It’s that time of year, friends: fall is growing cooler, winter will soon be here, the holidays are upon us, and our thoughts turn to the delicious traditions of making, sharing, and enjoying food together. This is the time of year when we think about the gifts and treats we’ll make for one another (and hey, maybe even for ourselves), as well as the treats we look forward to receiving.
It’s a time of year for sweets—luscious, dreamy caramels; rich, decadent fudge; crispy, fragrant peanut brittle; billowy coconut nougat; light-as-air meringues; and even the savory side of mixed roasted nuts. Nina Wanat’s book, “Sweet Confections: Beautiful Candy to Make at Home,” celebrates the art of making these treats at home, right in your own kitchen, where you can taste-test share these gifts with loved ones near and far.
I was privileged to be the editor working with Nina on this book, and it was a sheer delight getting to know her (and learning about the delectable craft of candymaking). I thought it might be nice to sit down with her and learn a bit about the life of a chocolatier/author. Enjoy!
How would you describe the book “Sweet Confections” to someone who hasn’t yet read it?
Nina :: “Sweet Confections” is a candymaking cookbook that novices should find accessible and experts should find interesting. If you’ve never made candy before, you’ll be able to do it correctly following the instructions, and if you have experience, you’ll appreciate the variations and ways that the recipes incorporate different flavors.
There are recipes for traditional favorites, such as toffee and chocolate fudge, that I tried to refine for contemporary palates – to make them more flavorful, and less sweet – as well as other candies, such as strawberry-lemonade marshmallows and pecan pie taffy, that are a bit more eclectic.
You mention in the book’s introduction that making candy makes a person feel “like a kid with keys to a candy store.” How has that feeling developed for you throughout your candymaking career?
Nina :: When I started culinary school 6 years ago, I had never made candy before – and I wasn’t sure whether having been in a lot of candy stores would translate well into being able to make it! Peanut butter fudge was the first recipe assigned to me in confectionary class. I was a wreck throughout the process because I was worried that I was doing something wrong (and thinking “does that look right? I don’t know, maybe not…”), but then it was finally done and I cautiously tasted it. And it was amazing! I felt exhilarated by that peanut butter fudge, and it gave me the confidence to try more recipes, and worry a bit less.
Once I realized that I could make candy, I felt a wonderful sense of freedom to start making candy exactly how I liked it. My extra-curricular experiments started out at home, usually from a craving or a curiosity about a technique, and those recipes became the foundation for the handmade candy bar company that I founded in 2007. It’s a wonderful accomplishment to be able to make something exactly suited to your tastes, and to have others enjoy it, too.
What is it about making candy that fits with your personality and entrepreneurial spirit? Do you think the act of making candy is suited to a certain type of creativity or persona?
Nina :: I think I’ve always tried to maintain a balance of being pragmatic and being whimsical, and that sensibility has informed the way that I developed the business as well as the candy. Once I recognize the rules of the game that I’m playing, I challenge myself to imagine the best of what’s possible, and then try to make it happen, with plenty of attention to detail.
For instance, I really wanted to make a nougat with blueberries for the cookbook. I wasn’t able to get the flavor to come through by adding pureed blueberries to the nougat syrup as it cooked, and I couldn’t figure out how to evenly distribute dried blueberries within the nougat. But I realized that if I simply decoratively topped the finished nougat with dried blueberries, then not only did it taste good, but it looked better than it would have with the blueberries inside. So, that sort of form-fits-function problem-solving works well in the confectionary world.
By writing this book, you’re teaching readers about something near and dear to your heart, as well as sharing your expertise. What is it about teaching that energizes you? And who are some of the people you’ve learned from along this culinary road?
Nina :: Teaching brings things full circle in a very immediate way. When I started out, I was so curious about all of the new-to-me techniques and ingredients. So now, as a teacher, I love being able to demystify candymaking for others — I could preface almost every answer to every question that I get with, “I once wondered about that, too!” I hope that my explanations and tips help them make what they want to make – and saves them time and effort in trying to re-invent the wheel.
I’ve learned from so many generous people along with way. For instance, in culinary school, Stephen Durfee taught me how to make candy correctly, but also imparted an enthusiasm for going the extra mile to make it special. And two people who I only know through their cookbooks: Maury Rubin for his crafty simplicity and Pierre Herme for his logical genius. I also learned a lot from the production experiences of co-workers at previous jobs.
The book’s photography was shot by Diane Cu and Todd Porter, the White on Rice Couple. Could you describe your experience working with them? And how do you feel about the images they captured?
Nina :: Working with Diane and Todd was such a pleasure! Their years of dedication to photography made their working style during the shoot very fluid, and imbued with a sense of fun and discovery. They have a natural sense for making the candy look good, with just the right combinations of colors, shapes, and textures. I think that the images are beautiful, and I especially love the lighting. The colors are so vivid, but there’s also a natural softness in the atmosphere, as if the candies are perpetually being set out for people to enjoy on a perfect crisp afternoon at home.
I’m sure you get asked this all the time: do you have a favorite confection to eat, and is it different from your favorite candy to make?
Nina :: Such a hard question! I think that my favorite confection to eat might be caramels. They have such a complex flavor that comes chiefly from supposedly “simple” sugar, and I love their melting chewiness.
I like making marshmallows! Scooping out the billows of impossibly pristine fluff from the mixer makes me giddy me every time.
If you didn’t have the time to, say, whip up a batch of tempered chocolate, what semi-last-minute confection would you make for a dinner party? (And why?)
I would make Peanut Brittle. It’s quick to make and quick to cool – and even better, it’s so flavorful! And if you do happen to have some chocolate in the cupboard, you could simply melt it down, and dip the brittle into it as you eat it. Trust me, eating freshly made candy dipped into freshly melted chocolate is one of the greatest pleasures in life!
Your path into the culinary world was a bit of a winding one, complete with detours in the film industry and law school. If you weren’t a chocolatier, what unexpected horizons do you think you’d pursue next?
I sometimes think that I’d make a good mechanical engineer.
Thanks for sharing, Nina! As always, it’s a pleasure talking with you.
**If you’re interested in learning more about Nina and “Sweet Confections,” as well as finding a free candy recipe, please visit my earlier post featuring a candy recipe from the book — Candied Apples!