Both my parents were good cooks, each in their own way. While my mother was somewhat loose in her interpretation of measurements, my father was a chemistry teacher and his inherent habit of carefully measuring transferred into the kitchen. He knew which ingredients, based on their chemical makeup, would yield certain results and when too much or too little of something would be a culinary disaster. He was precise about temperatures as well, with an uncanny ability to sense when a steak was medium rare, without hacking it to pieces.
There were only three areas where Dad moved away from the safety of his chemical beakers and proved his culinary proficiency. One was his ability to toss together a terrific salad. His skill in slicing, dicing and chopping came from his love of growing most of our own vegetables. Dad maneuvered a chef’s knife with the best of them. His second skill was honed when mom developed pneumonia and was bedridden. While Dad was the bread winner, Mom was the bread baker. In sheer desperation my father decided he had to learn how to bake bread. He did, after a number of dismal failures. Even when Mom recovered, she happily turned the bread pans over to Dad.
His third skill was fudge-making. It was my father who taught me the secret of this chocolate confection. “Henry’s Fudge” became a tradition in our family during the holidays. His fudge was highly coveted by friends and always appeared on Mom’s cookie trays. Sometimes Dad would bake bread in the morning, then make fudge in the afternoon. The combined aromas of freshly baked bread and chocolate fudge drifting throughout our house made one’s mouth water and one’s soul rejoice. Wonderful – but rough on the waistline.
His fudge recipe is the only one I use and have used for the past forty-odd years. It is indelibly etched into my brain and I seldom stray. His fudge-making process was simple. He would grease a 9×13 pan. Then he’d fill three small ramekins with ice-cold water. Into a large pan went butter, evaporated milk, sugar and a pinch of salt. Once that heated up, he’d add several squares of unsweetened chocolate. I noticed my father wasn’t always precise about the butter or sugar. He knew if he was off by a tablespoon of butter or sugar, it wouldn’t make any difference.
At this point, all fudge recipes will advise you to attach a candy thermometer to the inside of the pan to determine when the chocolate mixture has reached the soft-ball stage. Before that, it has to reach the boiling point and then maintain a certain temperature until it’s cooked enough to harden. Dad did not use a candy thermometer because we didn’t own one. Instead, he would watch until the boiling “bubbles” looked just right. This is a knack developed over time and I’ve also done this long enough to usually know when those bubbles look right. Then he would take a teaspoonful of the chocolate and drop it into one of the small dishes. He’d wait a few seconds, then he’d try to form the chocolate into a ball.
If it wasn’t ready, the boiling would continue, but not for more than a minute or so. He’d try again and usually he nailed it on his second try. Rarely he’d need all three dishes. He would then turn off the heat and add the chocolate chips, half a jar (more or less) of marshmallow fluff, a spoonful or two of corn syrup, and a generous capful of vanilla. After stirring vigorously, he would pour the rather unwieldy and molten hot mixture into the greased pan. Fudge at last. Or at least within the hour.
I still maintain this tradition of fudge-making at the holidays. My friends almost always get a tin. And I have not purchased a candy thermometer, still adhering to my three little dishes of ice-cold water. And I sometimes need all three dishes. Every time I give someone my fudge, or rather “Henry’s Fudge,” they tell me how hard it is to make. It does require effort, but as soon as you bite into this rich chocolatey decadence, you know immediately it was SO worth it. And every time I make it, I know Dad is looking over my shoulder, telling me when those “bubbles” look ready. My father gave me many gifts, but this is certainly one of my favorites. And the tastiest.