First, I have a confession to make. This article is about making divinity candy, but truth is, as a kid I didn’t really care for the stuff. In my opinion, anything without chocolate was fatally flawed. What I did love was the person who made it, my grandmother Lucille. And divinity was part of the elaborate holiday tapestry that she lovingly wrapped around her family each year she was alive.
Also sewn into the tapestry were gifts meticulously curated for each grandchild. And fancy clothes acquired from the local department store. And a procession of carefully planned, beautifully executed meals. And an appearance at her church, Sacred Heart Catholic Church of Miami, Oklahoma, where we would be treated like visiting dignitaries. And unsecured plates of homemade candy that completely defied any attempt at parental rationing.
Approaching those plates, the pillowy whiteness of the divinity would call to me seductively. The pieces looked like little clouds that miraculously could suspend a smattering of chopped walnuts. You could see the Almighty himself popping those sugar bombs in his mouth and smiling with satisfaction as he savored each morsel atop his marble throne.
But for all its promise, divinity delivered only a bland sweetness, too cloying even for my sugar-obsessed palate. But my disappointment only lasted as long as it took me to fetch a square of luscious fudge cheerily occupying the same plate.
My grandmother died when I was 12, and I’d be lying if I said she didn’t take a big chunk of Christmas magic with her. But whenever I feel I need someone “up there” to listen, she’s there on the other end of the line. And were the pope to consider canonizing her, which I would suggest he should, he could make her the patron saint of children on Santa’s naughty list. Unlike St. Nick, her largesse came with no behavioral prerequisite. I’m looking at you, Johnny. I, of course, was a perfect angel.
After Lucille died, no one in the family took up the divinity mantel, and the candy receded from memory. I wasn’t the only one who forgot about it. Though enough divinity traded hands in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s to warrant its own cartel, by Generation Y, it was waning. I blame its key ingredient: corn syrup.
Corn syrup once was considered superior to sugar for its cost and myriad uses. Some even believed it to be healthier. But since the turn of the century, its status has plummeted. At today’s holiday table, it faces the same gimlet-eyed scrutiny by younger generations as, say, a racist uncle.
But being immersed in the world of sweets, as I have been for the past several years, divinity kept beckoning to me. Would my adult palate react differently to it? Alternatively – Grandma, forgive my blasphemy – might there be some alterations that could make it more palatable to modern tastes and mores?
The temptation became too great. I had to try it.
Step No. 1 was finding my grandmother’s old recipe. My dad spent an afternoon foraging through her cookbooks and turned up two recipes, one typed on a card and another in a Better Homes & Gardens cookbook. Lamentably, neither was annotated. But the two recipes were similar, consisting simply of egg whites, sugar, corn syrup, water and vanilla (nuts optional). The one on the card called for measuring out ingredients in two batches, heating them to different temperatures, then combining them. The other heated everything together, which struck me as divinity with training wheels. I wrote that one off.
Next, I took the audacious step of searching the Internet (I extrapolated Grandma’s approval of Google from her acceptance of modern appliances in her kitchen). Paula Dean has a recipe, but I was dubious of her moral authority on the subject of divinity. In the end, I printed a Food Network recipe, because it called for tiered heating but achieved it by pouring off some of the mix at one temperature, then heating the rest. Great minds they have there at the Food Network.
Where I really went rogue was with ingredients. Instead of corn syrup, I used agave syrup. Instead of refined white sugar, the standard in my grandma’s day, I used raw cane sugar.
I’ll cut to the chase and tell you the first batch never firmed up beyond the consistency of Silly Putty (a divinity fail is hell to clean up). The second time, I used more water and let the sugar syrup get hotter. This achieved a much better result. Lastly, I fulfilled a childhood dream, giving divinity the one thing it lacked to achieve its full potential – chocolate. I added chocolate chips at the end of the whipping, which created an attractive black-white striation in the finished product.
Then came the real test. I took a bite. And another. It was still very sweet, but also rich (I doubled the vanilla), creamy, chocolatey and crunchy. Not bad. Kind of like if divinity and fudge had a baby. It may not be my grandmother’s divinity, I concluded, but I think she would give it her blessing.