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Candy and Confections


CANDY AND CONFECTIONS. Candy is a collective name for sugary treats such as fudge, taffy, bright colored gumdrops, and boiled sugar. Originally, "sugar candy" meant sugar concentrated to the point that it formed a hard crystalline mass on cooling. The term (derived ultimately from a Sanskrit root, through Arabic sukkar quandi ) was first recorded in English in the late fourteenth century; the word "candy" used alone appeared in the eighteenth century. The equivalent word in British English is "sweets." "Confection" is a word with a wider meaning. Sugar-based candy represents one category of confections (and is the sense mostly discussed here). Chocolate is another category (though the fillings of bars may be candy). The idea of a confection extends to pastry, cookies, and cakes. The trade of the confectioner, who is skilled in making delicate sweet things, links these different areas of expertise together.

Five hundred years ago, "confection" meant a mixture made to enhance health. Confection originally had the sense of 'something put together', and confections in the fourteenth century were medicinal preparations made from combinations of various drugs. It was very quickly discovered that "a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down," and sweetening agents were added to the medicines. "Confection" was being used to mean 'a preparation of spices, sugar, fruits, etc.' by the middle of the fifteenth century. Confectioners preserved fruit, made sugarplums, marzipan, cordials, and light cakes. Sugar was important in these: it was expensive, exotic, sweet, and considered to be a spice with health-giving qualities. It was used to decorate other foods. In the English-speaking world, sugar became steadily cheaper through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Chocolate candies were known in the late 1600s but only became common when large-scale production developed at the end of the nineteenth century. Pastry making (patisserie in French) became a specialty divorced from sugar-working. Candy-making also became an industry, helped by glucose (from corn syrup), and cheap penny candies emerged as the most obvious sugar confections.

Special uses of the word "candy," such as sugar candy, rock candy, and candied fruit, hint at the history of confections. Sugar candy is a hard mass of tiny crystals. It is now seldom made (although fudge is a softer version, and maple candy can be considered a special type). To make rock candy, large sugar crystals are allowed to grow slowly on sticks suspended in syrup. Candied (or crystallized) fruit is preserved by soaking in syrup. Concentration is gradually increased until it is strong enough to prevent decay. This was formerly an important preservation method for fruit, stems, and roots, including medicinal items such as lettuce stems and marshmallow roots. These techniques and other candies such as candy canes and jelly beans were brought to North America by European settlers. They can be traced back through the Middle Ages to traditions of sugar-working transmitted westward from the Byzantine and Islamic worlds.

Modern chemistry shows that early candy recipes exploit special properties of ordinary white crystal sugar (known chemically as sucrose) when boiled as syrup. This skill of sugar-boiling is of fundamental importance to the confectioner. First, the crystals are dissolved in water and brought to the boil. Although water boils at 100°C, sucrose does not melt until it reaches a temperature of around 160°C. As weak syrup boils, it becomes more concentrated, and the temperature rises above 100°C. More water evaporates. This increases the sugar concentration, which raises the temperature further, so that more water boils off and the syrup becomes more concentrated until it is entirely molten sugar. The basis for candy-making lies in cooking the syrup to varying temperaturesrelatively low for chewy candies, higher for hard candy. These are measured on a special thermometer or by observed "stages" such as the "ball" test used when making fudge.

Another part of the story of candies lies in the chemical structure of sucrose. This consists of two smaller sugar molecules, glucose and fructose, linked together. Dissolved in syrup, the links between the smaller molecules break, giving a mixture of sucrose, glucose, and fructose in water. The original candy was syrup boiled to a temperature of about 115°C, and then stirred, poured into a mold, and cooled. Stirring encourages the mixture to grain: the glucose and fructose bond again as sucrose, and crystals form, giving a hard texture. This is now used only for a few special items such as some of the figures made for the Mexican Day of the Dead and English Kendal Mint Cake. But the same basic technique gives the solid-yet-melt-in-the-mouth textures of fudge, penuche, New Orleans pralines, peppermint patties, and fondant. In these candies, the industry uses numerous technical devices to control crystal size, giving very small crystals and a creamy texture. Careful control of temperature and "seeding" syrups with preprepared crystals of the desired size are two methods.

