December 23, 2000
One of those memories of Christmases of my childhood is the appearance of Aunt Fan, who was really my great-aunt. Aunt Fan didn't come to Moultrie (Georgia) for the main Barber Christmas gathering every year, but when she did, the food (especially the sweets) had some extra flourishes. She was a professional: for some years, Aunt Fan and her friend Mary Jo Thompson ran the Sanford House restaurant in Milledgeville, Ga., and before that she was in charge of food service at Wesleyan College in Macon, Ga.
When Aunt Fan was at the big family Christmas gathering, she would bring with her, or make while there, divinity candy, lace cookies all crisp and buttery and candy-like, and maybe a peppermint pie. During the Christmas Day afternoon gathering at my Grandmother Barber's house, Fan presided over the Russian spiced tea. But the strongest (and fondest) memory I have is of her caramels. Some vanilla, some chocolate, with or without pecans, each wrapped in a miniature butcher's fold of waxed paper with the ends tucked under, and crammed into a tin or a box. The caramels were soft and chewy, rich, the chocolate ones intense and the vanilla ones buttery. You learned to find the caramel container, then dig around, peering through the waxed-paper wrapping to see if it was vanilla or chocolate, with or without nuts, before grabbing yet another piece.
Aunt Fan showed me how to make those caramels one Christmas, and wrote out the recipe in the abbreviated style of her age. (Good thing I took notes, too!) I remember she left out the vanilla and realized the omission after we had poured out the caramels. No problem--she took the bottle, put her thumb over the opening, and sprinkled some over the top of the finished candy. They still seemed to taste OK, proving either that this is a very tolerant recipe, or that a great cook can get away with a lot.
This Christmas I dug out the recipe for Aunt Fan's caramels for the first time in years. I did a test run of vanilla caramels last night, and my father wandered through the kitchen as I peered at the candy thermometer. He remembers that it was a summer when he was in high school, in the late 1930's, that Aunt Fan went off to a cooking school in New York for two weeks. The caramels, and her candy thermometer, were part of what she brought back. Daddy remembers Fan setting up the caramel bars on the marble countertop, and pouring the hot candy out to set. (This would have been in Fan's sister's house, my grandmother's.) He also remembers the few months when he and my mother lived in Milledgeville in 1951, and they helped out at the Sanford House in the evenings. My older brother was learning to walk at that point, and the college-aged waitresses would try to induce him to walk from one to the other during slow moments of the dinner hour.
This afternoon, with the assistance of my nieces, aged 7 and almost 5, I made a batch of chocolate caramels. Cutting up the vanilla ones made the night before provided a chance for the girls to perform quality-control checks while waiting for the bubbling mixture to reach soft-ball stage. Younger niece tried her first bit (a small piece that had stuck to the pan) with caution, then asked for a "real" piece, then for one "...oh, this big, Aunt Nancy." "But there isn't a piece that big--that's three-quarters of the pan." "Oh, well, this big."
We'll cut the chocolate caramels tomorrow, and wrap the pieces in little squares of waxed paper, and the nieces will eat some and take some to their grandparents in Arizona. I'll mail some to my nephew who helped bake the plenitude of pies we had at Thanksgiving, and give more away to friends. And I'll think that Aunt Fan came to Atlanta for Christmas this year.
Have a Merry Christmas, everyone!
Miss Fanny White's Caramels
1 cup sugar
1 cup white Karo syrup
1 cup whipping cream
1 T. butter
1 tsp. vanilla
Mix sugar, syrup, and cream in a large saucepan. Cook over medium heat until the mixture reaches 230 degrees F. (soft-ball stage) on a candy thermometer. Add butter and vanilla, then continue cooking until the mixture reaches 242 degrees (firm-ball stage). If desired, stir in one or more of the following:
3/4 c. chopped pecans (toast them first if desired)
3/4 c. chopped toasted almonds
3/4 c. shredded coconut, toasted or not
Pour mixture into a buttered 8" square or 9" round pan. Let it set overnight, then cut into pieces and wrap individually in waxed paper.
Add 3 (1-oz) squares of semi-sweet chocolate when mixture reaches 230 degrees. Add butter and vanilla when chocolate has melted, then cook to 242 degrees and proceed as above.