Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Weather Girl

My family laughs at me because I've become such a weather nerd. I track the weather. Not just the temperature and whether or not it's going to snow, but I track the humidity.

Growing up in an arid desert climate I took two things for granted. One was that if I handwashed a sweater, rolled it in a towel and squeezed all the excess moisture out, then laid it on another dry towel, in a day I'd have a dry sweater. After I moved to Seattle I learned that if I tried the above steps with a beautiful angora sweaterdress that I'd gotten for my birthday, by the third day I'd have a soggy sweaterdress that had mildewed. Euwwww.

The other thing I took for granted was divinity. When I was in high school I got onto a divinity making jag and could churn out the fluffy stuff. Delightful, sweet little puffs with a barely firm exterior, meltingly smooth on the inside. Aaaahhh. I made it so much that my mother said I burned out the motor on her KitchenAid. Since winter is the time to play around with hot, steamy pots in the kitchen, divinity was one of the things I associated with Christmas.

Several years after I'd moved here I got a KitchenAid mixer of my very own and was so excited to be able to make divinity again. Except I couldn't. It turned out like a weird, nougaty sludge, making me cry. Every year at Christmas time I'd try again. Same sludge and I'd cry again.

My kids didn't understand this. To them, this was what divinity was. You scooped it off the wax paper with a spoon and it glued your mouth shut. This frustrated me even more; that my children should not know proper divinity!

I went on a quest. Was it the syrup temperature? Were my egg whites too stiff? Not stiff enough? I even had my mother send me the recipe from her cookbook that I'd used all those years, in case it was different from Joy of Cooking.

I'd read the instructions that said this should only be attempted on a clear day. I made it on a rare clear day and still ended up with a sticky puddle of sugar ooze on the counter. I even stumped a call-in cooking show and won a cookbook with my question of why oh why my divinity failed.

Then, I searched the internet and found a children's science fair project on divinity. I guess I don't know as much as a 5th grader! The key to divinity making is the humidity. Just a clear day won't do. You have to have low humidity. Maximum of 60%, preferably below 40%.

Well, a day like that was a snap where I grew up. There, rain was an occurrence, not a way of life. Here, even on a clear day, the humidity is likely to be above 70%. So I check the forecast regularly and if there's a chance of it dipping below 60%, I'm making divinity.

This past weekend the humidity hit 62% and I sprang into action. This was as close as it's likely to get here. Fearfully, hopefully, I hovered over the mixer, and Yeah! It worked! My kids were disappointed, though. It wasn't all sticky and gloopy, like they think it's supposed to be.

Don't attempt this recipe unless you have a candy thermometer and a heavy-duty stand mixer. It was made without either of those in the dark ages of baking, but those women (and men) must have had arms the size of logs. Of course, if you tried that, you might burn off the divinity calories before you even eat any!

Snowdrift Divinity
my grandmother's recipe

makes about 1-1/4 lbs.

2-1/4 cups sugar
1/2 cup white corn syrup
1/2 cup water
2 egg whites
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts

Place the sugary, corn syrup, and water in a saucepan over low heat.

Stir until sugar is dissolved. When the syrup starts to boil, cover the saucepan with a lid for two minutes. This helps to wash the sugar crystals off the sides. Cook without stirring to hard ball stage on a candy-making thermometer (252 deg. F).

While the syrup is heating, in the large bowl of a stand mixer, beat the egg whites till stiff. It doesn't take as long to beat the egg whites as it does to heat the syrup, so start once your syrup about halfway to 252 deg.

Once the syrup reaches hard ball stage, remove the pan from the heat and pour it in a thin stream over the stiffly beaten egg whites with the mixer on medium-high.

Continue beating until the mixture loses its gloss and starts to hold its shape (it looks kind of streaky). I timed this and it took 13 minutes, so don't give up hope after 5 minutes. I think this was where my mother's KitchenAid motor suffered a seizure. Now, if it feels hot on top, I place a cold (not dripping!) compress on top of it to cool it off.

When the mixture looks done quickly add the vanilla and nuts. Remove from the mixer and drop by spoonfuls onto waxed paper* in individual mounds.

(Note: my husband and I got into a long, geeky discussion while I was making this about sugar solutions, viscosity, boiling points, and the changes a syrup makes as it is heated. After consulting multiple websites and much discussion, we decided that probably the temperature at which the syrup was heated was irrelevant. The recipe says over low heat, but if you turn the heat to medium high, it should achieve the same effect in a shorter time. The syrup won't reach hard ball until a certain amount of the water has been driven off as steam.)

(Subnote: yes, my family is that exciting to be around. Jealous?)

* Eco-tip for the day: If you eat boxed cereal, save the waxy wrappers that the cereal comes in. It's a food-grade material that's tougher than waxed paper. I love to use them for covering chicken breasts that I'm pounding (doesn't shred like waxed paper) and for candy making (it doesn't stick like waxed paper). I also will cover spattery foods that I'm reheating in the microwave (doesn't wilt like waxed paper). So, you get to re-use an item you already bought and you don't have to go buy waxed paper! Thrifty and green!

