How to Make Pioneer Candies and Treats

Pioneer Candies and Treats

When There Was No Candy Store You Had to Improvise

A sweet tooth is nothing new.  Candy has been a favorite going back to when primitive peoples first discovered the surprising sweetness of honey.  Every culture has their favorites, but our pioneer ancestors were on their own when it came to sweet treats.  

They quickly figured out how to use the resources at hand and most started with things that were naturally sweet like maple syrup, fruits and honey.  They mastered the craft of making caramel from sugar and found ways to extract and expand the natural sweetness of things growing around them in nature.

We’re going to explore their creations and cover the recipes for pioneer favorites you may have heard of and a few that will come as a surprise including:

  1. Maple Syrup Snow Candy
  2. Honey Snow Candy
  3. Cherry Syrup Snow Candy
  4. Candied Orange Peel
  5. Mashed Potato Candy
  6. Baked Apples
  7. Caramel Coated Apples with Roasted Acorns (Taffy Apples)
  8. Alaskan Candied Salmon

We’re going to start with some winter candy favorites that used snow to transform simple syrup like honey and maple syrup into candies that are popular to this day. 

Maple Syrup Snow Candy

Maple syrup snow candy

Maple syrup snow candy

This approach to candy making showed up in the syrup producing regions of North America particularly in the Northeast across and through the Great Lakes states.  It’s very easy to make but you need to heat the syrup and you’ll need some snow.  Fresh fallen, powder snow is best and make sure the snow bank is free of any dirt or debris.  You can substitute finely crushed ice in summer.

You’ll also need a candy thermometer.  The recommended temperature is 245 degrees F. that will result in a hard, crunchy candy.  If you don’t reach that temperature the maple syrup snow candy will be soft and chewy.  That’s okay if you like it that way, but it can stick to your teeth a bit. 

Don’t be tempted to simply drizzle maple syrup in the snow and assume you’ll get snow candy.  Uncooked maple syrup will simply sink into the snow and mix with the snow to make maple syrup water or at best, maple syrup snow.  If that’s your goal you might as well scoop some snow in a ball and top it with maple syrup.  That’s good too, but it’s not candy.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup of maple syrup (you can increase the amount if you want to make more candy).

Directions:

  1. Real maple syrup is the standard recommendation for maple syrup snow candy, but store-bought syrup made with corn syrup works as well. 
  2. In a saucepan over medium heat bring the syrup to a boil while stirring constantly. 
  3. Clip your candy thermometer to the side of the pan until it reaches 245 degrees or remove from the heat after 5 minutes.
  4. Immediately drizzle the syrup onto the snow and wait 2 or 3 minutes for it to get firm.
  5. Remove to a plate and eat immediately or freeze for later. 
Maple syrup snow candy pour into snow

Maple syrup snow candy pour into snow

Honey Snow Candy

Honey snow candy
Honey snow candy

You can use snow to make a similar candy with honey.  Honey also requires a heating process so it solidifies when it comes in contact with the snow.  You can double or triple this recipe if you want more honey snow candy. 

Ingredients:

  • ½ cup of honey
  • ¼ cup of brown sugar

Directions:

  1. To start, pour the honey and brown sugar into a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat.
  2. Stir constantly.  The temperature recommendation for honey snow candy is 235 degrees F. for a chewy candy and 340 degrees F.  for a hard candy.
  3. When it reaches the proper temperature pour onto the snow and let rest for 2 to 3 minutes and dig in. 
Honey snow candy pour

Honey snow candy pour

Cherry Syrup Snow Candy

Cherries were a popular crop with pioneers and the juice was often combined with sugar to make a cherry syrup.  All it took was a little snow to create the perfect conditions for another snow candy variation.  We’re going to cheat and use store-bought cherries in a can.

Cherry syrup snow candy
Cherry syrup snow candy

Ingredients:

  • 1 20-ounce can of cherries
  • 1 cup of white sugar
  • ¼ cup of cornstarch
  • 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract

Directions:

  1. Add the cherries to a sauce pan and mash with a potato masher.
  2. Add the remaining ingredients to the sauce pan and bring to a gentle boil over medium heat while stirring constantly.  The ideal temperature is 245 degrees F. 
  3. When done immediately drizzle onto the snow and let rest for 4 to 5 minutes. 
  4. The mashed cherries in the syrup need a little more time to set up.  Try one and if done, it’s time to eat.

A Word of Caution

When sweets get very hot there is a danger of serious burns.  Be very careful when cooking maple syrup, honey or cherry syrup or any sugars to high temperatures.  The boiling point of water is 212 degrees Fahrenheit and all of the recipes that we’ll cover call for temperatures well above that.

