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Sep 30, 2003 03:50 PM

How long will home-made candy stay fresh?

  • w

This year I want to make some goodies for friends around xmas. I want to make a varity, maybe nut brittles, cookies, caramel etc. I don't want to do everything the last weekend. If I assume that the food will be eatern within two weeks of giving, how early can I start making my treats?

I know I can freeze cookies, but what about caramels, or nut brittles?


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  1. Hi Wendy,

    I do a similar laying-in of candy and cookies for a big Christmas mailing and give-away, so I've learned a couple of things about candy along the way.

    One thing that does NOT keep (even though the sugar content is so high) is any homemade caramel made with butter. I make a fine, buttery version every year and it is always among the very last things I make. Unlike, say, shortbread, the aging of the butter in this candy does not allow it to improve -- it gets a rancid flavor after not very long. I've tried with both salted and unsalted butter (adding salt to the recipe separate), and using a fleur de sel in an imitation of a caramel I had at Fauchon once, but it never works. If you make a butter caramel, make it the day before you start packing up to ship.

    It doesn't freeze.

    Nut brittles are another difficulty -- I've never been able to surpass Endstrom's almond toffee (but that's another thread!) so I don't make any brittles of any kind anymore, in homage to that fine Christmas confection. However, these candies are slightly better at holding up longer. A peanut brittle, or a mixed-nut brittle or toffee, will keep pretty well in the refrigerator for over a week. Also, almond bark keeps well in the refrigerator. Use the freshest nuts you can find -- nuts go rancid even before you can tell they are rancid, so get fresh nuts at the store (go to a health food store or trader joes, where they should be able to tell you how old the nuts are) and then don't keep it around for more than 3 weeks tops.

    Fudge is a different story. If you make traditional fudge, which is mostly sugar with only a little fat, it will keep beautifully for, literally, weeks, especially if it is tightly sealed, or the squares are individually wrapped. I don't know if this applies to the marshmallow-fluff fudges, since I don't make those.

    I do however, make a "butter fudge" (a non-traditional fudge involving butter in quantity, unflavored gelatin, and corn syrup in addition to sugar, milk, and unsweetened chocolate -- it sounds bad but it is divine) that has the same rules as butter caramel. It's a few-days only thing. Luckily, I've never experienced having much left over :)

    Over the years I've devised a schedule for my holiday mailing baking that may help you:

    If you were to consider your mailing date to be Dec 15th: (I mail all on the same day to simplify things and be assured that each box contains the exact same thing -- if you stagger your mailing dates and have different goodies in each of your boxes, this will of course not work!)

    -Last week of November: make cookies that can be frozen. Pinwheels, snickerdoodles, plain chocolate cookies, butter-cookie cutouts to decorate later, hermits, finskakor, etc -- any plain butter-based, non-filled/non decorated cookie that you know will freeze. Mix, bake, and freeze. Also during this week: if you make any candied fruit (candied cranberries and sugar plums have both been hits over the years). Candy the fruit (can take two days) and store at room temperature tightly covered, and individually wrapped if necessary.

    December Week One: Sugar candies, such as old-fashioned fudge, divinity, nougat. Nougats involving nuts I make towards the end of this week. If you make shortbread (and why not, it's so easy and good!), make it toward the beginning of this week, and store at room temperature, so it has time to age and fully mature.

    December Week Two: Well-keeping cookies which I'd rather not freeze. This is a good time to pull out the undecorated butter-cookie cutouts, and decorate with candies and Royal Icing only (no buttercreams, no fillings, etc). I make jam-filled cookies near the end of this week, and any filled or molded cookie that I plan to distribute. This is a good time to make brownies or bar cookies if you are sending these. A nut brittle should probably be made near the end of this week.

    The 2-3 days before Mail Date: butter caramels, butter fudge, any super-delicate (oatmeal lace, though these are not good for mailing) or fussy final projects (such as petits fours). If I plan to mail a quickbred or a loaf cake of any kind (excluding homemade fruitcake, of course, which should have been made months before!), I try to make it the day before mail date unless I'm absolutely sure that it ages well. I can't think of many cakes or quickbreads that do -- a rum cake perhaps, or a Dundee cake, or something similar, are probably the only candidates.

    Mail Date: Assemble! There is no need to defrost the frozen cookies -- they will thaw as they go through the mail. The only exception to this, is if you are packing frozen cookies cheek-by-jowl with something delicate like a petit-four, then you should probably either insulate them or let the cookies defrost the night before you Mail.

    Happy Holiday Baking!

    14 Replies
    1. re: Mrs. Smith

      Thank you for your long thought out advice. Good thing I asked. I was under the impression that since brittle and carmel contains lots of fats and sugars, that they'll keep well.
      I am not planning on mailing them. All will be hand delivered, although not on the same date (as I see each friend). I guess I'll just try to make it as late as possible and keep everything in the fridge until delivery.

