A Quick and Easy Way to Make Fudge
Fudge made the traditional way is a pain. You know, you combine sugar with other ingredients in a saucepan and heat the mixture until it reaches that elusive “soft-ball” stage. The whole process requires constant attention — otherwise you risk scorching the sugar, among other potential bad things. Periodically you might even have to “wash” down the saucepan’s walls with a wet brush. How fun. Not.
Once you achieve soft-ball nirvana, most recipes tell you to let the mixture cool undisturbed until it’s lukewarm (which can take a while). Then you get to stir (and stir) until the fudge sets up properly.
If you make a mistake along the way, the fudge turns grainy. Or runny. Even if you don’t make a mistake, it often turns out wrong anyway (the humidity, you know). And the whole affair takes time, lots of time. A strong arm helps too.
Fudge made this way is good, but it’s trouble. Enter the microwave.
Fudge made in the microwave takes just a few minutes. It’s easy and almost foolproof. The result? A sweet treat that’s as smooth as the patter of a 3-card monte dealer.
Before going further, let’s be clear: This isn’t a traditional recipe. Traditional fudge recipes call for sugar, butter, milk, and usually additional ingredients (chocolate is a favorite, of course). You heat the sugar mixture on top of the stove, and then mix in the butter by hand.
Most of us don’t make fudge the old-fashioned way anymore because it’s too time consuming — and too difficult. Making a traditional-style fudge is challenging because you have to control two tricky variables: water content and sugar crystallization.
Water content affects the texture and appearance of fudge. Too much water? The fudge will be soft, even runny. Too little water? You can wind up with a sticky mess. That’s why traditional fudge recipes tell you to heat your sugar mixture to the soft-ball stage (which is about 240 degrees F) — because that’s the point at which you evaporate the required amount of water.
A microwave can accomplish this very efficiently since virtually all its energy operates on water molecules (and only water molecules). Harold McGee explained this in detail in Zapping the Holiday Candy (New York Times, December 21, 2010). His article is informative, and I urge you to read it. (Mrs. Kitchen Riffs has been making fudge in the microwave for years. But until we read McGee, we had only an imprecise understanding of why the microwave worked so well.)
After you heat the sugar mixture, you need to let it cool down. Which is where sugar crystallization comes in. If the melted sugar crystallizes too fast, its texture becomes coarse and gritty. And unfortunately, unless you’re a very accomplished candy maker, it usually crystallizes too fast. That’s because you can inadvertently set off crystallization by jiggling the pan too much, or allowing dust to touch the mixture, or whatever. Once your misstep allows a few sugar “seed crystals” to form, they create a chain reaction that turns your fudge into a grainy mass.
Who needs that kind of frustration? Instead, most of us opt for shortcuts. Like this recipe. It allows us to enjoy the deliciousness of some favorite fudge ingredients (butter! sugar!), without the hassle.
The flavor may not be exactly like your grandmother’s homemade fudge. But it’s still darn good. And you don’t need a candy thermometer.
Recipe: Peanut Butter Fudge
This recipe is adapted from one by Alton Brown.
The recipe takes about 10 or so minutes of active time. Then you need to cool the fudge in the refrigerator (so it can solidify) before you cut it. Figure on about two hours for that (you can speed things up a bit by putting it in the freezer for a few minutes; see Notes).
Yield depends on how large you cut the pieces, but figure about five dozen 1-inch pieces. Leftovers (ha!) keep in an airtight container for a week or so. Store at room temperature.
- 10 ounces crunchy peanut butter, preferably without added sugar (you can substitute smooth; see Notes)
- 8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, plus more for greasing pan (salted butter will be OK if that’s all you have)
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract (see Notes)
- 14 ounces powdered sugar
- Butter an 8 by 8-inch pan and line it with parchment paper. Butter the parchment paper.
- Combine the peanut butter and butter in a large microwave-safe bowl (a 2-quart Pyrex container with lid is perfect). Cover with plastic wrap if you don’t have a lid for your container and you’re worried about “explosions” (optional, but not a bad thing to do). Microwave for 2 minutes on high.
