Hello all! Here’s hoping you’ve all had a lovely Christmas and are still enjoying some rest and relaxation before the New Year begins. In fact, 2010 has crept up on me, so I’m wondering how to get the last few posts of the year in before the end of the week. Before I do the bookish round-up, I must just share my best festive anecdote with you all. This year my son was at a bit of a loss as to what to give his family for Christmas, and so, as mothers tend to do, I suggested he made something to give that personal touch.
‘We could make some sweets,’ I said. ‘Coconut ice, like we used to.’
My son’s eyes lit up. ‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘but we make it the hard way. It’s fun when it goes wrong.’
I should perhaps have seen the flaw in my plan. Several years ago, we had a run of making coconut ice (it became an honorary form of fibre for my anti-fruit-and-veg son), but given that I had no sugar thermometer and an unwillingness to experiment with the boiling mixture in the presence of a youngish child, it was all a bit hit and miss. We made coconut sand, and we made coconut rock, and my son delighted in the unusual variations more than the successes. Eventually I found a good recipe with icing sugar and condensed milk that required no cooking at all, even if it did rip your arm out of its socket when you beat it all together. And my son’s interest moved onto something else.
Coconut ice is deceptively simple to make on reading the recipe. You get a huge bag of sugar and tip it into a big, big saucepan with a little butter, milk and water. Then you melt it all down and when you are quite sure no crystals remain, you whack up the heat and get the mixture boiling as hard as you dare. It requires nerve, as the milk ensures the superheated sugar rises in roiling fury up the sides of the saucepan, as a kind of white volcanic lava. Hot and angry, the sugar will pop and hiss and spit. You stir with as much serenity as you can muster for ten minutes or so then, with some relief, off the heat it comes, in goes the coconut, a quick stir, and half the mixture gets tipped into your buttered tray. Then you add a couple of drops of cochineal to the remainder – or half a teaspoon if your son is enthusiastic – and the resulting pink (or glow-in-the-dark fuchsia) coconut ice is poured as a second layer on top.
‘So how does it taste?’ I asked my son, several hours later, as he excavated a chunk and I feared for the blade of my toughest kitchen knife.
‘Fine,’ he replied in the information-neutral way that children perfect.
I went in search of Mister Litlove and obliged him to try. ‘Good god, what have you done to it this time?’ he choked. ‘It’s like a supersaturated sugar solution with a few bits of coconut in it.’
I returned to my son. ‘Dad says it’s a bit sugary,’ I ventured. He turned around to me with a huge grin. ‘Told you it was fine.’
In fact, we quickly realized that, given the kick the sugar packed, we had not in fact cooked confectionary, but created a new class A drug. We took to calling it crack coconut ice, cocaine ice and ‘the good stuff’. I expected young men in hoodies to turn up at the back door, furtively holding out plastic bags to be filled in exchange for a fistful of used notes.
So when a few days later, my son came and sought me out to make fudge, I wasn’t so sure about the prospect. ‘I read the recipe and it scared me,’ I said.
‘All the more reason to make it, then,’ he replied robustly. ‘Face your fear, and all that.’ Setting a good example to one’s offspring is a petard on which mothers are easily hoist. I put my book down, bade goodbye to the safety and comfort of the armchair and we entered the kitchen to subdue out of control glucose with a determined swagger, a sort of culinary riot police.
This time into the saucepan went a big block of unsalted butter, the usual mountain of sugar, two small cans of evaporated milk and a little water.
‘Just fetch me a bowl and spoon and I’ll eat it like it is,’ my son groaned. ‘We can stop right there. It looks so good.’
It’s true that there was a certain glory in that gleaming cake of butter perched on top of a golden lake of partly submerged sugar. But I said ‘absolutely not’ and lit the gas under the pan. ‘Okay, I’m going to read you the instructions for testing whether the sugar has reached the right temperature and consistency,’ I told him. ‘We’re going to do it right this time.’ We had to get the sugar to reach the ‘soft ball’ stage, or a temperature of between 114-118 degrees Celsius. Seriously hot sugar, that’s to say. The way to test was to get a bowl of cold water and drop half a teaspoonful of mixture into it, leaving it to cool for a minute. Then, picking the mixture out between finger and thumb, we had to see whether the sugar formed threads as we pulled it apart, or remained in a squidgy ball. ‘This is the division of labour: I’m going to stir, you’re going to do the testing,’ I said. With more ingredients in the saucepan than there had been for coconut ice, I was a touch concerned about my chances of preventing it from boiling over.
As soon as the sugar was boiling it began to rise aggressively up the sides of the saucepan, a swirling caramel tide. I hung on in there for as long as it felt safe, and then turned down the gas for a moment. The sugar mass subsided, and I raised the heat again. This continued for some time, and we tested the sugar regularly. At first we weren’t even getting threads; instead the mixture dissolved into the water and made a cloudy pool. ‘Don’t you think all that turning the heat up and down is going to…you know,’ my son asked. I knew what he meant: would I manage to heat the sugar sufficiently if I couldn’t sustain a roiling boil? ‘I don’t know,’ I replied. ‘But I can’t let it boil over.’ This led to a discussion about the size of the saucepan. We were supposed to use one with a seven pint capacity. My son dug a similar sized saucepan out of the cupboard and began filling it with pints of water. ‘You really should read me all of the instructions right from the beginning,’ he sighed. But it seemed that we were at worst about a pint short. It was a little academic, as it was in any case the biggest saucepan I possessed. But by this time, about twenty minutes into the heating process, we were finally getting somewhere. ‘That’s not a soft ball,’ I said as he squeezed the caramel mixture between his fingers, ‘but it’s not far off.’
As we got nearer our target we began to get quite excited. A couple more tests and we were fairly sure we had reached the right temperature. I turned the heat off and we moved onto the next stage. ‘Beat the mixture firmly until it thickens and starts to feel rough,’ my son read out. Have you ever tried to beat a kilo or so of gloopy molten toffee? We took it in turns, handing over the wooden spoon when the screaming in our arm muscles got too much. ‘And what does it mean by ‘rough’?’ my son demanded. ‘How’s that supposed to feel?’ ‘Perhaps it’s when the fudge starts to answer back,’ I suggested foolishly. ‘If it growls and yells at us “Oy, wot you lookin’ at?” or something. Then we know it’s turned rough.’ But I could feel a change in the texture of the mixture as I stirred, and rather than the smooth, glossy concoction we’d begun with, there was a certain granular feel to it that hadn’t been there before. It was looking amazing, as slick as if it had been varnished, pure gold in colour and creamily thick. ‘You know,’ I said to my son, ‘this is looking excellent.’
We lined the tin with greaseproof paper and poured the fudge in. It ran smoothly to the corners of the tin, finding its level in that uncanny way that a viscous liquid will. And then we had a dense, still-hot tray of molten fudgy loveliness. I held my hand out to my son and ceremoniously he shook it. ‘I am so proud of us,’ I declared. ‘We had no idea what we were doing, but we managed it.’
And that, folks, was my best moment of condensed Christmas spirit – a little danger, a lot of hope, inter-generational co-operation and some unexpected success. A simple thing, and a memory I’ll cherish. May you all have had a moment of similar festive joy in the past week or so.