Fudge you make at home is going to be far superior than that crusty, crumbly little slab you picked up on impulse on vacation.
My Liddabit Sweets partner Jen King and I taught a class at the Brooklyn Kitchen last night (which was way fun), and it occurred to me that there hasn't really been much candy talk here yet. Candy is one of my favorite subjects. If you let me, I'll nerd out about dextrose equivalents and super-saturation forever. But I'm deciding to have mercy on you all and start with a simple, classic American treat: fudge.
Fudge isn't everyone's favorite thing. In fact, plenty of candy snobs wrinkle their noses at it. Admittedly, I can't think of the last time I had fudge that wasn't a little dried-out and sad. But give fudge a chance: it's easy to make, the ingredients are inexpensive, and making it at home gives you the freedom to tweak the recipe and add whatever you want to it (I like mine with toasty walnuts and a good dose of salt).
The Nerdy Part
Technically speaking, fudge is a crystalline confection. That is, you want sugar crystals to form when you make it, which is the opposite of your goal when making caramel, brittle or toffee. It's similar in technique and structure to fondant—not rolled fondant you put on cakes, but the stuff inside a cherry cordial or peppermint patty.
The basic technique is the same: cook a sugar syrup to soft-ball stage, let it cool for a bit, then agitate the hell out of it until crystals form.
There are reasons for all this specificity. If you've ever cooked sugar syrup for, say, lollipops before, you know you have to make sure all the sugar granules dissolve completely, so they don't crystallize the finished product. So why the heck do you have to do that here?
You want it to crystallize, right? Well, yes. But you're forming crystals that are smaller than the original sugar crystals—that's what gives fudge its nice, creamy texture. That's why you have to let it cool first, too. If you start stirring it while it's too hot, the fudge will end up grainy.
As for fudge that calls for marshmallow or Fluff, it's certainly more foolproof, since it relies on the marshmallow's structure for creaminess and body. You also don't have to stir it like crazy, like you do with traditional fudge. But the candy nerd in me thinks it's cheating. Anyway, do you think I got killer arms like mine from not stirring things for hours on end? Think again, buddy.
All this being said, fudge you make at home (as is true with almost anything) is going to be far superior than that crusty, crumbly little slab you picked up on impulse on vacation. As always, the better the ingredients, the better the end result. And feel free to add whatever you want, too: nuts, chopped dried fruit, orange or mint oil. Whatever strikes your fancy. Just save me a piece when you're done.