And just one more thing - if you're going to whine about not having a KitchenAid mixer, trot over here to see how you can bid to get one for just $10!


Chelsea said...

I am a total weather nerd. I always know what the weather will be like for the day and the next few days. I obsess over humidity during the summer because it determines how much I will hate being outside. I love my little weather station on my blog.

I have never had divinity. Hmmm...

I love your idea about saving the cereal waxed paper. Too bad I am cheap and keep buying the cereal in bags.

Peabody said...

My great grandmother used to make divinity,,,it is so good.

Cakespy said...

Do you believe that I had never tried divinity until this year? I am now a believer though. I wonder, is it purist to have it without chocolate chips? The kind I had had chocolate chips, and I have often seen it that way since.

Anonymous said...

Lynn! My mother made divinity every Christmas, along with peanut brittle and fudge. Her peanut brittle was the very, very best. (We gave her recipe out to family and friends at her funeral. Does that sound strange? We thought it was her best recipe and everyone was grabbing for it!)
Mom would despair too about the weather spoiling her divinity.(Oregon is just as bad as Seattle for rain!) If only I knew, what you know now about humidity, the perfect present for her would have been a home weather station!
I loved her divinity! What a walk through my past Christmas's with my mother your post has been for me.
Your divinity looks terrific too.

Big Boys Oven said...

this looks lovely delicious!

Patricia Scarpin said...

I have never made divinity but have read a lot about it, Lynn. And guess what?? I bought a Kitchen Aid as a gift to myself a couple of months ago. ;)

Aimée said...

Wow, that post brought back memories!I haven't had divinity since...I can't remember.. but I know I was very small.Looking GOOD!

LizNoVeggieGirl said...

Haha, I too track the weather - glad to see that your Snowdrift Divinity (such a clever recipe name - and how fun that it's your grandmother's recipe!) turned out well this time!!

Oh and I too love my KitchenAid mixer - it works wonders in the kitchen!! And thanks for the eco-tip, as well!! :0)

Nora B. said...

Hi Lynn,
I love this post! I'm glad that you have now gotten back to divinity :-) Food can be such complicated things.

Thanks for the eco-tip. I just realised that don't eat cereal anymore. But I will be sure to let the rest of my family know.

p/s: oh, I like geeky conversations with my partner too. :-) He decided to make Christmas fruit cake this year and spent hours researching techniques how to make it moist, etc.

Anonymous said...

Alas, I suffer both from humidity and a lack of a tough mixer - my current one cries when I make it beat anything firmer than egg whites :( Since I can't make any for myself, can I nip over and try some of yours? ;)

Ellie @ Kitchen Wench

Cookie baker Lynn said...

Chelsea - it's good to know when the black ice is coming so you can stay off the roads!

Peabody - did she have an electric mixer?

Cakespy - I think the purist's form is without chocolate chips, but it doesn't sound like a bad idea at all.

Melinda - What wonderful Christmas / mother / divinity memories! You need to do your mother's peanut brittle on a post. I love that you handed out the recipe at the funeral. What a wonderful way for the love of her kitchen to keep on giving.

Big Boys Oven - Thanks!

Patricia - Good deal. You certainly deserve it!

Aimee - Fun food memory.

VeggieGirl - Glad to have a fellow weather nerd!

Nora - It's great to have someone to share the geeky conversations with.

Ellie - Oh, you poor thing with a wimpy mixer! Of course you're welcome to drop over for some divinity.

Gigi said...

I just love it all, the story and the recipe. I'll have to whip up batch because guess what? ....I've never had divinity.

SteamyKitchen said...

I got that same mildewy problem here in FL too! Its ruined a very very nice handknitted sweater. :-(

Katie Zeller said...

I'm hooked on the barometer. I check it 2 - 3 times a day.
As to divinity, my mother made it every Christmas - without a mixer or a candy thermometer (drop it into cold water to determine soft ball, soft crack, etc.
It was wonderful...I've never tried it.

eatme_delicious said...

I've never tried or I think even heard of divinity before. I hate how the weather effects baking like that! One day of the year I make a chocolate chip recipe and it's perfect, but if I make it another time of year the cookies will never crisp up.

thecoffeesnob said...

I had no idea what divinity was till i read this. They do look really good- correct me if i'm wrong but i would imagine they would taste like meringues?

Thanks for the great tip about the waxed paper in cereal boxes. My family doesn't eat cereal much but i'm gonna steal my best friend's family's cereal boxes the next time i'm over there. Lucky for me they goes through cereal like it's water :)

Deborah said...

I haven't had divinity in years. Thank goodness we don't have very much humidity here!

Anonymous said...

Ah, this takes me back. My Grandmother always made Divinity at Christmas time. When we were overseas, we would get a big box filled with cookies, fudge and divinity. Big treat, even if the divinity went weepy by being shipped to the Far East. We ate every bit.

Debra said...

Lynn- Unfortunately my Divinity attempt did not turn out, but hopefully I learned my lesson to beat for a LONG time. Hope I have better luck next time. Thank you for the recipe.