Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Divinity (with Pecans)

I like to think of myself as adept in the kitchen. I whiff a recipe from time to time, but even when things don’t turn out just so, I can usually pinpoint the reason why – I’ll add too much salt or spice, for example, or ignore my batters’ warnings that I didn’t use enough fat or liquid. But I know better. My failures are more often the result of laziness than they are of ineptitude.

The foregoing apparently does not apply to candy-making. I love divinity. I consider it the candy par excellence, the standard against which other candies must be measured. It’s pretty much the only non-chocolate candy that I ever find myself actively craving.

Despite my family’s southern roots, I’d never before had homemade divinity. The last time I enjoyed it was a couple of years ago in Seattle, of all places, where I purchased some heavenly (of course) divinity from a stall in the Pike Place Market.

Divinity is a basic candy. Its key ingredients are egg white, sugar, water, corn syrup, and vanilla. Because it doesn’t bake and simply “sets up,” it’s notoriously tricky to make in humid climes, which is why its status as the ultimate southern candy is somewhat ironic. I figured that if Seattle confectioners had figured out a way to reliably churn it out, I certainly could whip up a batch in my dry, late-fall Connecticut kitchen.

This was my first attempt at candy-making in several years, and it was a bit of a journey.

Attempt 1: Massive fail. For divinity, one is supposed to bring a sugar/water mixture to 250 degrees. The first recipe I tried failed to achieve this temperature after 15 minutes of boiling, so I gave up. The resultant “divinity” had the texture and flavor of marshmallow cream, which is not a bad thing if that’s what you want, but it’s never going to hold its shape or come off of wax paper without sticking and scraping.

I have since learned, credit google, that sugar boils at a higher temperature than water, and the temperature of a boiling sugar mix reflects how much water has evaporated therefrom. The initial recipe I had selected had a ridiculously high amount of water in it (2 cups to 2 cups of sugar), so no wonder it was taking so long to heat to what would have been the appropriate temperature.

Attempt 2: Qualified success. I was determined to be more than patient and boiled my sugar slurry to 260 degrees lest I again end up with piles of sweet goo in lieu of divinity.

This divinity was okay – I think it’s safe to call the concoction divinity, which is more than I can say for the first batch – but it set up a little bit too much. The flavor and texture were good, but the candies were spiky little hedgehogs instead of soft, swirled pillows. A sane person would probably have been satisfied with attempt #2, but I still felt as if the recipe had bested me. I don’t like to feel bested by recipes.

Attempt 3: Another massive fail, this time due to under-beating. I surmise that my second attempt’s too-sharp texture was the result of over-beating. One is instructed to beat divinity until it loses its gloss. Attempt #3 lost most of its gloss within two minutes of the heated sugar being added to the egg whites. I thought this meant it was ready; it did not. This batch also failed to set up and made me very sad, as I had thought I was getting close to cracking the divinity nut.

Attempt 4: By this time, I was annoyed and more than a little bit frustrated with divinity. My goal with any recipe is to be able to reliably reproduce something good. Clearly, I’m not there yet when it comes to candy making. I know it takes practice – and believe me, I am now determined to practice – but given my general kitchen-handiness, I thought success would be more easily attained.

Mercifully, attempt #4 came out as perfectly as I could have hoped. It was soft but still held its shape. The texture is soft and tender, like a crystallized marshmallow, and the flavor is sweet and simple, a soft vanilla kiss in the mouth.

One can make plain divinity, but I like to add nuts or chocolate chips, and pecans are my favorite addition of all. Most recipes call for a cup of chopped nuts, but I use a cup and a half because I so adore pecans.

I had been using this allrecipes recipe from attempt #2 onward, but I ran out of corn syrup (oh the irony) and had only about 1/3 of a cup in this fourth and final depicted batch. I think the corn syrup helps prevent the sugar mixture from boiling over, as batch #4 was the bubbliest of them all and did, in fact, spill out a bit on my stove. Probably only 2 tablespoons or so of the liquid was lost, and since this version was the best of all, I’m going to list the recipe as I made it, caveat confectioner.