      1. re: Mrs. Smith
        Caitlin McGrath

        Mrs. Smith, I find your comments on butter caramels interesting. Last year, I made buttery caramels using Mark Bittman's recipe in "How to Cook Everything," and I started making them a week or so before sending them, making them older than that before they arrived, and there were no problems with rancidity, despite the high content of butter and cream (I also ate them when they were two weeks old). Now, they were, in fact, most delicious when they were quite fresh, but I took Bittman's word that "they keep for weeks," and they were fine (and also got raves from recipients).

        I hardly have special tricks - I'm truly a novice at candy-making, having made nothing but marshmallows and and the plain and chocolate caramels, other than chocolate truffles. I only bought a candy thermometer last year.

        1. re: Caitlin McGrath

          It's far from me to contradict Mark Bittman! Perhaps it's my recipes.

          I've found that my butter caramels do go bad rather quickly. This could be because of the butter and cream content, or it could be because I only cook them to the "soft crack" stage -- no further. Perhaps the candying process in Bittman's recipe creates a longer-keeping caramel. I use my Grandma's recipe, which is a family favorite. I also do not refrigerate them ever, since they turn into teeth-breaking cement cubes, which probably hastens their demise.

          I remember specifically one Christmas we forgot about a small box of caramels that were left in a drawer of the buffet for about a week. When we opened them they had small white blooms of mold on them!

        2. re: Mrs. Smith

          Great list and schedule! What kind of containers (boxes, tins?) do you use? Do you wrap cookies in tissue, plastic, etc? I'm starting to plan my holiday baking too but the packaging part always stumps me, and seems too last minute.

          1. re: Ann Vuletich

            I actually kind of go all-out on the packaging and drop some serious cash on it, since most of these baked-good gifts are the actual Christmas gifts for my family and close friends, not just a supplemental gift. I'm not advocating that everyone spend this much money on packaging -- I know cute packages can be had for much less -- I just really enjoy this time of year and sending treats through the mail, so I get the best packaging I can find.

            Each year I order a big supply of food-gift boxes from Williams-Sonoma. These are definitely not cheap -- especially with the monogram embossed on them. However, they are sturdiest and best-looking ones I've ever found. The NEVER tear, split, or have grease or sugary-stuff soak through, even if you pile cookies in it unlined (which I never do, but I could!) They are heavy, glossy, and you can get white, or red, or green, with gold or silver monogramming. They come in a really good variety of sizes that seem to work well for me. Their cake boxes are of similar quality (and high price!), and I've successfully sent fruitcakes in them -- which are, surprisingly, difficult to ship unless you have a can which fits your fruitcakes. Fruitcakes, especially big round ones, are so heavy and dense that, before I found the Williams-Sonoma cake boxes, I had to send fruitcakes in ugly corrugated-cardboard shipping boxes.

            But back to cookies -- the nice thing about W-S, is that you get a variety of sizes. The small sizes are great for packing one thing -- filling it up with homemade truffles, or candied fruit or citrus rinds, etc, and is really special if you tuck that filled box within the larger cookie box (kids love the special "surprise" box). Within the larger cookie box (two sizes -- one holds about 8-12 cookies, the other holds up to two-dozen), I follow this pattern. I warn you, it's a bit labor-intensive, but it's very very effective.

            Depending on the type of cookie I send -- and I usually send as many varieties I can! -- I package in one of two ways.

            If the cookies and candy could possibly melt/seep through in any way (though I indivually wrap fudge and caramel, but still some cookies, like anything chocolate-covered, could seep, etc) I first cut a piece of bubble wrap to the exact shape of the bottom of the box. I do this by tracing the bottom of the box onto a sheet of paper, cutting it out, and then using that as a template to cut out the bubble wrap.

            I secure this in the bottom with one small piece of double-stick tape (this is invaluable stuff, you must get some for holiday mailing). I then line the entire inside of box with heavy-duty aluminum foil. It's important to use heavy-duty, or it will probably tear while you are trying to line it. I usually cut one piece for the bottom and short sides, and then cut the longer sides separately, but over the years I've gotten better and now I can do it with just one sheet. Try doing separate pieces first until you get the hang of it.

            The second method is similar to the first, but I use parchment paper instead of aluminum foil. This is fine if you are sending only dry-type cookies, like shortbread.

            I then fill with cookies -- anything extra delicate should go in it's own smaller box within the big box (similarly lined. I stack the heavy, less breakable things on the bottom. I also cram as much stuff into the box as I possibly can, which seems to minimize breakage.

            For the top, I cut a piece of white parchment to the exact specifications of the shape of the box. I cut another piece of bubble wrap and double-stick tape this to the underside of this. Before putting on the bubble wrap, I sometimes decorate the top sheet of parchment paper with a personalized note "To the Millers", with a little Christmas motif to it, but not always.

            Then I lay that sheet bubble-wrap-side down, close the lid, and fasten with another tiny piece of double stick tape.

            I used to use bright red twine to wrap the outside to give it an even more festive looke -- but my post office doesn't like that. Those brown-paper packages with red twine on them were very festive looking indeed, but I don't do that anymore, alas.

            I buy padded envelopes, which actually afford more protection and also allow for the inclusion of a Christmas card. I buy ones that are from recycled paper, if possible, since I've already used so much packaging!

