‘Twas the week before Christmas and nothing was wrapped. You’ve made up your list, and checked it twice, but there are still people to buy for, and you have no idea what to get them. We’ve all been there, with the picky siblings, the distant cousins, the co-workers, the kids’ teachers — what can you get the people who don’t like anything or whom you don’t know well enough to know what they like?
There’s a reason why sweet treats like fudge, flavored popcorn, seasoned nuts and chocolate truffles have stood the test of time for gift-giving — forget the fruitcake or the figgy pudding. The Hippo talked to Noah Munro from The Mill Fudge Factory, Doug Nelson at Nelson’s Candies and Rich Tango-Lowy from Dancing Lion Chocolate about why confections like fudge, peanut brittle and chocolate truffles make perfect little presents, whether you buy them or make them yourself.
Many local business owners and NH Made vendors got their start by giving sweet gifts during the holidays. Candie Roux Goyette from Our Sister’s Nuts used a popular family recipe to make her well-received gifts, and Michele Holbrook of Michele’s Sweet Shoppe in Epsom used to give her treats to the bus driver as a special holiday thank-you.
Following suit, Hippo staff took to their kitchens and prepared a few recipes of their own, then shared whether they were worth the time and effort. The general consensus is that a batch of fudge or platter of peanut brittle wrapped in holiday ribbons makes a great gift with a personal touch. But if you still can’t find the time to wrap popcorn balls in cellophane, you can always let the pros do the work for you.
Before starting her own popcorn business, Michele Holbrook made white chocolate popcorn as gifts for her kids’ teachers during the holidays.
“I would put it in little bags and give it to teachers and the bus driver,” Holbrook said. “I think people like me that are somewhat crafty are always going to make their own gifts. … A lot of people don’t have time to do it.”
That’s how Michele’s Sweet Shoppe and Michele’s Totally Awesome Gourmet Popcorn started. Originally, Holbrook was thinking about marketing whoopie pies, but family and friends persuaded her that her white chocolate popcorn recipe would be her key to success. She has been making gourmet popcorn for seven years, and it’s been three years since the Epsom storefront opened.
Popcorn balls and popcorn tins are classic holiday gifts. Food network cooks like Ree Drummond of The Pioneer Woman Cooks and Paula Deen have their own popcorn ball recipes (not to mention the vast number of recipes on the popular social media site Pinterest, where DIY reigns). Popcorn balls are made from popped corn with corn syrup and sugar. Festive varieties include caramel, melted colored chocolates and candies drizzled into popcorn mixes.
Although Michele’s Sweet Shoppe doesn’t have popcorn balls, it has over 25 sweet, savory and seasonal popcorn flavors to choose from. The gourmet popcorn is available by the bag and in tins.
“That’s our biggest seller this time of year,” Holbrook said about the popcorn tins. “[They’re great] if you have a yankee swap gift or you need something for a secret Santa gift.”
The gourmet popcorn at Michele’s comes in flavors like garlic and rosemary, cinnamon sugar, dark chocolate mint, peanut butter cup, mudslide and more. The most popular flavor is Buffalo Supreme, but the seasonal flavors for winter are also a hit.
There’s Jack Frost Jumble, made with caramel popcorn, coated in white chocolate, mixed in with crushed pretzels, crushed almonds and cinnamon chips and drizzled in more white chocolate. The Nor’Easter is a caramel popcorn coated in milk chocolate, potato chips and honey-roasted peanuts, then drizzled in another layer of milk chocolate. Christmas Crunch is made with caramel popcorn, dried Craisins and cashews.
“Luckily, this year is the year for gourmet popcorn anyway,” Holbrook said. “I think especially within the last two or three years it’s become bigger than it used to be and evolved [into] more exotic things with popcorn.”
Fudge is a family matter for Noah Munro, owner of The Mill Fudge Factory.
“The original recipe that our fudges are based on comes from my Scottish grandfather — technically my step-grandfather,” Munro said. “I started this business with my father and stepmother in 2006.”
The fudge comes in 24 flavors, like Belgian chocolate and the original penuche recipe, made with butter, sugar, milk and honey. During the holidays — The Mill Fudge Factory’s busiest time of year, Munro said — there are seasonal flavors like eggnog, cranberry maple nut, holiday mint and pumpkin.
“We do have some interesting flavors,” Munro said. “Probably eggnog is our most popular seasonal flavor.”
