It’s true what they say about insecure people and downtrodden cultures. Because we feel inferior, we have a tendency to brag. When news comes from Appalachia onto the national scene, it usually involves grandmothers peddling oxycontin out of their pocketbooks or finding a philandering husband in a deep freeze with his face on backwards.
Good Lord, I think. Do they have to show that?
As an antidote, I play a game called Name That Kentuckian.
Abraham Lincoln? Diane Sawyer? George Clooney? Johnny Depp? They’re from Kentucky!!! Jeremy Sumpter, the quarterback J.D. McCoy on Friday Night Lights was raised in my hometown.
Want a Kentucky writer? Wendell Berry, bell hooks, Robert Penn Warren, Barbara Kingsolver, Frank X. Walker, just for starters.
Shall I put on some music? How about Loretta Lynn, Joan Osborne, The Judds, Patty Loveless or Bill Munroe? Kentucky born, of course.
We invent stuff, too: the mobile phone, the steamboat, gas masks, cheeseburgers, and Preparation H & BOURBON...there when you really need them.
But this piece is about a little-known and practically secret Kentucky creation: the divine confection known as cream candy.
As with many inventions, I imagine cream candy as an accident, born from creative necessity. It’s Christmas Eve, say. We live in a log cabin and there are four of us kids. Our family has spent all our money on shoes. What’s in the cupboard? Hmmm... butter, sugar, cream, oh just pour it all in the iron pot.
Let’s stir the concoction over the woodstove... but then the stove catches fire and we flee out into the snow, carrying the sweet boiling liquid. Momma trips and the contents of the pot fly into the frigid air landing on Granddad’s marble tombstone. We kids grab it up and begin a tug of war, as we pull and pull, the compound magically turns into taffy. Fascinated, we pull hand over hand until Dad hollers that the fire is out. “It was just the creosote burning inside the stove pipe!”
Inside, we notice a second transformation of our creation. It has a lighter, lustrous color. The candy rope seems to glow. Momma tells us to set it down on the kitchen table. She whips out the scissors and cuts the rope into small pieces. We pop bits of the amazing confection into our mouths and let it melt there, staggering around the warm kitchen, our ecstatic faces lifted heavenward.
The next morning, we dash into the kitchen where dad is frying bacon and discover that the candy has done its final magic trick. It has changed from chewy and dense, to a soft, artfully-textured morsel.
“It creamed!” the youngest child says and we all eat a piece and stagger mmmmmming around the kitchen once more.
This scenario is fantasy. To my knowledge, the sparse history of the sweet does not include a description of the how the first batch came about. We do know that Ruth Hunt, the founder of Hunt’s Candy Company began making this candy for her friends and, as the demand rose, began her own company in 1921. Legend has it that Ruth Hunt expanded the original recipe in an effort to cheer up her daughter by dipping slabs of it into dark chocolate. She named the candy bar, Blue Monday.
I currently divide my life between my beloved farm in Mt. Sterling and my artistic community in Greater Boston, a settlement known as Somerville, or affectionately, Slummerville, and where Marshmallow Fluff was invented.
The cultural gap between the towns is interplanetary. When I arrived back in the Boston area after the holidays, I parked my car a half a mile from my house, and draggle-tailed my feline children, over a Salvador Dalí-like melted, refrozen moonscape of grey, pocked snowdrifts. I was about to topple into well of depression.
My best friend, who’d been staying in my apartment since surviving a house fire, my traveling companion and myself, all of us born at some point along that stretch of Kentucky U.S. 60 where cream candy is still made, opened my red tin, packed full by a friend.
The three of us gathered in my Somerville kitchen, partook of the sweetness that unfurled into our senses with an almost genetic pleasure. We staggered around the kitchen our chins lifted, eyes closed.
But back for a moment, to my opening statement about culture, insecurity and pride of place. I took a friend of mine from the Northeast to Kentucky and she became enamored of our cream pies. My friend asked the chef for the recipe. She came out from the kitchen, with a smile and declined to share.
“Momma would have a fit,” she said, wiping her hands on her apron. My friend produced a $20 and asked if the crust made from hot water or cold. The woman shook her head again, smiling. “Sorry,” she said. She no doubt could have used that twenty and my friend would have loved that recipe. Boston has a cream pie, but it isn’t a pie at all. It’s a cake with layers of custard. But the message was clear: Don’t come swaggering down here and think you can skim off our cream. Our recipes are not for sale.
But I’m going to contribute to the bridging of the cultural divide and I’m going to do it right now. Yes.
I am going to give you the recipe for cream candy.
Hunt’s Candy company is thriving in Mt. Sterling, Kentucky and my friends Jimmy and Debby Robinson still make tinful after tinful in the winter. It is my honor to share the recipe they use.
Uncle Hurshel's Kentucky Cream Candy Recipe
Best to Choose a Low Humidity, Cold Day in Kentucky
(Best if it is below 32 degrees with less than 50% humidity and as close to Kentucky as you can get!)
~ Chill a large piece of marble slab by placing outdoors
~ Using a medium to large cooking pot, mix 3 Cups of sugar with one cup of water
~ Cook on Medium Heat stirring with a wooden spoon
~ When mixture threads from the spoon (Forms a thread when spoon is tilted), Pour in one cup heavy whipping cream (1/2 Pint) laced with a pinch of baking soda
~ Do Not Stir
~ Using a candy thermometer, Remove mixture from heat when temperature is at 260 degrees
~ Pour directly onto the cold marble slab (after spreading a small amount of butter over the slab)
~ Work the mixture with hands until cool enough to pick up
~ Continue to "Pull" the candy hand over hand until no longer sticky and the mixture has turned white
~ Immediately pull it out into a roll and cut with scissors into bite-size pieces
~ Wait for about an hour and place in tin containers
~ Candy should "cream" overnight
Special note to the uninitiated:
This candy is meant to be nibbled and savored. Please do not place a whole piece, or even two, as I have seen done, or your stagger will be more along the lines of insulin shock than culinary joy. If the recipe overwhelms, then just come on over to my house.
By CD Collins & Billy Marshmallow