and flavor. There's simply nothing else that approaches that smell and taste.
At this point, I poured the hot, bubbly mass into a buttered bowl to cool.
After a half hour or so, it was cool enough to handle.
More from the recipe:
"Butter your hands, and taking a smallish bit of the sorghum, work and stretch until it changes color and hardens. This works better when two people are pulling. Remember in the mountains, families were usually large"
(I'm not kidding. That last part is actually part of the recipe. Any recipe that includes the phrase: "Remember, in the mountains..." is a winner in my book.)
There was plenty in the bowl for two of us (at this point, I became very glad that I made the decision to only use one of the jugs of sorghum to make candy)
The Critter was mildly disturbed at the thought of having to rub butter all over her hands, but she really got into the pulling and twisting part. She wanted hers to "look like licorice" (which I think meant twisted and braided).
I looked back at the recipe to see how things were supposed to end. But that was it. "Pull until it changes color and hardens." What? And then what? Is it supposed to turn into sticks? Lollipops? What color is it supposed to turn into? Blue?
I racked my memory to try and recall the end state, but of course my grandmother and I ended up throwing out our gooey mess, and never finished it off.
Eventually, I decided that it was pretty much supposed to look and feel like caramels. (and no amount of google searching could disprove this theory). So we rolled the stretched candy out, and cut it into rounds to finish cooling.
Twisted into wax paper squares, and tucked in a jar, our little homemade candies bring a real smile to my face. Objectively speaking, I had just spent several hours of effort and turned half the kitchen into a sticky, buttery mess to produce the equivalent of a couple of $0.99 bags of candy. But the whole process of slowly boiling the dark, buttery sorghum for hours with my own 8 year old Eleanor was a kind of cosmic loop-closer, and another little peek for both of us into what growing up in another era, one without 7-11's and mall Ye Olde Candy Supershoppes was like.
We all tried one, and decided the effort was worth it.