Real eggnog is used in the eggnog fudge recipe instead of dairy.
“Since it has more fat than regular milk, it comes out creamy, plus [we add] a touch of nutmeg,” Munro said.
Instead of using ingredients like corn syrup, fudge made at the Mill Fudge Factory incorporates local New Hampshire honey and Cabot butter (instead of cream), and the maple fudges are made with maple syrup from Warner.
“It’s definitely one of those foods that brings back memories for people,” Munro said. “I hear that all the time. I’ve had people say that their grandmother or grandfather used to make fudge and they wish they had the recipe still. … We’ve got people that say, ‘Your fudge is better than my grandmother’s, but don’t tell her!’”
Munro also hears about customers’ attempts at fudge. It can be a daunting sweet to make at home.
“Mainly, it’s the chemistry, so getting the right temperature for cooking [is essential]. In our case we pay a lot of attention to what temperature it cools to before we blend it,” Munro said. “I hear people all the time saying, ‘I used to make fudge, but I couldn’t make it for the life of me — it came out grainy.’”
The sugar crystals contribute to the texture, Munro said, so that’s why sometimes fudge comes out grainy. Recipes that use Marshmallow Fluff or that include a lot of corn syrup help to prevent a grainy fudge.
“There are a lot of recipes out there that aren’t tricky,” Munro said. “I think some people are intimidated by making fudge. … It’s also time-consuming.”
Fudge can be made over the stovetop, but many recipes now call for a microwave to help with the cooking process.
“It’s instant little bliss … and inherently a special treat,” Munro said. “Fudge can transport [you] to earlier days, and it’s been around for a long time as a candy. … We’re trying to be a part of that.”
The Mill Fudge Factory is located in Bristol with wholesale accounts in stores and farms around the state, like Coppal House Farm in Lee, Mack’s Apples in Londonderry and Marshall’s Florist in Boscawen.
Who doesn’t love chocolate?
Chocolate need not be left to the professionals. Master chocolatier Rich Tango-Lowy at Dancing Lion Chocolate in Manchester said that for truffles, the challenge is in their simplicity.
“They’re truffles because they look like la truffe — because they look like the mushroom,” Tango-Lowy said. “Most people don’t really understand what a truffle is, and it’s very simple. A truffle is a ganache dusted in cocoa powder. And the ganache is an emulsion of cream and chocolate.”
For chocolatiers like Tango-Lowy, truffles are difficult to perfect because they are so simple. But that’s also what makes them a great gift to make at home, Tango-Lowy said.
“Truffles really are a perfect food for this, because as long as you use good ingredients, they’re very easy,” he said. “The way we do them, not so much. The way we teach people to do them, very much.”
Dancing Lion Chocolate has been hosting Chocolate Truffles classes since it opened. Each two-hour class is hands-on with instruction on making truffles. An instructor explains the ingredients and introduces participants to chocolate and the differences between varieties of chocolate. Participants make coated and uncoated truffles, and at the end, there’s time to sample the truffles made in the class and ask questions of the instructor. Everyone leaves with a box of truffles.
“With a couple really basic techniques, anybody can do it. It’s actually easier than fudge, I think,” Tango-Lowy said. “Because truffles are associated with European chocolatiering, it’s considered something a little bit more elegant and a little bit more special in a lot of ways. So people are less likely to do them often. They might think that they’re harder, which they don’t really need to be.”
Tango-Lowy recommends using blocks of chocolate instead of chocolate chips and melting the chocolate gently in the microwave. Another key trick is, when mixing the cream and the chocolate, stir in small circles at the center of the bowl until the ganache is shiny.
After letting the ganache sit, there are two techniques to making the truffles. One way is to dust the ganache in cocoa powder; the other is to enrobe the ganache in melted chocolate before coating it in ground nuts, toasted coconut or other toppings.
“The chocolate covering should be paper thin,” Tango-Lowy said. “A truffle is about the ganache; it’s not about the big shell on the outside. … When you bite into it, that ganache will dissolve and turn into almost a cloud-like liquid as soon as it hits your mouth.”
There are different ways to flavor the ganache. Use lemon zest or alcohol, or steep the cream for a day with coffee beans, tea or citrus zest (then strain the cream before boiling).