Syrups boiled to 154°C and cooled quickly remain transparent and glassy and are the basis of hard, clear candies such as fruit drops and golden barley sugar sticks. Confectioners knew that acid from fruit juice helped to keep clear candies translucent, and in the nineteenth century, they discovered that newly available ingredients, such as tartaric acid (from grapes) or glucose (in corn syrup) were more reliable. These "doctors" alter the chemistry of the syrup so that the relative proportions of glucose and fructose are unequal, inhibiting graining and encouraging a clear candy. Glucose, used to control texture in most industrially produced candies, is a vital ingredient in modern confectionery. Sugar syrups boiled to high temperatures can also be used for pulling, a method for such favorites as peppermint sticks and candy canes.

A third category of candies, which includes jelly beans, red-hots, and M&Ms, is made by panning in a special revolving drum like a large concrete mixer. This is a low-temperature process, using weak syrups cooked to only a few degrees above 100°C. Nuts (especially almonds), seeds (such as caraway or aniseed), and pellets of chocolate or fruit paste are coated with small amounts of syrup and tumbled until the sugar has dried on their surface. Eventually this builds up in thin layers to make a shell. Jelly beans as now made originated in the late nineteenth century but older recipes used bits of fruit paste. The Italian name for candies such as sugar almonds is confetti, and a tradition of throwing handfuls of these during festivities is commemorated in the paper confetti thrown at weddings.

Other ingredients add flavor, color, and texture to candies. Sugar paste is a mixture of confectioner's sugar and soaked gum arabic or tragacanth. Through the centuries, this was valued for modeling flowers and figures and is still popular for cake decoration. It is also an excellent vehicle for medicines and perfumes. Pastes were made up containing strong drugs such as opium or fragrances such as violet to sweeten the breath. Lifesavers and English Polo Mints echo this tradition, although high pressure is now used to compress the sugar.

Fruit confections often rely on pectin for their jellied texture. Gelatin and plant-derived gums provide alternatives in candies such as gum drops and pastilles. Chewing gum was devised in the late nineteenth century as a sweetened confection based on chicle, an elastic latex derived from a Mexican tree. Foundations for the success of this were laid in the 1890s by a dynamic young salesman named William Wrigley. Flour gives a characteristic chewy toughness to licorice candies, and cornstarch is used in Turkish delight (replacing the wheat-derived starches originally employed).

Almonds are used in many confections. Ground with sugar, they make marzipan. In caramelized sugar, they make brittle, although peanuts have become a more usual base for this candy. Almonds are also combined with sugar that has been boiled with egg whites to make French nougat and its relatives turron, torrone, and numerous other Mediterranean and Middle Eastern variations. Divinity, a softer version of this, developed in the southern United States. Egg whites gave the spongy texture to early marshmallow recipes; gum or gelatin are now used.

Milk, butter, and cream provide delicious textures and flavors in caramels, butterscotch, and toffee. The ancestor of these seems to have been taffy, unrefined sugar boiled with butter and then pulled. It was made in both England and North America in the nineteenth century, but the traditions have diverged on opposite sides of the Atlantic. In England, taffy has been forgotten, and modern toffee is brittle, hard, and brown. In America, taffy has developed into soft, multicolored salt-water taffy. Chewy caramels, boiled with milk, probably developed from the taffy tradition in the eastern United States. Milk is also important in confections from other cultures. Thick condensed milk is the dulce de leche of Hispanic cultures. Similar preparations provide the basis for many Indian and Bangladeshi confections including fudge-like barfi and cake-like gulab jamun.

The principal contribution that candies and confections make to the diet is concentrated energy. Consumption of candy is high in North America and Europe. According to the National Confectioner's Association, total U.S. consumption hovered around 7 billion pounds per annum for candy and 3.3 billion pounds for chocolate during the late 1990s. Debates continue over the relationship between confections and health problems such as diabetes and heart disease. The consensus is that too much sugar, whatever the source, is bad for the human body. The relationship of sugar and candy to dental cavities is direct and has been noticed for centuries; a visitor to the court of Elizabeth I in England observed that her teeth were black and attributed it to eating too much sugar.

The complex history of candies and confections has seen them go from being expensive luxuries to something consumed every day by everybody. Much of this is due to cheap sugar and industrial production methods. Despite this, they are still considered treats, valued for decorative qualities as well as their intrinsic sweetness. They retain strong links with celebrations such as weddings, christenings, Christmas, and Easter in many countries.

