Cracked, creamy, caramel or chocolate — we can’t have Christmas without candy.
Area women shared a few secrets to their luscious little nuggets of deliciousness.
Melissa Wedman of Fort Gibson combines salt with sweet in her salted whiskey caramels. Coni Wetz of Muskogee cracks the code on English toffee. Peggy Hannah Thompson and daughter Beth Hannah-Schesny of Muskogee bring family into the mix for chocolate peanut butter balls, chocolate covered peanuts and Oklahoma millionaires.
Salted whiskey caramels
Melissa Wedman created her caramels in honor of her father, Frank Allen of Yukon, her hometown. He was a “caramel-loving fanatic.” He loved Bit-O-Honey and Brach’s caramel — anything with a chewy caramel texture or filling. On Christmas after he died four years ago from heart disease at 56, Melissa wanted to make caramels and give them as gifts to family and friends as a remembrance of her father.
Melissa, who has a degree in horticulture from Oklahoma State University, had never made candy before. Her grandmother, Bettie Allen, made ribbon candy when Melissa was 7 or 8, and her father’s sisters made Christmas candy. Her mother, Kathy Allen of Yukon, makes “killer mashed potatoes and sweet tea,” but her idea of candy making is the marshmallow crème fudge which requires no skill, Melissa said. Her father was a short-order cook in high school and was the type of cook who would use leftover potatoes to make hash browns for breakfast the next day, she said.
Melissa decided she would give candy making a try. She researched the components of caramel, temperatures and ingredients. Frank must have given Melissa a heavenly hand because the caramels are melt-in-your mouth goodness.
She tried four or five recipes she had found and tweaked them to her liking. In January after that Christmas, she started getting calls and messages from those who had received her gift. They wanted more.
Last year, she set up an Etsy account and set a price to make it easier for them to order. To her amazement, orders started coming in from people she didn’t know. Last year, between the end of October and mid-December, she received 700 orders for her candies, which she packages 12 pieces of caramel in a bag for $10, from 18 states including Alaska. Several of those were repeat orders.
Her recipe, which she doesn’t share, starts with watching the consistency of boiling sugar water as it goes to 310 F on her candy thermometer in a silver pot. All of her pots, pans and kitchen gadgets are from Pampered Chef. She started selling it at 19 years of age. She is now an upper level sales director for Pampered Chef at 31.
Melissa said watching the sugar mixture of corn syrup and water boil reminds her of a witches’ potion and she said: “Double, double toil and trouble; fire burn and caldron bubble.” There is a science to boiling because every degree will make sugar a different thing — soft boil or hard crack. She starts at a hard crack and goes back to a soft ball stage.
“If it’s a rainy day, don’t cook caramel,” she said. “Moisture in the air will change it.”
Once her children needed her while she was making candy. She stepped away for 30 seconds.
“I ended up with Werther’s Originals instead of soft caramels,” she said.
People ask her about the whiskey in the recipe.
“The alcohol boils off, but the whiskey adds depth of flavor to the caramels,” she said.
It is important to Melissa to use as many products from local and state companies as possible. She uses Griffin’s corn syrup, Hiland Dairy heavy whipping cream and honey from a Fort Gibson beekeeper. Her grandfather had honeybees and she’s thought of having her own just for her caramels.
She whisks air into the sugar mixture as she slowly adds the boiling cream and whiskey mixture. The color and texture change again when she turns the heat back on. A red silicone glove from Pampered Chef is a necessity for the hot pan. As the temperature rises, the caramel continues to boil but the motion of the boil slows down.
Husband Justin, a pharmacist and partner in Valu-Med Pharmacy in Fort Gibson, doesn’t eat caramels, but he does lend a hand in pouring when Melissa is making several batches. Their children Madilynn, 5, and Jack, 3, help by wrapping the individual pieces in brown parchment paper squares after Melissa hand cuts it. Madilynn doesn’t eat the candy, but Melissa and Jack eat the little pieces that are left in the pan.
She waits for a “film” to form on the caramel after it is poured in the cooling pan. She then pours coarse sea salt on top and uses a small roller to press it into the candy. It is left at room temperature overnight or for at least three hours to cool. Then, it is cut into strips on a cutting board and then into individual squares.
“I think of old-time caramels as squares,” she said.
They must be individually wrapped to keep the caramels from sticking together. She packages them within two hours of cutting. The should be stored in a cool, dark place and will last two or three weeks.
Some people have been afraid to eat the caramels for fear of the candy sticking to crowns or fillings. She tells them just to suck on the candy; don’t chew.
She has started adding flavors to her caramels. Her new flavor uses real maple syrup and maple flavored whiskey to create “maple salted whiskey caramels.” She sold it during Father’s Day.
