Wednesday, July 9, 2008

a substitute for a substitute

The other day I had a craving for something sweet and indulgent, decadent even. It was the weekend and I had no plans, it was freezing and pouring with rain, I was PMSed. All I really wanted in the world was to curl up in bed with my man and hopefully, at some point, start to feel my fingers and my toes again. However, said man was unavailable, across the ocean and thousands of miles away from my bed in a place where it was warm and sunny. So as a very sad and ineffective substitute, I thought I might bake the aforementioned something sweet and decadent and eat it hot from the oven whilst sitting in bed in my cocoon of blanket and duvet. So, esconced in the cocoon, I began to plan my something sweet and decadent. There were several plans, all unfortunately involving a quick trip to the shops to stock up my baking cupboard. But no matter – think of what would lie ahead!

And then the black thought came to me. The remembrance that the bloody oven wasn’t working since the night before. It had pretended to, teased me - oven light on, little red I'm-heating-up light on, and then - pffft - the power tripped. The whole flat, lights out, power gone. And really, it wasn't a fluke. I tested the situation four times and every time - pffft (which also means I had to climb on top of the stove four times as the switch for the mains is way high up on the wall, over the oven. Ladders/chairs can't get close enough to the wall, so on top of the stove I go, all the while waiting for the damned thing to break in additional and more spectacular ways.)

It was enough to make me want to stay in bed all weekend, never moving. Except maybe to retrieve the occasional bottle of wine from the wine rack and maybe not even bother with a glass to drink it with. What was the point? Life held nothing for me this weekend.

But suddenly I thought – fudge. Fudge was the answer.

It’s a ridiculous creation, really. Just massive amounts of sugar and dairy, in various forms, caramelized together. And then people eat it, just like that. These days there are shops dedicated to selling fudge, with thirty different flavours and permutations. But the original, traditional confection is the one I am referring to, the one that I feel is somewhat ridiculous.

I am committing family blasphemy by saying so, of course. My mother’s fudge recipe is one that was handed down from her grandmother, the one she was named after. Ouma* Elspeth. It is a recipe that is used throughout the family, but especially by my mother as it became one of my father’s favourite treats. My dad had an insatiable sweet tooth, and as fudge is the sweetest of sweets it made him very happy indeed. It was always my dad’s privilege to scrape out the fudge pot with a spoon after my mother made a batch of fudge, grudgingly granting me one or two spoonfuls of the crinkly scrapings.

Because yes, naturally I also loved my mother’s fudge. The best bits were the crinkly scrapings reserved for my dad; but it was also great to take a square of smooth as silk fudge and roll it into a ball, the heat from my palms softening the sweet. And then bite into the ball of fudge, letting it melt bite-by-tiny-bite on my tongue until each bite disappeared and finally also the ball of fudge would disappear. I might have repeated this process once, even twice, but then the inevitable nausea after a bout of fudge-eating would set in and that would be then end of eating fudge – until the next batch came along.

When I moved out of the house and no longer saw my parents so often, fudge stopped featuring in my life. It had never been something I bought, because my mother made it at home and made it so much better than anyone else did. And most of the fudge out there was of the crystallized, sandy type. You know the type? See, there are two kinds of fudge, smooth and sandy, and any fudge-lover swears strictly by one type only – most likely the one they were brought up with. I grew up with the smooth type - to my mind also the only type.

So smooth fudge is what I wanted to make this weekend, and off I went – out of my lovely cocoon, mind you – to buy the ingredients. Butter, sugar, condensed milk, golden syrup. And a few slabs of dark chocolate, because what could be better than a combination of fudge and chocolate?

Plain fudge, it turns out, could be better. Would have been better. In the first place, that’s what my nostalgic taste buds were really yearning for. And in the second place, the chocolate obviously made my fudge set harder than it would have normally and didn’t even lend a really chocolatey flavour, more of a malted flavour. Obviously. You’d think, with all my cooking/baking/sweet making experience, these things would have occurred to me.

All of which does not mean that I didn’t enjoy the resulting malted fudge, and am not still enjoying it (just one block every evening, I swear. That can’t be so bad?). It just seemed like an even less effective and sadder substitute than I had imagined. The next cold, wet and lonely weekend, maybe I’ll try the original, plain Ouma Elspeth fudge, but I suspect no substitute will do much good until the real thing is back home and by my side.

Until then, in hope, here is Ouma Elspeth’s fudge.

Ouma Elspeth’s Fudge

250 g unsalted butter
2 cups sugar
2 tbsps golden syrup
1 tin condensed milk
1 tsp vanilla
1 tbsp butter
1 tsp salt

Melt the butter and sugar together over a low heat until the sugar has dissolved completely.
Add the golden syrup and condensed milk and allow the mixture to simmer while stirring now and then to prevent burning. Let it simmer away for a while, up to an hour. The mixture needs to become a dark golden caramelly colour and has to reach the consistency of a thick sauce.
Now add the vanilla, tablespoon of butter and salt and beat the mixture vigorously with a wooden spoon until it takes on a dull sheen and starts to set, making it more difficult to beat.
Empty into a tin, either smeared with butter or lined with wax paper, and allow to set at room temperature for at least an hour.

*Afrikaans for Grandmother