The appearance of giant bags of candy corn is one of the first signs of fall. The divisive Halloween treats overflow on shelves at grocery stores, pharmacies, and gas stations, luring kids and (some) adults alike into gobbling down the waxy sugar bombs. I ate tons of the candy growing up; small bowls of glistening kernels would appear in my family’s kitchen, and I’d snag a few pieces every time I walked through.
Best-case scenario, eating a handful of the candies will result in a mild sugar high. But I’ll never forget the first time I ate more than a dozen and was sidelined for the rest of the day with a blood sugar roller coaster and unending stomach pains. I’ll still indulge in a few bites come the end of the month, but you won’t see me stopping for a fix at Walgreens any time soon.
I am, however, enough of a fan to make the candies myself. By cooking a DIY batch in my own kitchen, I can control the flavor and have an excuse to play with sugar.
Homemade candy corn is made from a mixture of sugar syrup and a dry mix of confectioners’ sugar, dry milk powder, and a little salt. Since making sugar syrup moves very quickly once you get started, it’s a good idea to have everything else you’ll need prepped and ready to go before turning on the stove. First, get the dry sugar mixture ready. I discovered that this mixture forms clumps very easily when it is combined with the syrup. So to eliminate as many clumps as possible, I like to take the time to sift the dry ingredients together. Set this aside until later. Next, line a cookie sheet with a sheet of parchment paper. Now you’re ready to cook the syrup.
Most candy corn recipes call for corn syrup in the cooked mixture. Corn syrup is an invert sugar, which, simplistically, means that it consists of glucose and fructose instead of sucrose (granulated sugar). This chemical composition makes it less prone to crystallization than straight table sugar, and is the reason why it is seen so often in candy recipes. It is important to keep in mind that, while corn syrup not a health food, the bottles of Karo found in grocery stores are nothing like the high-fructose syrup that is pumped processed foods. That said, corn syrup doesn’t taste like much. Since I was taking the time to make candy from scratch, I wanted it to be more than an approximation of Brach’s. And for that, I needed a flavorful corn syrup substitute.
For that, I turned to honey. Like corn syrup, honey mostly consists of glucose and fructose. It is also acidic, which will also help to keep the granulated sugar from crystallizing. The only problem is that honey is more hygroscopic—meaning it absorbs more moisture from the air—than corn syrup. Simply substituting honey for corn syrup results in super soft and sticky candies. I learned that I needed to fiddle with the proportions of honey to granulated sugar, as well as increase the amount of dry milk powder (since it absorbs liquid).
I ended up using equal parts (by weight) of honey and sugar. Heat these two sugars in a saucepan along with a little butter. While they’re heating up, you can give the mixture a few stirs just to make sure everything melts evenly. Once the sugar is dissolved, stop stirring, and bring the mixture to a boil. You’ll only need to boil for a couple of minutes—stop when the syrup reaches 230 degrees. The syrup will be pale and frothy.
Here’s where the sifting pays off. Add the dry mix, along with a 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla, and whisk, whisk, whisk. You’ll probably notice a few clumps; try to whisk them out as best as you can, but be careful not to let the syrup cool down too much. Once the mixture is as smooth as you can get it (but still fairly liquid), pour the mixture out onto the parchment-lined cookie sheet. Let it rest until it has stiffened and is cool enough to handle. This will take 10 to 15 minutes.
Divide the dough into three equal batches. I like to use a bench scraper for this, but you could use a knife or your hands. Put each batch into its own separate bowl. Now, channel your inner kid (or let your own kid help out with this part), and color the dough. For the yellow batch, I used between 7 and 10 drops of food coloring. I couldn’t easily find orange food coloring, so I used a mixture of yellow and red. (You’ll want about a 3:1 ratio.) Knead both of the batches of dough until the color is even throughout. You can always add more coloring if you’re worried that the color isn’t vibrant enough. Leave the third batch white.