See also Chocolate; Christmas; Day of the Dead; Desserts; Easter; Feasts, Festivals and Fasts; Halloween; Sugar and Sweeteners; Syrups.


American Craft Museum. The Confectioner's Art. New York: American Craft Council, 1988.

Carmichael, Elizabeth, and Sayer, Chloë. The Skeleton at the Feast: The Day of the Dead in Mexico. London: British Museum Publications, 1991.

Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Hendrickson, Robert. The Great American Chewing Gum Book. Radnor, Pa.: Chilton Book Co., 1976.

Mason, Laura. Sugar Plums and Sherbet: The Prehistory of Sweets. Totnes, Devon: Prospect Books, 1998.

Time-Life Books. Gillian Boucher, series editor. The Good Cook: Confectionery. Amsterdam: Time-Life Books, 1981.

Laura Mason

Candy Canes and Pulled Sugar

Striped candy canes, used for decorating the Christmas tree, are made by a technique known as pulling. For this, a concentrated hot sugar syrup is worked by stretching and folding, either by hand over an iron hook set in the wall or on a specially designed machine. After a short time, the sugar becomes opaque and white as pockets of air are folded into the mass and stretched. The basic lump of pulled sugar is made into a rough cylinder and decorated lengthwise with stripes and patterns made from colored boiled sugar (usually red). Then the mass is pulled out again (often by spinning on a machine) into long thin pieces. This process extends the sugar into thin ropes with decoration running through the whole length. Once the required diameter, usually about half an inch, is reached, the ropes are cut into shorter sticks. Candy canes are given an extra flourish by bending the top to give a shepherd's crook shape. Pulling is known in many other countries. In Britain it is used for "seaside rock," sold as a souvenir in seaside resorts. This is a sugar stick with letters or patterns running the length. In Sweden it makes the traditional mint-flavored polkagrisar.

Pulling is also used to make a more friable textured candy. The best-known example is probably Edinburgh rock, sold in the Scottish capital. For this, the sugar syrup is boiled to a lower temperature, and the sugar is allowed to grain after the candy is shaped. Similar confections include cinnamon-flavored kaneel-brokken (The Netherlands) and peinir schekeri (Turkey). Pulled sugar has an ancient and obscure origin. A description of the process is given in the Kitabal-Tabikh, a collection of recipes written down in thirteenth-century Baghdad, but, as with other candy techniques, the skill was probably developed at a much earlier date somewhere farther east and transmitted westward with sugar cane and the knowledge of refining sugar itself.


Halloween in North America is celebrated by the custom of "trick or treat," in which collecting candy plays a vital part. The use of the colors orange and black and the images used on the packaging add to the general theme of witches, ghouls, and pumpkins. The festival of Hallowe'en, or "All Hallows Eve," has its roots in the Christian celebrations of All Saints and All Souls on November first and second; scholars believe this date was originally a pagan festival of the dead that was taken over by the church. Yellow-and orange-striped candy corn (first devised in the 1880s) recalls the idea of harvest, also important at this time of the year.

In Mexico, the Day of the Dead features a particularly vibrant and lavish selection of human and animal figures and skulls made from hard sugar candy or sugar paste sold at local fairs. These appear to have arisen from a fusion of European techniques of sugar-working, Christianity, and elements of native tradition.

In Europe, Halloween and All Saints have some special associations with candy. In southern Europe, All Saints is remembered as a special time when people visit the graves of relatives, and perhaps eat one special seasonal confection, for instance the Spanish huesos de santo (almond candy rolls filled with sweetened egg yolk). One place in which many candies are traditional to this date is Sicily. Here, marzipan fruit, torrone, and cubiata (the latter two local versions of nut or sesame brittle) are sold in special fairs together with pupi di cena statuettes made of hard sugar candy with gaudy foil decorations. These figures recall a general Renaissance tradition, now mostly forgotten elsewhere to the east of the Atlantic, of decorating banquet tables with sugar models.

In the United Kingdom, toffee was traditionally made around the beginning of November, but All Souls traditions to do with candy or other special foods had almost disappeared by the twentieth century. However, the American trick or treat custom has recently been discovered by British children, and candies aimed specifically at this market now appear in the shops.

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