Variations on a Theme

Pioneer candy is not just about snow.  They found all sorts of ways to make surprising candies even with some simple things from trees and vegetables.  Here’s a holiday favorite during those rare occasions around Christmas when oranges found their way to the family table.  They rarely wasted anything and even found a way to make candy out of orange peels.

Candied Orange Peel

Candied Orange Peel
Candied Orange Peel

Ingredients:

  • Oranges
  • 3 + 1 cup of white sugar
  • 3 cups of water
Oranges and sugar and water

Oranges and sugar and water

Directions

  1. Cut the peels on each orange into 4 vertical segments. Remove each segment (including the white pith) in 1 piece.
    Orange peel sliced

    Orange peel sliced

  2. Cut into 1/4-inch-wide strips.
  3. Cook the peels in a large pot of boiling water 15 minutes; drain, rinse, and drain again.
    Orange peel boiling

    Orange peel boiling

  4. Bring 3 cups of sugar and 3 cups of water to boil in a medium saucepan over medium heat, stirring to dissolve sugar.  Add the peels.
    Orange peels boiled

    Orange peels boiled

  5. Return to a boil. Reduce the heat; simmer until the peel is very soft, about 45 minutes. Drain.
  6. Sprinkle sugar onto a sheet of parchment paper and toss the peel while sprinkling another cup of sugar over the top.   Toss the peels and lift the peel from the sugar and transfer to a plate to dry.  Let the sugared orange peels rest until the coating is dry, 1 to 2 days.
  7. You can wrap and freeze for up to 2 months.
    Orange peel sugared

    Orange peel sugared

Add Mashed Potato Candy to Your Pioneer Candy Store

Mashed potato candy hero

Mashed potato candy hero

Potatoes don’t come to mind when you think of candy until you’ve tried candied potatoes.  It essentially involves making mashed potatoes and then forming them into balls.  The potato balls are then frozen and either topped or rolled in an assortment of toppings to make a sweet and satisfying treat.

You can even use cooked maple syrup, honey or cherry syrup to cover the potatoes instead of drizzling it in the snow.

Ingredients:

  • 6 large potatoes peeled and coarsely cut into pieces
  • 3 tablespoons of sugar
  • 2 teaspoons of vanilla
  • 1 8-ounce bag of morsels or 8-ounces of chopped up chocolate
  • 1 cup of chopped nuts of your choice (The pioneers used either roasted acorns or black walnuts).
  • 1 cup of shredded coconut
  • Cooked maple syrup or coked honey or coked cherry syrup

Directions:

  1. Peel the potatoes and cut into 4 pieces.
  2. Boil the potatoes in water for 20 to 30 minutes until fork tender.
  3. Drain the water and mash the potatoes.  Add the sugar and the 2 teaspoons of vanilla and mash some more. 
  4. Refrigerate the final mash for 30 minutes to an hour
    Making mashed potato balls

    Making mashed potato balls

  5. Butter the bottom of a plate lightly and using your buttered hands, pick up some of the mashed potatoes and roll into a ball in your hands about the size of a medium-sized meatball.
    Mashed potato balls out of the freezer

    Mashed potato balls out of the freezer

  6. Place the mashed potato balls on the buttered plate and put in the freezer for 30 minutes. 
  7. While they’re freezing, it’s time to chop the nuts and make the chocolate glaze. You could also reference the above recipes for how to prepare maple syrup, honey or cherry syrup as a topping.
  8. Chop your nut or nuts of choice to the size you like. 

Chocolate glaze

  • To make the chocolate glaze you’ll need a double boiler.  This is a saucepan that fits over the top of another sauce pan that contains boiling water.
  • The 8-ounces of chocolate bits are placed in the top saucepan and the steam and heat from the boiling water will cause the chocolate to melt. 
  • Stir frequently until the chocolate is melted. 

The finishing touch

  • Remove the potato balls from the freezer on the buttered plate and either drizzle the chocolate over the mashed potato balls or carefully roll them in the melted chocolate and return to the buttered plate.
    Mashed potato candy hero

    Mashed potato candy

  • As you do this, immediately sprinkle the chocolate covered mashed potato candy with nuts or coconut or both. 
  • You could also drizzle one of your syrups over the frozen potato balls at this time.
  • When you’re done, and the chocolate coating has hardened you can either dig in or put the mashed potato candy in the fridge to make it softer to the bite.
  • Keep in the fridge for up to two weeks or freeze and keep up to two months.

Baked Apples

Baked apples are a very simple recipe.  Think of it as a hand-held apple pie.  The apples are cored, filled with butter and brown sugar and then baked.  Pioneers used other sweeteners ranging from molasses to honey, sorghum and maple syrup. 