            I've never had a disaster with this shipping method. I once even sent tuiles (which I will never do again) -- and about 75% of them made it intact!

            1. re: Mrs. Smith
              Ann Vuletich

              Truly impressive! Thanks for the tips.

              1. re: Mrs. Smith

                Wow, thanks for the tips. One question: do you put the cake/cookies boxes in another box for shipping, or are these boxes sturdy enough on their own?

                1. re: Jujubee

                  I used to only wrap these sturdy boxes in brown paper to mail. They always made it just fine.

                  Now I put the whole cookie box, sealed, into a padded envelope. I staple the padded envelope shut. This thing is now practically crush-proof, short of being driven over by a postal truck!

            2. re: Mrs. Smith

              Hi Mrs. Smith,

              I have no problems with brittles or any candy except caramels. I have tried a couple recipes from the same source and I think they turned out once or twice from about 12 tries (otherwise I get very caramely hard candy). I have a good quality candy thermometer and I even have a sugar pan I picked up somewhere. Would you be kind enough to post the family recipe?

              1. re: muD

                Lemme ask Grandma :) Actually, I can't Grandma has passed on. I'll call my mother and ask her if she minds if I share on a website. I don't mean to be secretive, but I never share a recipe from the family unless I've cleared it with "The Family" first. Sorry to be obscure :)

                I can tell you this, however -- it's unique (at least in my experience) in that you add butter during the candying process, AND after the process (like a cooked frosting). This requires that the cooling/beating time is long and arduous. I make one double batch a year, and it is A MAJOR PAIN. There is a minimum of an hour of pretty continuous beating, and I've never attempted it without having someone else to spell me on the beating -- 2 or three sturdy-armed people are ideal! (When my husband and I were first married a couple of years ago, the first Christmas he started some complaining about this -- but then I explained that, if you marry into my family, this one of your set duties :) He likes to eat it, so he has since stopped complaining!). This yields a carmel of unique texture -- it is completely non-sticky, and has a softer, lighter texture than most caramels. It does not stick to teeth (a plus when sending to elderly relatives) as long as it never sees the inside of the refrigerator.

                I'll see what I can do!

                1. re: Mrs. Smith

                  I understand your needing to clear it with the family. I am something of a food preperation masochist, so you haven't scared me yet. Until I bought a tempering machine, truffle making was 4, 14+ hour days of near constant standing just before Christmas.

                  For something unique and interesting I will go to nearly any length.

                  1. re: muD

                    Well muD you certainly go to greater lengths than I will for great deliciousness!

                    But in this instance I will have to disapoint you. The way my mother stated it was 'Hm, do you really think Grandma would have wanted this shared out of the family? She brought this recipe with her from Norway and she perfected it over the years. I certainly wouldn't share it with anyone..."

                    So then I quit asking if she would mind, since she obviously would :)

                    If something is really really wonderful, I agree with you muD, the extra work to get it is part of the fun. I wouldn't go to this amount of work if I didn't adore these caramels so much. Same thing with the 1/2 hour of kneading and 6-8 hours of rising time that a real Neapolitan Pizza dough requires -- I only do it if the final product is SO far superior to the other things of that type, that it's worth it. These caramels are -- but I'm sorry I tempted you all with the whiff of it and can't provide the recipe! I should just keep quiet...

                    And, to all the people who have been asking about the original question on this thread -- upon investigation of other people's fine homemade caramel (a Mark Bittman recipe was cited, I know there is a very popular recipe here in California from the inside of a Danish Creamery butter box that is made by a lot of people over the holidays) it appears that my caramel recipe goes bad much more quickly than standard homemade caramels -- which actually seem to have a 2 week or more shelf life! So I amend my earlier schedule -- for the rest of the world making caramel for Holiday Mailing -- go ahead and make it early, as the candying process seems to preserve the butter completely, and you have a very sturdy and long-lived holiday confection. In fact, for busy people who still wish to send home-made goodies each year, I was thinking the Shortbread and Caramel combination might be perfect -- you could make both well in advance and mail when you had the time -- no rush to beat the clock and worry about staleness or freshness. Homemade candy is, in general, a good thing to send through the mail since there is no breakage, and, most of the time, it keeps very well.

                    Now, wouldn't YOU like to get a package of shortbread and caramels? I sure would...

              2. re: Mrs. Smith
                Elizabeth Boone

                I have a few bags of chocolate covered pecans that have turned from a dark color to a lighter grayish color. Are these still good to use? They still taste fine.

                1. re: Elizabeth Boone

                  This might answer your question:

                  "What is that white stuff on my chocolate?

                  Chocolate contains cocoa butter, a vegetable fat that is sensitive to heat and humidity. Temperatures above 75° will cause chocolate to melt. The cocoa butter can rise to the surface and form a grayish discoloration called "cocoa butter bloom." Condensation on milk or semi-sweet chocolate may cause the sugar to dissolve and rise to the surface as "sugar bloom." Neither "bloom" affects the quality or flavor of the chocolate and, once melted, the chocolate will regain its original color."