When I was a kid, my family took summer trips to the Jersey Shore. My parents were not big on sweets, but they loosened the rules on vacation. At the boardwalk candy shop, they'd let me buy a tiny bag of colorful candied fruit slices dipped in sugar — and I'd make it last as long as I could.
Despite — or, perhaps, because of — parental efforts to limit my sugary snacks, I grew up to be a candy lover. Whenever I'm at a craft or cooking-supply store, I check out the gear in the candy-making aisle: molds, thermometers, decorations, tiny plastic bowls, whisks and spatulas. It looks like so much fun. But it also appears to be a lot of work. I almost always come to the same conclusion: Candy making is too hard.
That's why I was surprised, while looking for a Valentine's Day project to make with my three kids, to find two fairly simple jelly-candy recipes that I had ripped from magazines and stashed away years ago. I could use them to create a version of my beach candy-shop favorites, no special equipment required.
My kids were eager to test the recipes — one for jelly hearts, one for sugarplum snowflakes — from back issues of Parents magazine.
The jelly hearts had just three ingredients: strawberry jelly, sugar and gelatin. We melted the first two together in a saucepan, stirring wildly to make a smooth paste, while the gelatin set in a bowl of water. When the jelly sauce had boiled for a few minutes, we added it to the gelatin and stirred well. Then we spread it into a shallow pan and popped it into the fridge to set overnight.
In the morning, we were pleased to find it solid and springy. We cut it into small squares and tossed them around a plate of sugar until they were coated and sparkly on all sides. The kids were happy with the tooth-achingly sweet taste, but not with the consistency.
"Too mushy," my 11-year-old son, Eli, complained, and he was right. They were more like Jell-O blocks than the gummy candy from my childhood. Worse, after sitting on the plate for a few minutes, they started to ooze. They soaked up their sugar coating and turned even mushier. So much for recipe number one.
Slightly discouraged, we moved on to recipe number two the next night, with much better results. The process was almost the same, except for the addition of liquid pectin, a thickening agent. This batch came out just like I hoped it would, perfectly reminiscent of the fruit-slice candies of my youth.
My kids and I plan to experiment with different shapes — I'm thinking hearts, stars and letters; they're thinking worms, fish and superhero logos —as well as different jelly and gelatin flavors. We'll distribute them on Valentine's Day to friends, neighbors, the crossing guard and the lady who works at the corner store. Maybe we'll send a batch to my mom and dad, too — with a reminder not to eat too many, of course. Sweet revenge!
Adapted from the December 2008 issue of Parents magazine
Spoiler alert: The ingredients are mostly sugar and red dye. If you feel slightly dismayed by this, like I did, remember that everyone only needs a small taste of the finished product. Still wavering? Just think of the whole endeavor as a science project rather than a cooking one, and you'll be fine!