Ingredients:

  • 6 apples of any variety
  • Cinnamon
  • Cloves
  • Brown sugar
  • Butter

Directions:

  1. With a melon baller or knife, carefully cut out the center core of the apple removing the core and the seeds.  Do not penetrate the bottom of the apple or your filling will drain out. 
  2. Sprinkle some cinnamon and cloves into the core and insert a piece of butter.  Pack the core with brown sugar and place on a buttered baking sheet.  The kids can help with all of these steps.
    Apple cored and filled

    Apple cored and filled

  3. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and when preheated, bake for 20 to 30 minutes until the apples are tender.
  4. Let the apples cool for ten minutes and then place in a bowl and using a knife and fork, slice and enjoy.
    Baked apple

    Baked apple

  5. Baked apples don’t keep that well and are best enjoyed warm but a few days in the fridge will keep them for about a week if you have leftovers.

Caramel Apples

Caramel apple hero

Caramel apple hero

We all remember these as kids and every fall through the holidays they were a welcome treat.  They were just as appreciated by our pioneer ancestors and they were the ones who first came up with the idea.

Apples were every day in early times and were used for everything from apple pies to apple juice and apple cider vinegar.  It’s no surprise they found their way into the pioneer candy store. 

The traditional recipe involved cooking and stirring white sugar for a long period of time until it caramelized and turned a rich, light brown.  The sugar had to reach 350 degrees F. to do this. We’re not going to do that.  It’s tedious and a bit dangerous. The easiest way to caramelize apples is to buy a bag of caramel candies and melt them in a double boiler.  It’s not cheating.  It’s playing it safe and saving yourself some time.

Ingredients:

  • 1 16-ounce bag of caramel candies
  • 6 apples of any variety except Grannie Smith which are better suited for baking
    Fresh wild apples

    Fresh wild apples

  • 6 popsicle sticks, or 6 twigs shaved of bark and sharpened to a point on one end
  • 2 cups of chopped nuts of any variety or a blend of nuts

Directions:

  1. Insert the sticks in to the center of the apple by the stem.  Do not penetrate the bottom of the apple but make sure the stick is firmly inserted so it can be held by hand in a secure way. 
  2. In a double boiler, melt the caramel candy and stir constantly until melted and smooth. 
  3. Remove the top of the double boiler to the counter top on a hot pad and roll and spin the apples in the caramel.
    Caramel apples coated

    Caramel apples coated

  4. If you like you can roll the apples in chopped nuts or just eat them with only the caramel coating but let the caramelized apples cool on a plate for 20 minutes before eating.  You can refrigerate them if you’re all anxious to get that first bite.
  5. If you want to make more, double or triple the recipe.  Keep them refrigerated and they should be good up to 2 or 3 weeks.

And Now for Something Completely Different

Okay.  Here’s a new one.  Candied salmon.  This recipe actually originated in Alaska.  Not surprising because they have more salmon than oranges or potatoes.  This is a recipe that’s best made in a food dehydrator or you can slowly dry it over an indirect fire for a few days like the Alaskans did.  We’re going to go the dehydrator route.

Salmon candy hero

Salmon candy

Alaskan Candied Salmon Jerky Recipe

Ingredients:

  • 1 to 3 pounds of fresh Salmon filets
  • 1 cup of soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons of molasses
  • 2 tablespoons of white sugar
  • 2 tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 tablespoons of lemon juice
  • 1 ½ tablespoons of ground black pepper
  • 12 dashes of hot sauce or to suit your taste
  • 2 teaspoons of liquid smoke flavoring (optional)

Directions:

Salmon candy process

Salmon candy process

  1. Remove the skin from the salmon.
  2. Combine the marinade ingredients in a saucepan and heat until sugar is dissolved, and the molasses incorporated.  Let cool.
  3. In a glass or plastic bowl immerse the salmon in the marinade and marinate in the refrigerator for 6 to 8 hours or overnight.
  4. Dry the salmon filets.
  5. Carefully cut into strips about 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick.
  6. Place on racks in the dehydrator and dry for 4 to 6 hours.  Taste as you go to assess texture and taste.
  7. Serve or package and store refrigerated.

By Now You Get the Idea

When you have nothing, you make do with anything and pioneer candy is a great example of how our ancestors made the most of what nature provided, and those rare occasions when things like chocolate, oranges and even white sugar made their appearance. Give one of these recipes a try if you get a chance.  It’s a great activity to do with the kids (carefully) and a simple way to teach the basic value of self-reliance.

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