Friday, December 20, 2013

Penuche Season! Hooray!

By Niki Turner

I'm dedicating this post to my friend Vanoy Fields. For several years, I cleaned house for Mrs. Fields every other week. Her house, as it turns out, was usually almost spotless, which left a lot of time for chatting in between chores. 

Shortly after I met her, I discovered that her husband had been an Episcopal priest for many years, and so this 80+ year old Southern lady and I often talked about the role of the pastor's wife, and about raising children who don't always turn out the way you expect them to, and about music and art and God and whatever else struck her fancy. 

When she found out I liked to write, and I found out she was working on her memoir, we agreed to work together. She sent me her rough draft, and I did some basic editing, and helped her self-publish her life story for her progeny. It was one of the most rewarding projects I've ever undertaken. 

At Christmas one year, Mrs. Fields introduced me to penuche, a brown sugar fudge she made for her friends and family every year. At the time, I was in the midst of my 1200-calorie a day diet (that's long since over) and limited myself to a single nibble from the plate of penuche she sent home with me for my boys. That one nibble was all it took... I was hooked. (Warning: Penuche can be very, very addictive!)

I've never been a candy maker. My attempts at fudge are famous failures, responsible for the death of a number of pots and wooden spoons. But after Mrs. Fields moved away, I found myself craving penuche every Christmas, and had to try to make it on my own. To my glee, it worked, and has become a household favorite and annual event. My oldest son, when asked what he wants for Christmas, puts penuche on top of his list every year.

So... thank you, Mrs. Fields, for sharing this special treat. I think of you every time I make it and am blessed again by your friendship, kindness, and encouragement you offered this young pastor's wife and mother of teenagers. 

(See the blue tape holding my white sugar
 container together? That's what happens
when you live with boys.)

2 cups packed brown sugar
1 cup white sugar
1 cup milk (or canned milk, or half & half)
1/4 cup butter
2 tsp. vanilla


In a sturdy saucepan, blend the brown sugar, white sugar, and your choice of milk and put on the stove. If you happen to have a "vintage" stove like mine, you can take pictures and be embarrassed, too.

I use medium-high heat on my electric stove. It was different on my gas stove. The key is to stir and stir and stir until the sugar melts into the milk. 

When it starts to boil and bubble, you can add (if you have one) a candy thermometer. Your goal is "soft ball stage." Every time I make penuche, it takes longer than I expect to reach soft ball stage, so while you're waiting...

Take a 9x9 pan and butter it. (The pictured pan is 8x8, because I couldn't find the 9x9 one.) Interesting, you never realize how grubby your kitchen equipment is until you start taking pictures of it for the Internet.
Check your thermometer judiciously. If your sugary goo gets too hot, your penuche will be grainy. Notice I didn't say inedible... we've devoured many a dish of grainy penuche.

While you're waiting, you can stare out the window... amazing how window screens show up SO WELL in pictures. 

Or you can collaborate with your kitchen helpers, who tend to be wiggly and cause blurry photos...

If you don't have a candy thermometer, don't fret. Fill a glass halfway with cold water and every few minutes dribble a few drops of your sugar mixture into the glass. At "soft ball stage" the stuff will coagulate in the water and form, literally, a "soft ball" that can be squished and squashed on the way to your mouth. Test frequently!

Once the correct temperature is achieved, remove the pan from the heat and drop in your half-stick of butter. I know there's a lot of debate about salted vs. unsalted butter in the candy-making world, but I just can't make myself buy unsalted butter. Anyway, let the butter melt and the mixture cool, without touching it, for about 10 minutes. 

Once the butter has melted, add the vanilla. I never measure my vanilla. It's a terrible habit, I know. (Why does this picture make my fingers look fat?) 

Now for the hard part. Use your spatula or wooden spoon and beat the butter and vanilla into the sugar mix. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT make penuche on days when you do an upper body workout in the morning. 

It will get really glossy and pretty... that's not what you're looking for. The moment the mixture begins to lose its gloss and go dull, it's time to pour/spread it into the pan. If you wait too long past that crucial moment of dullness, the whole thing freezes up in the pot and has to be chipped out and eaten by people you aren't trying to impress. 

It kind of reminds me of that moment in a book, when the plot is all stirred up and shiny, and then the minute things begin to change, it's time for the climax. Wait too long and the book falls flat. Stop too soon and the plot never sets up. 

OK. Spread the mixture into your prepared dish and let it cool. You can "score" it into sections while it's still warm, if you like, but we prefer to chunk ours out at random. A word to the wise: Wash your pot, your spatula/spoon, and your candy thermometer immediately in very hot water. Otherwise, people will be picking bits and pieces of penuche off your cooking equipment for days. 

And there you have it! Maple-y, butterscotch-y, fudge-y goodness in a pan. Rich, decadent, fattening, and thoroughly delicious... like a perfect romance novel hero! Kidding. I'm kidding. 

Seriously, even if you've never successfully made any kind of candy, penuche is pretty foolproof. I recommend making a single batch at a time. It's yummiest when fresh.

And so, in honor of my friend Vanoy, and in celebration of our Savior's birth, enjoy!

Niki Turner is a writer, former pastor's wife, mother of four, and grandmother of two and a half. She has thus far been unsuccessful at coming up with catchy taglines for her writing, her purpose in life, or what she hopes to achieve in the future. Suggestions are welcome.


  1. This sounds too wonderfully yummy, Niki. Oh, and I'm sure we can take bets on who's stove is more outdated. :) They look about the same age, but mine's in an under-appealing shade of brown.

    1. Ours is only stainless on top, and has an almond oven door that actually reverses to brown!
      Hey, why are we awake at this hour?

  2. Replies
    1. Woke up at 3 a.m. and couldn't get back to sleep until 6. Full moon. It's funny when we westerners are the first to comment!

    2. It is kind of funny. I'm still awake, but hoping to fall asleep soon. I've been awake almost 28 hrs! It's ca-ray-zee!

  3. I love the inky cooking shows. we must do it more often.
    Now I'm definitely going to have to do that toffee vs butterscotch vs caramel vs penuche breakdown. my mind is reeling.
    I'm making toffee this weekend (don't tell my kids) (good thing they never read the blog).
    I don't have a candy thermometer any more so I learned the soft ball into water trick too.

    I sort of want to get one (thermometer) for my next cooking show. .. nope. too cheap.

    I hope Suzie is sleeping!
    thanks Niki!

  4. I agree! I love the glimpses into our respective Inky kitchens/households.

    I've never tried toffee. I probably should, since my husband and kids are all fans.

    My favorite pre-thermometer candy fail was the year I attempted to make divinity. It pooled into these strange, chewy, marshmallow-y things that threatened everyone's dental work.
    I learned the water trick from my mom. She makes old-fashioned fudge (no marshmallow cream) that's very similar to penuche only in a super-rich chocolate version. YUM.

  5. This sounds and looks delicious!

    The only candy I can make is the marshmallow cream fudge (sorry, Niki!). It's funny, because my brother is a professional chef specializing in baking and desserts, and he can't ever get it to work. BWHAHAHAHAHAH!

    Ah, well. We all have our one thing. :D

    1. LOL. That's funny about your brother! I love to eat the marshmallow cream kind... it's probably a good thing I don't make it!

  6. I love these Inky cooking shows too! How fun. And I'm going to try the penuche, which looks amazing. Yum Yum Yum.

    Cute helper, Niki!

    1. She is quite the kitchen elf, to be sure!
      Enjoy your penuche! I'm picking up bacon tomorrow!


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