Sweet Texas Home
Two days before Christmas, I am sitting with my mother, Sue Raye, at the round oak table that dominates the kitchen of her one-story house, just off the central square in Mason, a county seat of 2,000 people in the Texas Hill Country west of Austin. We're flipping through tattered candy recipes taped to index cards. Outside, a thick fog has traveled across the lavender fields south of town and rolled right up to the panes of the kitchen window.
The two of us are spending the day making candies, just as my mother has done almost every year since my family moved to Austin from Ohio in 1978, when I was a year old. Mom gets up from the table, walks to the stove, and leans over a pot containing chocolate chips, peanut butter, and paraffin wax; these ingredients will be melted down and layered atop shredded coconut and sweetened condensed milk to be made into coconut candy bars. Next to her at the stove, I peer into another pot, which is filled with bubbling toffee, watching the mercury rise slowly on an old glass Accu-Rite candy thermometer. I wait patiently for the concoction to reach 310 degrees, sugar's hard-crack stage (see Cooking Sugar), and then I pour the molten toffee in thick streams onto a jelly roll pan. Next, I top it with semisweet chocolate chips, which melt instantly from the heat of the candy underneath.
In the meantime, Mom has moved her coconut candy bars to the garage to let them cool, and I grab a fistful of chopped Texas pecans and rain them down over the toffee. As we work, Lyle Lovett croons "Christmas Morning" from the clock radio on the counter.
I've been crazy about making candy since I was a kid. There's something about the over-the-top indulgence of it all that appeals to me on a purely emotional level. My first memories of homemade candy are from the 1980s, before my parents divorced, when Mom used to throw huge holiday open houses for my father's colleagues at the Austin American-Statesman, where he was the circulation manager. In the week leading up to those parties, my mother worked like a hound in the kitchen, making sweets for nearly a hundred guests: fudgy brownies, layer cakes, snickerdoodles, sugar cookies, and ice cream that she'd serve by the scoop in pastel-colored cupcake papers. I observed from the kitchen table, transfixed, as she stirred enormous bowls of nuts and crunchy Rice Krispies into melted white chocolate for her white chocolate crispies and mixed melted semisweet chocolate with miniature pink and green marshmallows, molded the mixture into logs, and rolled them in graham cracker crumbs to make what she called stained-glass-window candies.