Taste columnist and chef Greg Atkinson has a chocolate fudge recipe he's worked out over the years that will set you up for delicious success at home.

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IN HIS PITHY little book, “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual,” Michael Pollan lays out 64 principles to guide readers pondering the age-old question, “What should I eat?”

Among the various imperatives is: “Eat all the junk food you want, as long as you cook it yourself.” I like this rule for several reasons: I really like to cook, I have a reasonably well-equipped kitchen, and I enjoy certain foods that might not otherwise be considered healthy. Chocolate fudge, for example.

The trouble with fudge — well, one of the troubles with fudge — is that, ever since 1956, when a recipe for “Never Fail Fudge” was developed by the makers of Marshmallow Fluff and Nestlé chocolate morsels, and attributed to First Lady Mamie Eisenhower, most homemade fudge has been made from something other than scratch.

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Before that, no cookbook was complete without a handful of recipes for candy made from scratch. Even 50 years ago, most cookbooks included recipes for old-fashioned favorites like fudge, divinity and caramels. Making candy at home was viewed as frugal and fun. Cooks were instructed to dissolve sugar in milk or water, bring it to a boil and then test it for doneness by dropping spoonsful into a glass of water to evaluate the firmness of the ball it formed.

These days, store-bought candy is ubiquitous, and most home cooks are intimidated by hot sugar syrup and anything involving a “soft-ball stage,” or any sort of ball stage.

Even the editors of Cook’s Illustrated, who routinely develop complicated recipes, concluded, “Traditional fudge — with its slightly grainy texture but melt-in-your-mouth creaminess — is anything but easy. Classic fudge is frustrating and completely unpredictable.” The editors abandoned their initial goal of producing great fudge from scratch and went for an easy out, replacing the traditional cooked-milk-and-sugar base with sweetened condensed milk from a can.

The Cook’s Illustrated recipe did produce delectably smooth and creamy fudge, but it was too sweet, too soft and tasted too much like canned milk to make me happy. I missed the fudge my mother made, the kind that might well have been called “Often Fail Fudge.”

Mom’s theory of cooking usually involved putting something on the stove over low heat — a chicken, some green beans, a batch of fudge, whatever — and taking a bath. By the time she was done bathing and re-emerged with her hair in a towel, whatever she had put on the stove would be ready for her attention.

In the case of fudge, the gooey mess was poured onto a buttered platter and we all crossed our fingers, hoping it would set. If it turned out too soft, she passed the platter with a stack of spoons and called it “spoon fudge.”

I was about 12 when I read instructions in one of her cookbooks that described the soft-ball stage, suggested the use of a thermometer and ordered the cook to stir the fudge as it cooled; “this will allow the fudge to set,” said Betty Crocker or someone of her ilk.

“What a good idea,” I thought. I promptly set about trying my hand at making chocolate fudge and developed a recipe I still follow more or less to this day. Over the years, it’s usually worked out pretty well.

Greg Atkinson is a Seattle-area chef, author and consultant. He can be reached at greg@westcoastcooking.com. John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

Chocolate Walnut Fudge

Makes 36 pieces

One of the biggest challenges of making homemade candy is gauging the temperature of the sugar syrup as it cooks. An instant-read thermometer is helpful, but won’t always read accurately, so observation and instinct are useful. When a spoonful of hot syrup goes into a cup of cold water, it will behave in a particular way depending on the temperature and concentration of sugar in the syrup. For soft, creamy fudge that holds its shape, learn to recognize the “soft-ball stage” that occurs at about 235 degrees. A little corn syrup decreases the likelihood of unwanted crystals, but it’s not essential.

2 cups sugar, preferably organic

2 tablespoons corn syrup, optional

3/4 cup half-and-half

1 teaspoon kosher salt

6 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, finely chopped

2 tablespoons butter or toasted walnut oil

1 teaspoon vanilla

3/4 cup walnuts, lightly toasted and roughly chopped

1. Butter a 9-inch-square baking dish. Fill a large mixing bowl or a dishpan with cold water and keep it near the stove; this will help cool the fudge when it’s ready.

2. In a heavy-bottomed, nonreactive, 2-quart pan such as enameled cast-iron, combine the sugar, corn syrup, half-and-half and salt over medium-high heat, stirring until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is beginning to boil. Allow the mixture to cook, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, until a teaspoonful dropped into a cup of cold water forms a soft ball, or until the mixture registers 235 degrees on a candy thermometer. Depending on the size of the pan and the heat of the burner, this will take about 5 minutes.

3. Take the fudge off the stove and immerse the cooking pot in the cold-water bath. Allow the fudge to stand undisturbed until it cools to 120 degrees on the thermometer, at which point a finger dipped in the fudge will not feel burning hot, but like a very hot bath.

4. With a silicone spatula or a wooden spoon, stir in the chocolate, butter and vanilla and continue stirring the fudge vigorously until it begins to lose its shine and just starts to thicken; this will happen almost as quickly as the chocolate melts.

5. Stir in the toasted walnuts, transfer the candy quickly to the prepared baking dish and let it stand undisturbed until it cools to room temperature. When the fudge is set, cut it into 6 rows of 6 squares. The fudge will keep, wrapped at room temperature, for up to a week.

© Greg Atkinson, 2011

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