Just don’t be surprised or too sad if it takes you a few times to get the hang of making this. Alternately, if you make this and it comes out perfectly on the first try, please don’t rub it in. I’m feeling enough culinary insecurity over my repeated divinity fails as it is.

This is a recipe I would never have attempted more than once without my trusty Stand Mixer. Some allrecipe commenters claimed to have been able to pull this off with handheld beaters, but I’m not coordinated enough to pour scalding liquid sugar into egg whites with one hand while navigating a handheld mixer with the other. You’ll also need a candy thermometer
unless you’re a far more experienced candy-maker than I.

Divinity with Pecans

2 ¼ cups sugar
½ cup water
1/3 cup light corn syrup
¼ teaspoon salt

2 egg whites
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 ½ cups pecans, chopped, and lightly toasted if you’d like (or mini chocolate chips or other stir-in)

In a medium saucepan, bring to boil the sugar, water, corn syrup, and salt. Boil over medium high until a candy thermometer reads 250-255 degrees and remove from heat. You may need to turn the heat down when the sugar mixture first starts to bubble to prevent the mixture from boiling over.

Place egg whites in the bowl of your stand mixer. Using whisk attachment, beat egg whites to medium-hard peaks.

Add sugar mix in slow, steady stream to the beaten egg whites while continuing to beat at high speed. It should take a couple of minutes to get all of the sugar mix into the egg whites. Add vanilla.

Beat on high speed for 8-10 minutes, or until the mix holds its shape and has lost most of its gloss.

Mix in pecans (or mini chocolate chips or other additives). Drop by tablespoonfuls onto lightly greased wax paper and allow to dry completely, which should take an hour or two. Makes about 2 dozen.

I wish I could provide more specific guidance about beating times and how to tell when the divinity is ready to be shaped, but honestly: I’m not there yet. The fourth and most successful batch of divinity took 8 minutes of beating after all the sugar was poured into the egg whites and was just perfect as far as softness goes. I beat the too-spiky second batch of divinity for about 15 minutes, but I also over-heated the sugar mixture, so that batch’s deviation from perfection probably results from a combination of those factors. Just, erm, use your judgment, and if it takes a couple of tries before you can get this to work for you … you’re in good company.

With the fourth batch, the last couple of pieces that I spooned onto wax paper were starting to look slightly spiky, but it is incredibly dry in Connecticut right now – my basement hygrometer reported an indoor humidity of 30% – so I think you just need to work fast if you are making divinity in this climate. Most southern cooks have the opposite problem and have to put off their divinity-making ambitions until relatively humidity is below normal for the region.

So what else have I learned from my multi-day foray into the world of candy making? A few key things:
1. Corn syrup is really hard to rinse from your hair
2. But not as hard as divinity fluff, which coats your hair like nougat
3. Since divinity fluff to hair is like magnet to refrigerator, do not attempt to get that last little bit of divinity from the whisk attachment by spinning it while elevated from the mixing bowl

I hope you can learn from my mistakes.

Printable recipe here.


  1. I guess shower caps should be listed as kitchen essentials from now on;)

  2. At least if you're as huge a ditz as I am ... :)

  3. Oh Becky, I am so grateful that you posted your divinity trials! I am making marshmallows this week, with real marshmallow root and no corn syrup! I have always wanted to try it. Following your example I will try to be patient but perseverant as I make my 19th c. recipe. Something tells me the first batch won't be perfect... but i'll get there! Your divinity #4 looks perfect!

  4. I'll be curious whether it comes out ... marshmallows are on my "to-try" list. :)

  5. FYI first batch of marshmallows... fluff! It wouldn't set up in a million years... bad recipe. This will be great for hot chocolate, however( taking a when you have lemons make lemonade attitude.

    I am going to give it one more try... since I only have a small amount of gum tragacanth left... will let you know!

  6. Sorry it didn't work out ... again. :p I hope next time's the charm!