Interpreting Old Recipes: The Case of Coffee Candy

16-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Saturday, December 30, 1911: I came to grief today. Had a knock down and drag out. Am ashamed to launch into details. Suffice to say it was my own fault and nobody dies. Picked out some walnut pits for my candy. Ruthie made it because she said she would. I haven’t as yet tried the experiment, and don’t know how. Will be glad when this long vacation is over.

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Whew ,sounds like some fight. Was it with her six-year-old brother Jimmie? Grandma mentioned on the 26th that she and Jimmie were turning into “fight cats.”  And, on the 27th she wrote that Jimmie was making things lively with a switch that he made from a lower branch of the Christmas tree.

Or maybe the fight was with her older sister Ruth. On November 27  Grandma wrote that her sister had pummeled her.

Making Candy

Grandma frequently mentioned made candy in the diary—and I’ve enjoyed replicating old-time candy recipes.

Grandma had her sister Ruth to help ensure that candy “experiments” were successes–I’ve been on my own and have occasionally failed. Coffee Candy was one such failure.

I found the recipe for Coffee Candy in a 1907* central Pennsylvania cookbook called the  Lycoming Valley Cook Book. It was compiled by the Ladies of Trout Run M.E. Church .

Coffee Candy

Boil together, without stirring, until thick enough to spin a thread, one-half cup strong coffee and two cups sugar. Remove the pan from stove and place in a dish of cold water. Beat rapidly until it creams. Stir in a cup of chopped nut meats, pour into a flat tin and cut into squares.

I cooked the candy until it formed threads at the soft crack stage  (270-290 degrees).  I  didn’t stir while cooking—though I did dip a spoon into the pan several times to get a little of the boiling syrup to test what stage it was at.

After I removed the mixture from the heat and put it in a dish of cold water I beat it. Large coffee-flavored granules formed rather than a creamy candy.

I stirred nuts into the granular mix, and firmly pressed into a buttered pan. The candy didn’t want to stick together very well when I pressed it into the pan, but I hoped for the best.

However, when I tried to cut the candy, it crumbled into small pieces. The Coffee Candy looked terrible, but the candy still had a very nice taste—and I enjoyed eating it.

I must have cooked the candy too long (or maybe not long enough) . . .or maybe dipping the spoon into the boiling syrup to test it caused the boiling sugar to crystallize . .  or . . ??

Next year  I’ll have to experiment a little with this recipe and try to figure out what I did wrong.

Other  old-time candy recipes that I’ve more successfully made include:

Two old fudge recipes (including one that calls for molasses)

Cocoa Fudge

Sugar Taffy


* I got the recipe out of a 1992 reprint of the  1907 book.  Kwik-Kopy Printing, Williamsport PA published the reprint.

10 thoughts on “Interpreting Old Recipes: The Case of Coffee Candy

  1. I don’t like the flavor of coffee but I wonder if crumbly candy would be good as an ice cream topping. I try never to waste anything sweet. 😉

    I wonder if there’s a reference book on candy making that would tell you the temperature at which liquid and sugar spin a thread. I don’t think the ladies used thermometers in the early 1900s but since they’re so easily available today it might help. (This site gives temperatures for such things and suggests 230-235 degrees to spin a thread:

    Don’t you sometimes wish your grandmother went into more detail? For years and years she probably remembered exactly what the fight was about but those of us who weren’t there miss all the details.

    It’s too late tonight but I’ll come back and look at your other candy recipes.

    Thanks so much for sharing your grandmother’s diary with us.

    1. I don’t have any left–I threw it all out except for the few larger pieces that I took the photo of–but I bet that it would taste good on ice cream. Now I wish that I’d saved it.

      I’ve been using the Exloratorium Science of Cooking webpage to get temperatures for different candy stages.

      It indicates that threads form at 270-290 degrees which is much higher than the the 230-235 that your source says. I may have cooked it too long–though (and I know that it makes no sense) I never quite trust my candy thermometer and am always dropping a little in cold water.

      It’s probably silly but when I’ve been making candy this year, I’ve enjoyed comparing candy thermometer and cold water test results to see which gives me more dependable results. I have fond memories from my childhood of dropping the boiling syrup into cold water–and then eating the balls that formed (which were never quite at the right stage).

  2. Sounds like she was having quite a holiday! Her mother must have been rather tired of it all as well. Thanks for sharing the diary throughout 2011 and look forward to reading more in 2012 Sheryl. Happy New Year.

  3. Have you ever heard of the cold water method? Ladies back then didnt use thermometers. Women who lived in high mountain altitudes generally had to come up with a failsafe way of boiling since water boils faster at higher altitudes. We oulived in Wyoming and I remember my mother having a small dish of ice cold water right near her pot. Every so often she would drizzle a small bit in her dish and play with it. She watched it carefully when it reached soft ball stage and when she was sure it was where she wanted it….she yanked it off the burner. She would test it several times while cooking, each time using a new dish of ice cold water. And she told me always to never scrape the sides of your pot!! The sugar crystals that are clinging to the sides shouldnt be mixed with the rest of your mixture as its condensing. Hope that helps!

    1. Yes, I learned how to make candy using the cold water method. And, I still “double check” the thermometer using it. Your comment is really interesting. I’d never thought about how altitude affects when things boil.

      I think that my problem with this recipe may have been that I disturbed the cooking liquid too much by testing it often to see if was done which resulted in crystalization. (I have a hard time leaving well enough alone when boiling a sugar-based syrup to make candy–) I always hesitate to try a failed recipe a second time for fear that I’ll have another disaster, but I should try this recipe again sometime to figure out how to successfully make it.

  4. It’s interesting the original recipe called for “creaming” the syrup in ice water… that’s not the right thing to do when making candy. As the syrup begins to boil, you should stop stirring since the stirring agitates the syrup and forces sugar crystals to form. I noted one comment in this thread mentions her candy turned out in a crumbly mess. That’s indicative of undesired sugar crystals forming. For a smooth, solid piece of hard candy, keep the spoon out of the pot. Also, wash the sides of the pot with a basting brush and water. As with stirring, you don’t want any sugar crystals on the side of the pot. Once “seed crystals” are introduces, other crystals begin to form chains and you get the crumbly mess. Wash the sides of the pot to remove the stuck sugar crystals, don’t stir, and pour directly onto a greased cookie sheet, marble slab, or candy mold and allow it to cool naturally. That will give you the desired hard candy product.

    1. Thanks for the very helpful information–I didn’t leave well enough alone and stirred the hot syrup a little. I’m going to try this recipe again this holiday season and see if I can get it right.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s