Caution: Fragile...

With Halloween just around the corner, and all the ghouls, goblins, and costumes aside, as any child can tell you, October 31st means only one thing: candy. Hence, when I started putting together a menu for a certain festive gathering that will be happening at our place this weekend, I knew I wanted to include a couple homemade candies, even though sweets never seem to be at the top of anyone's list for snacking while simultaneously consuming alcoholic beverages. It just seemed like the right thing to do, as an homage to all those years spent memorizing which houses had the best candy, and trudging through bitter Chicago weather to go get it.

Choosing what candies I would make was actually fairly easy. Given how successful my first flirtation with candy-making was back when I made that Mexican chocolate fudge, I knew that I wanted to include that in my line-up. I had also been eying a recipe for brittle that swapped out the traditional nuts for pepitas, or the inner kernels of pumpkin seeds. A container of pepitas had been languishing in my freezer from a long-ago baking project, and this brittle was the only tempting recipe I'd found that would finally clear them out. Since Halloween is the holiday for pumpkins in the United States, making pepita brittle to fete the occasion seemed appropriate. And besides, I have been trying to clean out my fridge lately anyway.

Though I was initially more intimidated by making brittle than I was in tackling fudge (I've never quite gotten over my fear of molten sugar ever since I burned myself making caramel once), this particular brittle recipe was actually easier. It didn't call for a candy thermometer, or carefully monitoring the temperature of the candy throughout the cooking process. Instead, I was able to judge everything by look and smell (the more caramel you make, the better you will become at judging its progress based on the scent of toasted sugar), which was a nice change of pace.

I'm not going to lie; the vigorously bubbling cauldron of molten sugar was a little scary, but I wore long sleeves and oven mitts, and mustered some faith in my own skills. The most harrowing part proved to be the pouring of the hot mixture onto parchment paper to cool. I had decided to follow the author's tip and roll the molten candy between two oiled sheets of parchment to achieve a thin, uniform layer, and the candy came perilously close to oozing out onto my counter top. I managed to keep it contained, however, and though the wooden rolling pin became disconcertingly warm, the entire process was over before I knew it.

For a first-timer, this brittle turned out almost shockingly well. It was perfectly crisp, yet not so hard that it hurt your teeth. It also lacked any semblance of stickiness, so there was no need to dig the remnants out of one's molars. My only problem with it was in the pepitas themselves -- I think I'm just not that much of a fan of their flavor. The surrounding brittle was excellent, with hints of burnt sugar and a subtle kick of salt. I just didn't care for the seeds. I will be revisiting this recipe again in the future, without a doubt. However, I think I'll probably go the traditional route, and use nuts; in fact, I'm already planning for when I'll give that a try...

Pepita Brittle
adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Pam, for lining the tray
2 cups sugar
4 ounces (1 stick) salted or unsalted butter
1/3 cup light corn syrup
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons to 1 1/2 tablespoons coarse or flaky sea salt (use less if you’re using salted butter)
1 1/2 cups of raw, unroasted pepitas (they toast in the syrup) or 12 ounces (3/4 pound) roasted, salted nuts, not chopped

1. Line a 12x16x1/2-inch sheet baking pan with parchment paper and lightly coat it with Pam.
2. Put the sugar, butter, corn syrup, and 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons water to a large saucepan, and stir together until all the sugar is wet. Cook over high medium-high, but watch it carefully as it will foam up quite a bit and you might need to dial back the heat to medium until it begins to thicken.
3. Once the mixture turns a medium golden (takes at least 10 minutes) immediately remove from the heat, and carefully whisk in the baking soda followed by the salt (taking care, as the caramel will rise in the pan and bubble some more). Switch to a wooden or metal spoon, and fold in the pepitas or nuts.
4. Quickly pour the mixture onto the sheet pan, and spread it out over the pan using the back of the spoon before it starts to harden. Alternately, you can slide the parchment paper out of the baking pan and onto a counter, cover it with another sheet, and use a rolling pin, pressing down hard, to roll it out as flat and thin as you would like.
5. At this point you can either let it cool completely (pulling off the top sheet of parchment, if you use the rolling pin technique) and break it into bite-size pieces with the back of a knife or other blunt object or, while it is still fairly hot and pliable, cut it into a shape of your choice and let the pieces cool, separated on parchment paper.
6. The brittle can be stored at room temperature, in an airtight container, for up to two weeks. Separate the pieces between layers of parchment or waxed paper, because even a little humidity can cause them to stick together.

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