December 2, 2009 10:05:00 AM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
Few things inspire a bona fide candymaker like the holidays. For Jeanette Basson, the advent of Thanksgiving and Christmas sends her straight to the high-ceilinged kitchen of her family''s 1835 Lowndes County farmhouse near the Alabama state line.
Among family and friends, including the congregation of Murrah''s Chapel, Basson is well-known for her baking and candies. One of the most popular treats is her homemade peanut brittle. After 45 years of preparing the buttery, crunchy candy, she has her procedure down pat.
"My mother was a good cook; my Grandma Beasley was a good cook, an old-timey cook. I learned a lot from them. I grew up in a time when we cooked for those coming in from the field," said Basson, who lived, as a child, in Winfield, Ala. Her father was a coal miner and share-cropped in Rock City, Ala.
As she prepares to make brittle, she brings out a yellowed, worn recipe that speaks of the past. It bears the random stains of repeated use.
"I use the peanut brittle recipe given to me by my late sister-in-law, Emma Johnson, the year James and I were married, in 1963," explains Basson of the treasured piece of paper. "I wouldn''t take anything for it."
Brittles are confections, usually flat, broken pieces of hard sugar candy embedded with nuts. Peanut brittle''s basic ingredients -- sugar, corn syrup and peanuts -- are heated to a hard crack stage, corresponding to a temperature of about 300 degrees.
Corn syrup controls the grain of the brittle, according to the Joy of Cooking Web site. So, adding too much can result in stringy, sticky brittle; too little produces a grainy-textured brittle.
Making it requires quick reactions, so have all ingredients measured out and handy in advance and your pan prepared.
With clean hands, Basson coats the underside of a large, commercial-grade aluminum pan with butter.
"Some people would use a brush, but I''ve found your hand is the best thing," she says. "Be very liberal with your butter; you can''t be skimpy."
Using a favorite wooden spoon she''s had for 15 years, Basson brings 2 cups of sugar, 1/2 cup of water and 1 cup of light Karo syrup to a hard boil in a heavy saucepan.
"You have to stir it good so it doesn''t scorch," she cautions. "The first batch I make every season, I''ll either scorch or almost scorch," she continues, with a grin. "I get impatient."
After adding 2 cups of shelled, raw peanuts and a "dash of salt" to the hot mixture, she brings it to a boil again and stirs until the syrup turns "light gold."
"Stir until the peanuts start to turn brown and you can hear them pop apart," she instructs. "You have to know when the peanuts have parched enough.
"When you get a real thin string off the spoon that seems brittle, then you add the heaping tablespoon of baking soda and a teaspoon of vanilla and stir vigorously. The mixture will foam, but just keep stirring until it turns a pale caramel color."
After carefully pouring the hot, sugary mixture onto the prepared pan, Basson lets it cool for a few minutes -- not too long, because it hardens quickly.
With a spatula and buttered fingers, she begins lifting and pulling the candy, spreading it across the pan surface, gently stretching the oozing concoction to the desired thinness.
"My family has teased me I have asbestos fingers," she chuckles, referring to her husband and three grown children, Randy, Stephanie and Angie.
In no time at all, the peanut brittle has cooled and hardened into a delicious melt-in-your mouth delight, ready to be snapped into snack-sized pieces and bagged or boxed for holiday gift-giving or festive gatherings.
Later, sitting at the comfortable kitchen table, the experienced cook leafs through a couple of favorite cookbooks, pointing out other favored candy recipes.
"It seems like young people don''t cook like we did, and they don''t make the candies," she observes. "I thoroughly enjoy cooking, and I especially like to cook at holiday time. Most of all, I like to share."
EMMA JOHNSON''S PEANUT BRITTLE
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup water
1 cup light Karo syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups raw peanuts
Heaping tablespoon baking soda
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup water
2 tablespoons espresso beans
2 tablespoons butter
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.