- Stir, and then microwave on high for another minute or two, until the mixture is fully melted (microwave times vary). Caution: Mixture will be very hot when you remove it from the microwave.
- Add the vanilla to the melted peanut butter mixture and stir in. Then add the powdered sugar and stir to combine, using with a wooden spoon or spatula. The mixture will become fairly stiff and hard to stir.
- Spread the mixture into the prepared pan. Cover the surface of the fudge with additional parchment paper. Refrigerate until chilled and firm (you can cut it after an hour, although it will crumble; chilling about 2 hours is better).
- Turn chilled fudge onto a cutting board and cut into pieces of about 1-inch or so each.
- We buy peanut butter that contains peanuts and salt only, no added sugar. We haven’t tried this recipe with peanut butter “spreads” that contain sugar, but they should work OK.
- We like crunchy peanut butter in general, so that’s what we always use in this recipe. The texture of the fudge is thus a bit crunchy — but we like that.
- Speaking of texture, although this is a pretty smooth fudge, it isn’t quite as smooth as chocolate fudge made in the microwave (or the traditional way). That’s just the nature of the peanut butter.
- We find this fudge plenty sweet, but you could add another couple of ounces of powdered sugar if you’d like (the original recipe calls for 16 ounces).
- You should use high quality (pure) vanilla extract in this recipe. Its flavor is so much better than the imitation kind.
- Pure vanilla extract is made by soaking vanilla beans in a mixture of water and alcohol for several months. BTW, the FDA requires that pure vanilla extract contain at least 35% alcohol. If the label doesn’t say “pure,” that means it’s made from synthetic vanilla. The artificial kind is usually derived from the sapwood of several species of conifers — or from coal extracts! How appetizing.
- The flavor of some imitation vanillas can be nasty. You don’t have to spend a fortune on pure vanilla extract, but getting decent quality does mean spending a bit more for something that’s not loaded with sugar or imitation flavoring. Do yourself a favor and get the real stuff.
- If you’re really in a hurry to eat this and can’t wait the hour or two for the fudge to chill in the refrigerator, you can stick it in the freezer for half an hour or so (ask us how we know this). Results are OK, but the texture is better if you refrigerate.
- Unfortunately, some people suffer from food allergies, and peanuts are a particular hazard. This allergy is relatively rare, but children seem to suffer from it more than adults. Among particularly susceptible children, simply being near peanut butter — say, sitting next to your child as s/he eats a piece of this fudge — can cause an allergic reaction. If this is a concern, you may want to serve this fudge as a weekend or afternoon snack, rather than packing it in a school lunch box.
- The good news is that most people don’t suffer this allergic reaction. So take prudent precautions, and enjoy these tasty morsels!
“Great fudge,” I said, taking another piece.
“I knew you’d enjoy this!” Mrs. Kitchen Riffs beamed. “Anyone who likes peanut butter — and fudge — will go for this recipe.”
“I like both,” I agreed. “And this fudge takes so little time to make, it’s a natural for when you have something else to do. Like watching the Super Bowl today.”
“Right,” agreed Mrs K R. “Of course I won’t be watching — as we discussed in our post on Spicy Party Nuts, I have an unbroken record of never watching Super Bowl games. And being a sports fan, you know the importance of records. But for anyone watching, you could easily whip this up during the pregame show, chill, and then serve during half-time.”
“Sounds like a plan!” I enthused while polishing off my third piece. “That means you’re making another batch of this for the Super Bowl, right?”
“Or for watching Downton Abbey,” she replied with that butter-won’t-melt-in-my-mouth look. “Which also airs on Sunday evening.”
“Good thing we have two TVs,” I said, taking another piece of fudge. “Although only one with a big screen. The one in our home gym is kinda small, but a perfect size for the treadmill. So you can kill two birds with one stone — watch Downton Abbey, and get in a workout.”
Mrs K R patted my belly. “Keep eating that fudge, and you may be the one who needs to log more miles on the treadmill.”
I don’t think I like where this conversation is going.
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