“I think truffles are very special, because to me, you’re not just making something, you're making something with your hands,” Tango-Lowy said. “You put something of yourself when you make a truffle. … You’re putting your soul into that piece of chocolate. For somebody to consume that or for somebody to sit and share that with somebody, it's like breaking bread. It’s just such an early human ritual that gift giving — making something at home no matter how simple, then sharing it with somebody else, whether at your table or as a gift — it’s as fundamental as it gets. … In the end, that’s what the holidays are all about.”
A little like chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Candie Roux Goyette’s kitchen always smells delicious. Goyette is the sister of Our Sister’s Nuts, a licensed homestead business with flavored nut mixes (her younger brother thought of the clever name).
“I started with the original nut recipe,” Goyette said. “I started making it for my family close to 30 years ago. It did become a Christmas tradition. At the time, they were called yummy nut crunch — the kids kind of named them.”
Goyette remembers cracking nuts as a kid during the holidays.
“This just kind of takes it to another level,” she said.
She bakes all the nut mixes in her home kitchen. There are eight different flavors, like a spicy mix with cayenne, a cinnamon almond, the original sweet flavor, a walnut oatmeal cookie (with cookie crumbles added to the walnuts) and cocoa cookie (with baked nuts and crumbles of cocoa cookies, rolled in milk chocolate).
Goyette experiments with flavor variations, too. She’s made pumpkin spice flavored nuts, a peppermint stick nut mix and peanut butter cookie nuts, made with peanuts and drizzled with chocolate on top.
“They’re baked in butter in the oven with all these wonderful things, the sugar and the spices,” she said. “I’ve learned through an awful lot of years through baking these. … Anyone who has a favorite recipe, you can almost do it in your sleep.”
The nuts are baked so that they’re soft and include mixed nuts, like cashews, almonds, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts, walnuts and pecans, but customers can also order nut mixes with just one kind of nut (like a flavored mix of cashews, for example). Pecans and walnuts are great for picking up the flavors, she said.
When baking the nuts, Goyette stirs the mixture regularly to mix it well and make sure everything is evenly cooked. She recommends giving any baked nut recipe plenty of time to cool at the end of the process.
“Most people are surprised when they first taste them. I don’t think they’re quite sure what to expect,” she said. “In our family it’s very, very traditional, especially with the original sweet. My family always asks for that and they love the spicy as well.”
Goyette packages the nuts in glass jars, favor boxes and bags, and glass or crystal bowls.
“It’s like getting a snack and dessert together, and they make great stocking stuffers,” Goyette said.
Brittle me this
Nelson’s Candies is known for its peanut brittle. That’s probably because, like the other candies at Nelson’s, it’s all made by hand the old-fashioned way.
“It’s a big Christmas item,” owner Doug Nelson said in a phone interview. “I think it’s just been an old-time favorite throughout the years.”
Brittle is a hard candy made by combining nuts with caramelized sugar. Although there are other varieties, like almond brittle or pecan brittle, peanut brittle is by far the most popular.
“We start off with a simple syrup mix, which is sugar and corn syrup, and we use raw peanuts,” Nelson said. “The candy is what cooks the peanut.”
After the syrup boils, the peanut brittle at Nelson’s Candies is hand pulled. The brittle is put on a water table and pulled thin with pallet knives.
Customers who come in seeking the famous brittle often remark on their attempts to make the sweet confection at home.
“We hear that all the time,” Nelson said. “Most famously, they try to make it in the microwave.”
Nelson isn’t too sure about the microwave recipes, but that’s also because the Nelson’s recipe is tried and true. Nelson’s Candies has been a sweet New England establishment since 1911, and even today all the candies are made with the old-fashioned copper kettle.
“They come in and say, ‘Oh, it’s OK,’ and ‘It’s not like yours,’” Nelson said about the microwaved brittle attempts. “We know that we make the best peanut brittle in the world. It’s a recipe we’ve been sticking to for over 100 years.”
The Wilton store is the main store, with a summer seasonal Nelson’s Candies at Hampton Beach, and another store in Maine, run by Nelson’s daughter. Nelson said that other popular treats during the holidays include Nelson’s Candies’ turtles (made with chocolate, caramel and pecans), old-fashioned sugar fudge, and, of course, candy canes.
“People like nuts during the holidays anyway,” Nelson said. “But peanut brittle is a hard candy that goes well with the Christmas candies.”
As seen in the December 19th, 2013 issue of The Hippo