Taffy, or La Tire

This recipe descends from my great-grandmother Dora Letendre Tougas (1876-1960) via my grandmother, Juliette Tougas Brassard (1899-1991), and my mother, Juliette Marcoux (1932-2016). (Click here to read even more about the family tradition.)

Everything I know about the early 20th-century Tougas household in Woonsocket, RI, indicates that this family valued their appearance of gentility very highly. Opportunistic men of action and educated women of refinement, their every public action “comme il faut,” as they would say, perfectly correct.

So to me, it makes perfect sense that the choices made in adapting this recipe from Quebec to its new setting include a rejection of the rustic and unpredictable molasses of the original in favor of the scientific new product, corn syrup, with its mild flavor and consistent formulation. From looking at the various recipe cards I inherited, I get the sense that my forebears were early adopters of the home candy thermometer, but never trusted it fully. I learned from Mom the habit of always conducting the old-school cold-water test even when the mercury claimed to reach the soft-ball stage

The vinegar creates a pungent fume in the kitchen during the boil but a terrific balancing tang in the finished candy.

  • 1½ cups light brown sugar
  • a “shy” ½ cup cider vinegar
  • 10 ounces light corn syrup
  • ¼ cup butter

Butter a cake pan or similar heatproof vessel and set aside.

Put the brown sugar, vinegar, and corn syrup in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan—three-quart capacity is ideal. Bring to a boil over a medium-high flame, then cook steadily on medium heat for about 35 to 45 minutes. After about a half hour, it pays to be attentive, as the cooking must be stopped at just the right moment. If you have a candy thermometer, you’re looking for the 252 degrees neighborhood—certainly no higher than 260, according to Mom. To do the cold-water test, fill a clear glass measuring cup or bowl with very cold water, and spoon in a small blob of the stuff to cool it quickly. When the cooking has been sufficient, it should form a very firm ball—cohesive and not at all pasty—that holds its shape when stretched between your fingertips.

Remove from the heat immediately at this point and use a wooden spoon to stir in a “lump of butter the size of a walnut.” (That would be about 3 tablespoons, or most of the ¼ cup you measured, leaving you just enough for assiduous hand-buttering later.)

Scrape the molten substance into the prepared pan and allow it to cool for 20 minutes or a half-hour—until you can handle the stuff without scorching your flesh. Don’t let it get away from you, though: allow it to get too cold, and you’ll be out of luck in terms of pulling. (Not a family practice, but I notice that various pulled taffy recipes published by early 20th century confectioners advise turning the edges of the cooling mass into the center once or twice. Probably advisable if you undertake a bigger batch.)

When it no longer seems dangerous, divide the blob into as many pieces as you have taffy-pullers present. (This proportion is great for 2 to 4 people.) Remove rings, scrub, then butter the hands, then grab the hot goo by two corners and gently pull it apart, fold it double and pull it apart again.* You’ll find it’s easy if you move swiftly and decisively and add a little twisting action to each pull to twine the strands together.

As you go, you’ll find the candy takes on a blond matte sheen and becomes firmer and harder. Before it solidifies fully, fashion it into an attractive even rope by twisting it carefully as you draw it out. Cut it into bite-sized pieces with kitchen shears, letting them fall separately on a buttered surface.

Cut waxed paper into suitable squares (about 4 inches square) and wrap taffy individually. Gift and enjoy from November 25th through New Year’s Day, according to the lax latter-day Marcoux calendar.

*If, heaven forbid, your taffy is super droopy and gummy when you’re trying to pull it, you haven’t quite boiled enough. But never fear—just pile it back into the pan and give it another go for a few more degrees, and chalk it up to experience.

Paula Marcoux urges every reader to cook something special from deep childhood this holiday season—especially if it requires protracted phone negotiations and multigenerational zoom conferencing to arrive at the recipe.