Now, it’s assembly time. Many other recipes for candy corn call for pressing together individual kernels of corn. That sounded insane. Instead, I like this technique I picked up from Alton Brown. First, roll each piece of dough into an 18-inch long snake on another piece of parchment paper. Divide each snake in half. Roll these smaller snakes until they’re about 1/2 inch wide and around 22 inches long.
Now lay three snakes next to each other in the following order: orange, yellow, than white. Smoosh them together with your fingers and then cut the whole thing into sections around 4 inches long. Repeat with the remaining snakes.
To make the candy into corn shapes, spray your handy bench scraper (or a ruler or pancake spatula) with non-stick cooking spray. Use the bench scraper to press each piece into a wedge; the orange section should be the widest point and the white section should come to a tip. Adjust the angle with your fingers if you need to. Repeat with remaining pieces.
Finally, use the greased bench scraper or a greased knife to cut each big wedge into individual candies that are about 1/4-inch wide. Spread them out on the parchment-lined baking sheet. Using the bench scraper or a knife sprayed with non-stick cooking spray, cut each wedge into individual candies, about 1/4-inch wide. Lay the candies out on the parchment-lined cookie sheet, and let dry overnight.
If you’re feeling creative, or else tire of making tiny corn shapes, you can always use the dough to make candy pumpkins of various colors. I used a toothpick to create grooves on the sides of the pumpkins. These will also need to dry overnight. Once the candies are dry, store them in an airtight container between layers of parchment paper.
Recipe: DIY Honey Candy Corn
Makes about 10 dozen
4 1/2 ounces (1 1/4 cups) confectioners’ sugar
3/4 ounce (3 tablespoons plus 3/4 teaspoon) nonfat dry milk
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
3 1/2 ounces (1/2 cup) granulated sugar
3 1/2 ounces (4 tablespoons plus 3 teaspoons) honey
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Food coloring (yellow and red or orange)
Non-stick cooking spray
1 flour sifter or fine mesh strainer
1 cookie sheet
1 medium saucepan
1 candy thermometer
1 bench scraper, ruler, or pancake spatula
1. Over a medium bowl, sift together confectioners’ sugar, dry milk, and salt. Set aside. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Set aside.
2. Combine granulated sugar, honey, and butter in a medium saucepan. Place the saucepan over medium heat. Stir together until butter melts and sugar dissolves. Bring mixture to a boil, and continue to cook until syrup registers 230 degrees on a candy thermometer, 1 to 2 minutes. Mixture will be pale and frothy.
3. Remove the saucepan from heat. Whisk in vanilla and the reserved dry sugar mixture. Continue to whisk until the mixture is combined and most of the lumps have been smoothed out. Pour mixture onto parchment-lined cookie sheet.
4. Let the mixture rest until it has stiffened and is cool enough to handle, about 10 to 15 minutes.
5. Using a bench scraper or knife, divide dough into three equal batches and transfer each to its own bowl. Add 7-10 drops of yellow food coloring to one batch of dough and knead until the color is consistent throughout the dough. Add more coloring if necessary. Add 7-10 drops of orange food coloring, or 7 drops of yellow and 4 drops of red, to the second batch of dough. Knead until the color is consistent throughout the dough. Add more coloring if necessary. Leave the third batch white.
6. On another piece of parchment paper, roll each piece of dough into a snake about 18 inches long. Cut each snake in half and roll until each snake is 22 inches long and about 1/2 inch thick.
7. Lay the three snakes side by side in the following order: orange, yellow, than white. Press them together with your fingers. Cut into sections about 4 inches long. Repeat with the remaining snakes. Spray bench scraper (or ruler or pancake spatula) with non-stick cooking spray. Use bench scraper to press each piece into a wedge; the orange section should be the widest point and the white section should come to a tip (see photograph). Repeat with remaining pieces.
8. Using the bench scraper or a knife sprayed with non-stick cooking spray, cut each wedge into individual candies, about 1/4-inch wide. Lay the candies out on the parchment-lined cookie sheet, and let dry overnight. Store in an airtight container between layers of parchment paper.