Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Kitchen Pyrotechnics

Note: I've been making peanut brittle using this recipe since I was 13 years old. I first learned at Wesley United Methodist Church in Charleston, (see earlier blogs for more stories there). Peanut brittle was a big moneymaker for the United Methodist Women during their holiday craft bazaar. The ladies of the church would make the stuff for several days prior to the bazaar. This story is the year that I had to say goodbye to peanut brittle.

As has been previously recorded, my family was heavily involved in many volunteer opportunities at Wesley UMC. Specifically, my mother was a member of the United Methodist Women's group and the UMW's big fundraiser every year was the UMW Bazaar. Women made crafts, sold baked goods, and collected money for various missions and activities.

The big moneymaker for the organization was homemade peanut brittle. For several nights, the ladies of the UMW would gather in groups in the church kitchen to make pounds and pounds of peanut brittle. Of course, I tagged along.

I had two jobs: "buttering" the aluminum foil and measuring the candy into 1 pound bags. I hated the former, but loved the latter.

"Buttering" - and by the way, I use this word very loosely -- meant laying out aluminum foil on a bed of newspaper so the countertops would be protected. Then, on top of the foil, I'd smear a chunk of Crisco, usually with a paper towel. Needless to say, after several minutes of this, I'd be covered in greasy Crisco from my elbow to my fingertips. Ick. Although come to think of it, my skin was remarkably soft after these evening sessions.

My second job was terrific. The finished peanut brittle would be placed in large containers. Using gloved hands (since they were covered in Crisco), I'd use a scale and measure the large container down to 1 pound bags. The bags were then stored in a box and sold at the Bazaar. I'm not exaggerating when I say literally hundreds of pounds of peanut brittle was made and sold each year.

As an adult, like many, I struggle with being overweight. But as a 'tween', (although that term was not part of the language), I could eat anything and everything and never gain a pound. I was well on my way to being the tall person I am today so I was too busy growing up to worry about growing out.

Being a beanpole teenager, one evening I ate nearly as much as I measured. Without going into detail, I was sick for an entire night and for many years later I couldn't even look at peanut brittle without feeling nauseous. Even the smell would have me running from the room. This is the first and last time I've ever had such a bad experience with food.

But fast forward a couple of decades, the memory of a bad stomachache had faded sufficiently, and I brought out the recipe again. Mostly, I wanted to make it to give away, and I figured since I couldn't stomach the taste any longer, it was a good dessert to have around at the holidays. Happy memories of nights with those UMW women came rushing back as I sat over the pot and stirred. And, as you might guess, when I finished that first batch and it had cooled sufficiently, I had to taste it. Much to the delight of my taste buds, if not my waistline, it was terrific. Exactly as I had remembered it.

Now, I make it every year for the holidays and I share the recipe with you. Warning: it's not for the 'Fraidy Cats in the Kitchen. Enjoy.

Peanut Brittle
Making peanut brittle isn't that difficult to do. All you really need is an accurate candy thermometer, a good sized pot with a handle on it, and the ability to move fast -- really fast -- when it's all done.

Before beginning, spread several layers of newspaper along the countertop, flat. Be sure you pick countertop near your stove, as you're going to be carrying hot liquid candy from the stove to this spot, and you won't want to go very far. Cover newspaper with aluminum foil. I use two strips, approximately 2 1/2 feel in length, folded together to make one large piece. The goal is to make sure all the brittle gets onto the foil.

I STRONGLY suggest you use the "non-stick" brand. I use Reynolds. Be sure you have the non-stick side facing up, flat on the counter. If you prefer, use regular aluminum foil but coat it with butter or Crisco, to prevent sticking. No one wants peanut brittle with aluminum foil stuck in it. (Admit it: your teeth are cringing at just the thought).

When you're finished prepping the countertop, measure out 1 tsp. vanilla into a small container and 2 tsp. baking soda in another small table. Set aside, near stovetop.

Then, in a large pot on the stove, mix:
3 cups white sugar
1 cup white corn syrup
1 tsp. salt
1/3 cup of water
Turn on burner at high heat, placing candy thermometer in mixture. Stir frequently to prevent burning and to help sugar dissolve.

When the candy thermometer reads 240-degrees, add 1 pound of peanuts -- roasted and salted -- to the pot. Stir constantly until mixture heats up and thermometer reads 300-degrees.

Once desired heat is reached, quickly add vanilla then baking powder to mixture. It will bubble up significantly so be brave, and hang onto the handle of the pot. Stir very quickly so all ingredients are mixed thoroughly. Then move pot from stove and dump liquid brittle onto prepared foil.

To make the same brittle as the Wesley UMW ladies, wait a minute or two and then "pull" the brittle gently by the edges to make it thin. You can use a table knife to aid in this effort. Personally, I like thick peanut brittle and I skip this step completely.

Once cool, break up the brittle in pieces by bashing it with something heavy - I use the back of a large soup ladle. Be firm but gentle. Too hard, and the brittle will fly all over the kitchen. Will keep in an airtight container in a cool dry place for a couple of weeks.

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