When I finally bought a house a few years ago, a switch flipped in my brain that said, "You own a kitchen; cook things."
This wasn't very good advice.
Because I have a passionate interest in healthy eating, one of the first things I decided to make was fudge. Now, I know what you're thinking: everyone knows how to make fudge.
Uh-huh. That's what's called an unsupported generalization, and I take off points for that in my classes.
I do, however, know how to read, and I just happened to have a cookbook that I vaguely remember buying in graduate school when I tried, and failed, to hardboil an egg. You've heard of this cookbook, but given the nature of this story, I think it would be better to give it a pseudonym. Let's call it The Joy of Turning Plant and Animal Products into Food. I now know that this is not a cookbook for beginners, but at the time I bought it, what I knew was that it was available in paperback and included how to hardboil an egg.
Using the magic of the index, I found a recipe for fudge and purchased the ingredients. I then returned to the recipe, and I was delighted to discover that the first step, buttering a pan, was child's play. If you have butter.
When I got back from my second trip to the store, I moved on to the next step, which involves cooking various ingredients in a pot until they reach something called the soft-ball stage.
This gave me pause. Then I thought, “I’m a worldly, experienced woman. Surely, I can detect the soft-ball stage when it’s in my own kitchen. In fact, this cooking stuff can't be that difficult since reaching the soft-ball stage is such an obvious path to joy!”
Filled with confidence, I continued to follow the recipe. Eventually, it instructed me to stir until stiffening occurred. Again, I thought, “I’m an experienced woman, and I’m well aware that if you want stiffening to occur, you have to stir. In fact, sometimes you have to stir for quite a while. I can do this.” I set upon utilizing some enthusiastic arm motions to stir that fudge for all it was worth.
Stiffening did not occur. And, as most women know, a pan of fudge soup is, well, sadly flaccid.
But I didn't give up. This was not the first time, I have to say, that things have not stiffened even when I carefully followed instructions for stirring. I'm not embarrassed to ask for help when I need it, though, so I called a more experienced woman, one whom I knew to be an expert at producing stiffening in all sorts of circumstances. "You need a candy thermometer," she said to me.
"Ah," I thought, "of course! As an experienced woman, I should have known that sometimes one must turn to mechanical aids to induce stiffening! And how fortunate I am to live in a century when they are reasonably priced and in plentiful supply!" So off I went to the store to buy more recipe ingredients and a mechanical aid of my very own.
Again, I followed the instructions carefully, using the mechanical aid to help me detect the soft-ball stage so that I would know exactly when to adjust the heat and stir to induce the stiffening which, according to my cookbook, was part of joy.
Once again, stiffening did not occur.
This time, I must admit, I was a bit embarrassed. Here I was, an experienced, adult woman with her own kitchen in her own house, and even with a mechanical aid, I could not induce stiffening. Sadly, I trudged back to the store, bought more ingredients, and tried again, this time very slowly and very carefully. You see it had occurred to me that my very confidence and enthusiasm might have been the barrier to stiffening. Perhaps I stirred too much, too fast. I've heard that such things are possible. Gently, carefully, I worked to stiffen the fudge.
Alas, my friends, stiffening once again failed to occur.
It's difficult to describe just how painful this series of misadventures had become. Was I just kidding myself? Perhaps I wasn't the independent adult woman I'd imagined that I'd become. Maybe I should just give up and leave stirring and stiffening to those who could generate more heat on more expensive stoves.
It was one of those moments where life could go either way.
Devastated, I turned at last to the internet where, I'd heard, there were whole web sites devoted to giving advice stirring and stiffening. And, like so many before me, I found what I was looking for: Easy fudge, made with a miracle formula called sweetened, condensed milk.
This! This was it! The sad fact was that I needed a little chemical enhancement to produce the desired stiffening. And, my dear friends, I have to tell you it worked beautifully, so beautifully that I would, if asked, do commercial ads for this product. Yes, I'm willing to proclaim it with pride: Sweetened, condensed milk is the miracle that restored joy to my kitchen.