When I was a kid, Christmas was all about the presents. But as I matured, I began to pay attention to more important aspects of the holiday—that’s right, candy.
By mid-December each year, my mom would be in full-on treat-making mode. She whipped up homemade English toffee, handcrafted pralines, painstakingly shaped coconut balls and vanilla fudge with candied cherries of unnatural hues. And there were always plenty of crunchy, peanut buttery, butterscotch haystacks.
As her health declined, the selections narrowed, but Mom would persevere through pain to at least create a batch of her beloved toffee. By her last few years, when I’d convinced her to let me take over the confection-making duties, I truly realized what a labor of love her candy was.
My toffee-making attempts have ranged from too soft to crystallized to teeth cracking. I made coconut balls exactly once before declaring them a thankless endeavor (which shockingly involved melting chocolate with paraffin wax). I have yet to attempt pralines because of my aforementioned issues with crystallization. But I can make a mean batch of haystacks.
About five years ago, I took up the notion to gift clients and friends near and far with a selection of made-at-home holiday sweetness. I’ve sent everything from “too pretty to eat” spritz cookies to peppermint macarons to plum jam, but inevitably I get the most glowing feedback on super-easy-to-make haystacks.
As someone whose tastebuds are heavily influenced by nostalgia, I totally get it. A lot of folks enjoyed these treats as kids but had no idea where to procure them or how to concoct them. These admittedly lowbrow candies will never find a home in most retail environments, but I’m happy to share the recipe.
I’m the sort who can manage disappointing results with the occasional “no-fail recipe,” so believe me when I say that you cannot mess up haystacks (unless you sub in reduced-fat peanut butter or other such abominations). I never bother measuring the amount of noodles or nuts (thanks to my sister for the idea for that tasty addition). Once, I accidentally added twice the amount of butterscotch chips. Doesn’t matter—every single batch I’ve ever made tasted delicious. Sure they may look a mess, but that’s part of the charm.
One of my new-ish holiday staples also came courtesy of my sister. Everyone I know calls it by a certain name, but for this post, I’m choosing to go with white chocolate snack mix.
What I’ve found most difficult about this particular treat has been trying to write down a recipe for what is basically a bunch of snack items coated in white chocolate. Feel free to add or delete ingredients to your taste. Just don’t leave out the Bugles. Even people who’ve never heard of Bugles think they’re the best part. Note: If you have trouble locating them, be sure to check the aisle of misfit chips where the Pringles hang out.
Rounding out my trifecta of gift-worthy candies is a twist on turtles I learned from an ex: Leave the boy; take the turtles. The secret ingredient is sweetened condensed milk boiled in the can to create a decadent dulce de leche. You’ll find plenty of Internet horror stories about exploding cans of sweetened condensed milk. Most manufacturers feature a warning on the label along the lines of: DO NOT HEAT IN CAN. I should mention that you absolutely should not boil sweetened condensed milk in the can under any circumstances. Caution: do not attempt this at home. Folks call it “danger pudding” for a reason. Ok, that said, I’ve done this dozens of times without incident. The key is to keep the cans—I usually do four at a time—fully submerged in water when cooking and cool them completely before opening.
If you consider safety a virtue, you’ll want to make the dulce de leche in a double boiler or the oven. For an easier (but more spendy) alternative, you can sometimes find cans of pre-made dulce de leche in your grocer’s Hispanic food section. I haven’t tried the bottled stuff sold alongside ice cream condiments, but I suspect it would be too runny.
The deconstructed turtles recipe also includes chocolate discs for candy making. My favorites are from a local cake supply shop, but Ghirardelli makes a version called “melting wafers” that mimics the look of tempered chocolate and tastes great, too. If you aren’t particular about chocolate flavor, you could use Wilton’s cocoa candy melts. And if you aren’t particular about looks, you could use melted chocolate mixed with a bit of shortening, vegetable oil or coconut oil so it will set. (Note: I am firmly in the butter is better camp, but it absolutely doesn’t work in this application. Yes, I have tried.) Of course, you could use actual tempered chocolate, but if you know how to do that, you likely stopped reading this post seven paragraphs ago.
In the following recipes, I’ve listed an approximate amount of ingredients for making one batch. If you plan on sharing these treats, you’ll almost certainly want to make larger quantities but as a general rule, home candy making is best done a batch at a time. While some candies are persnickety and won’t turn out properly in larger batches, these are just unwieldy. If you have ginormous bowls/pans/biceps and unlimited counter space feel free to make double, triple or quadruple batches.
Taken individually, these treats are simple to make, difficult to mess up and almost certain to please (unless your friends hate butterscotch, pecans and/or white chocolate or in the case of my partner all three). One caveat: making these recipes in bulk, packaging them for gifting and packing and mailing boxes will take more time (and possibly money) than one might think prudent to spend. At the end of it all, you may say—as I do each year—“remind me to never do this again.” But when the compliments and thank-you notes start rolling in and you see the joy on people’s faces, you’ll remember why you made the effort.
What are your favorite holiday candy memories? Which treats do you like to make each year? Please share!