When I was a kid, there was nothing I wanted more than a white Christmas. Not pink leg warmers, not the latest Debbie Gibson album, and not even a stonewashed denim jacket were higher on my list than waking up on Christmas morning to a world clothed in white. Year after year I went to bed on Christmas Eve praying with all my might for a meteorological miracle (after all, it happened all the time in the movies!), but sadly those balmy California skies never took pity on me, and by the time I finally did get my white Christmas - in Germany, more than a decade later - it was nice, but not nearly as heart-stoppingly wonderful as it surely would have been when I was young.
As I sit here now, watching fat flakes of snow drift lazily to join the others already blanketing the grass, I wonder what that little California girl would have thought of this crazy December. Usually-mild Seattle has put two snowfalls under its belt already, the last one still causing havoc on the roads as these new flakes start to fall, and they say the worst is yet to come: up to a foot of snow in the next twenty-four hours, gale-force winds and blizzard-like conditions. She probably wouldn't have cared that the power might go out, that we might be eating cold clam chowder for the next few days, and that we might end up trapped in our rural neighborhood right up to Christmas, wishing we had ignored gas prices last July and sprung for a four-wheel-drive instead of a very sensible snow-phobic sedan. No, she'd undoubtedly find the whole thing quite magical - and on some level, despite my worry about all the potential inconveniences (not to mention my frustration at how quickly a few flakes bring everything to a standstill around here - yes I'm talking to you, Seattle!), I can't help but feel it too.
I suppose it helps that I don't have any Christmas shopping left to do, since if I did I'd probably be feeling a cold sweat creep across my palms right about now. Then again, that panic might just as well have forced me to the same conclusion I came to anyway: that this year, instead of braving shopping malls and potentially deadly crowds of bargain-hunters, I'd much rather give everyone a gift from my kitchen.
Jams, cookies, candy - you name it, I'm making it, and though I can't go into too many specifics (don't want to spoil all the surprise for those recipients who read this blog!) there is one you must know about, because a) it's really easy, and b) it was so good we've eaten almost the entire batch, so it obviously won't be ending up in any gift boxes unless the snow lets up and I can make it back to the market (...though in all honesty that would probably be futile since we'd just eat that batch too!). It's called muscovado fudge, and if you've ever wondered what a cross between toffee, caramel and crack cocaine might be like, wonder no more. This is some seriously addictive stuff.
I've always had a soft spot for fudge, despite (or perhaps fueled by?) a string of spectacular failures trying to make it when I was a teenager. I came to appreciate it even more when I moved to Britain and discovered that what they call fudge, unlike in the US, almost never has chocolate. Instead, it's a similarly-textured mixture of sugar, butter, and either milk or cream, usually flavored with a little vanilla or, if you're in Scotland, a splash of whisky. It's sweet stuff, to be sure, but offset by a bitter espresso at the end of a good meal, you could be forgiven for thinking you've died and gone to heaven.
This muscovado fudge takes that butter-sugar-vanilla concept and does it one better, though. Instead of white sugar it calls for dark muscovado, a moist, pungent sugar that smells like molasses, yet tastes like the most exquisitely complex toffee. In combination with the salt - a pinch inside to tame the sweetness and a sprinkle on top for an irresistible crunch - the result is pure caramelly, buttery, salty-sweet bliss. Like any good fudge it's soft and chewy and almost too easy to eat, and ought to keep just fine for a couple weeks if wrapped well in waxed paper - which makes it not only great gift material, but also a useful stash of emergency calories that just might come in handy during the white, white Christmas ahead.
Have a very Merry Christmas guys, and please, stay warm, dry and safe this week.
I feel like all I'm doing lately is calling for esoteric or hard-to-find ingredients, but trust me when I tell you not to substitute plain old dark brown sugar here. You might be able to get away with going half and half, but you really need at least some muscovado sugar for the right depth of flavor, and it should hopefully be easy enough for you to track down at a well-stocked grocer. The other thing you might want to try, if you're so inclined, is to add a handful of nuts - pecans or walnuts, lightly toasted of course, strike me as a particularly good match; just fold them in right before you pour the mixture in the pan to cool. And don't let me scare you with my tales of spectacular failures making fudge in my younger days - if you're careful to not reintroduce any sugar crystals after the rest of the sugar has dissolved (by washing down the pot and spoon), you'll have no problems at all.
Yield: about 64 1-inch pieces (recipe can easily be doubled)
Source: adapted from Delicious Magazine
1/2 cup (1 stick/120g) butter
1 lb (450g) dark muscovado sugar (you'll sometimes find it masquerading under the name 'molasses sugar')
1 cup (250ml) evaporated milk
1/3 cup (80ml) water
flaky sea salt, such as Maldon or Fleur de Sel
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
special equipment: a candy thermometer and waxed paper
Lightly grease an 8-inch (20cm) square pan and line with waxed paper, leaving an inch or so hanging over two opposite ends.
Melt the butter in a large heavy-based saucepan over medium heat. Add the sugar, milk, water and a generous pinch of salt and stir until the sugar has completely dissolved. Take a wet pastry brush and wash any sugar crystals down from the sides of the pan. Wash your spoon as well. Turn the heat up and boil the mixture vigorously, stirring every now and then and washing down the sides of the pan a couple more times, for about half an hour, until the mixture reaches 235-240F (113-116C) on a candy thermometer (the soft-ball stage). To test, take the pan off the heat and drop a small blob of the mixture into a bowl of cold water. It should be firm but still malleable.
Take the pan off the heat and immediately plunge the bottom into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Remove the pan from the ice water and set it aside to cool undisturbed. When the bottom of the pan is cool enough that you can hold your hand against it, start stirring the fudge with a wooden spoon. Keep stirring until the mixture thickens, loses its shine, and begins to sound almost gritty against the pan base. Quickly stir in the vanilla and pour into the prepared pan. Smooth the top and sprinkle with a couple more pinches of salt. When completely cool, remove from the pan, cut into 1-inch squares (or whatever size you want), and wrap each one in a piece of waxed paper for storage. Store in an airtight container at room temperature.