Spending quality family time is pretty high up on my totem pole, and now that I live a mere 4-hour drive from my parents and siblings, instead of a 36-hour drive, I appreciate our time together even more. After our last visit for Easter, when we were well on our drive back to Boise, I got a text from my dad that said,
“WAIT! We forgot to make the taffy!”
I got a huge smile on my face. It was like remembering that, as a kid, you’d hid a $5 bill in your winter coat to find again the next year. That good. I was this close to begging my husband to about-face. My dad’s words brought back all of the memories of a fun family tradition that I hadn’t been a part of for nearly 10 plus years: making old fashioned vinegar taffy and the “Strong Man” pull.
With Father’s Day approaching, I wanted to share a great activity that always brings the men in my family together for a little friendly competition.
Growing up, there were many Sundays when my parents and five of us siblings would wake up from lazy Sunday naps and migrate to the kitchen looking for whatever draws families to what seems to be the universal meeting spot: something to eat. Now, my dad is not a cook. I can count his concoctions on one hand. But what he lacks in quantity, he makes up for in quality. I guess when you only dabble with three dishes, you have plenty of opportunity to make those dishes perfect.
One of these is Old Fashioned Vinegar Taffy, a sweet and sour hard candy that I would consume until my mouth was literally tired and sore from all the sucking. We’d gather on a Sunday afternoon and get entertainment plus a treat! The recipe is crazy simple: twice as much sugar as vinegar. An example of a good-sized batch would be
1 cup apple cider vinegar (must be apple cider for that sweet and sour taste)
2 cups sugar
Boil to hard crack stage, which is around 300-310 degrees if you use a candy thermometer. My dad’s method is to periodically drop a small amount of the boiling syrup into a cup of ice cold water. When it solidifies, or “cracks”, you know it is ready. It usually takes 20-30 minutes to boil to hard crack stage. Keep a close eye on it after 20 minutes so it won’t scorch. That sweet vinegar smell is intoxicating and permeates the room, making your mouth just water!
Butter 5-6 glass/ceramic plates (spread about 1 tablespoon of butter on each plate) so that when poured, the taffy won’t stick to the plate. As soon as taffy reaches hard crack stage, pour it equally onto the buttered plates.
Let cool about 10-15 minutes until you can take a butter knife and peel off the edges. It will still be very hot, but the form will hold and is ready for molding/pulling.
My favorite part is when the molten taffy cools enough and all of the guys come flocking, “guns” a blazin’ (yes there are an abundance of “did you buy tickets to the gun show?” jokes). Grandpas, dads, uncles, husbands, and brothers cluster around the counter to compete in the taffy pull. By no means are women excluded, but we get such a kick out of the testosterone show-down, that we are happy to give them their moment.
When the troops are rallied, have everyone butter their hands for easier taffy handling. Everyone takes a glob and starts pulling.
The goal is to see who can pull the thickest, whitest taffy as an end result. In this case, you can gauge the strength of a man by the color his taffy:
Brown to honey colored taffy= weakling, usually the brains, not the brawn of the fam.
Beige to ivory= you’ve hefted a few dumb-bells around in your day, but have obviously maxed out.
Snow to ethereal white= Strong Man Competition bound, Olympian status. Arnold in his prime.
Believe me, it’s tougher than it looks. That taffy is still blistering hot! And there is an art to pulling and twirling just enough to maintain a thick rope. Many a brave man has fallen to second-degree blisters on the hands, mildly serious deltoid strains, and near fainting from abnormally long withheld breath. But the elite rise to the top, and the result is decadently smooth, pearly white taffy that melts in your mouth.
When exhausted, each contender twists their taffy to make a nice spiral rope and then lays it on the counter. Make slight indentations with a knife while the taffy is still pliable so that when hardened, you can break it into nice bite-sized pieces.
Next, determine your winner, or as my dad says, “We all won, cause we all had fun!” And everyone does win because when completely cooled, you get this mouth-watering treat that everyone can share.