Coni Wetz was a college student at Baptist Medical Center School of Radiologic Technology in Oklahoma City when her instructor, “Diedre,” a Greek woman, invited the class over for dinner on weekends. Along with traditional dishes like baklava, the instructor made English toffee, a tradition that her family brought to the United States from Greece. Coni thought it was the best thing she had ever tasted and asked for the recipe. She’s made it every Christmas for about 40 years.
“This is my gift,” she said. “My friends and family love and expect it.”
She puts it in Christmas tins and ties it with ribbon. One year she tried to change things up and gave homemade biscotti and coffee as Christmas gifts.
“The look on my friends’ faces . . .,” she said.
Coni’s daughter, Casey Wetz Thompson of Dallas, said she remembers helping her mother deliver the gifts to family and friends that year. Dr. Jerry Coburn just stood there stunned. He wanted his English toffee, Casey said and laughed.
“It’s funny how much people look forward to it,”Casey said. “We would go out and deliver close to Christmas. People open the door, and say, ‘Oh my gosh. It’s here.’ I have lots of memories.”
Coni doesn’t share the recipe with anyone except her daughter and son, Dr. Colin Wetz, a physician at St. John Medical Center in Tulsa. They now make it for their friends and family.
“I kind of do the same thing to my neighbors,” Casey said. “I don’t know if it’s a blessing or a curse. Everyone expects it for Christmas.”
Coni makes the toffee the same way, in the same pot today just as she did when her children were little. Coni, executive director of Muskogee Little Theatre, took it to a MLT Christmas party one year and Kenny Greer sampled it. He begged her for the recipe but she wouldn’t budge. So, he told her she had to make the candy for him every year, and she does.
“I make 25 to 30 batches each holiday,” Coni said. “It cannot be made in bulk.”
She tried to prepare bulk batches and the toffee didn’t have the same flavor. It takes 24 hours to set in a 9x9 pan before she cracks it with the tip of a sharp knife. The little “crumblies” that break off the bigger pieces go into a Fitz and Floyd Christmas candy dish just right for a quick bite.
Casey said she posts “first batch of the season” when she makes it to take to husband Jordan’s family in South Dakota for Thanksgiving. She gets more comments from family and friends talking about it than anything else.
“It sets off Pandora’s box of comments,” Casey said.
Friends ask her if they can get on the “nice list” so they can get a batch for Christmas.
“Mine is not even as good as my mom’s,” she said. “She’ll humor me and say it is, but it isn’t.”
Casey, who is employed with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, is taking it to a global conference at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif. Her co-workers expect it.
Casey said she and her mom are “very traditionalists.” They make it the same. Casey and Coni said Colin has tried different recipes with chocolate and different nuts.
“The one thing that causes the most arguments is pressing the pecans,” Casey said. “My mom will not press pecans in the chocolate, because she thinks it looks prettier. So my brother and I come by and press the pecans down so they will stick into the chocolate. Mom believes you should never press the pecans down. It’s one of our larger holiday arguments.”
Coni says she will pass her English-toffee tradition on to Casey and Justin’s children, Stella, 4, and James, 7 months; and Colin and Carrie’s children, Emmy, 4, and Jillian, 18 months.
For Peggy Hannah Thompson and daughter Beth Hannah-Schesny everything is better with chocolate on it.
The love of candy making for the holidays started with Peggy’s mother and Beth’s grandmother, the late Mary Ellen “Braggsie” Cox, who lived in Braggs.
“It’s a big family affair,” Peggy said. “Everyone would get together in Braggs. Everyone would bring supplies and double boilers to Braggsie’s house.”
The big day was usually two or three weeks before Christmas. Each family would bring containers and the candy would be split between five or six families.
“My momma was a wonderful cook,” Peggy said. “All the kids and grandkids like to be a part of candy making. We made such big amounts. There was lots of dipping. We might have three double boilers on the stove and one on the table.”
Peggy said the name “Braggsie” came from her first child, Kevin, who lives in Muskogee. Peggy and her husband, the late Joe Hannah, would tell the boy they were going to Braggs.
“He thought she was Braggs,” Peggy said.
Peggy and Joe’s next two children, Beth, who Peggy calls “Mary Beth,” and Karen Leake of Little Rock, Ark., also called her Braggsie. The name stuck.
Braggsie died in 2010, but the family has carried on the tradition.
“We miss her all the time,” said Beth, who is employed at the Indian Capital Technology Center in Muskogee.
Peggy’s sister Cherry Craig of Braggs tries to keep it going. Their sister, Sally Harrison of Norman, and family come, too. Their brothers, the late Michael Cox of Muskogee, and the late Robert Cox of Alabama, have family members who come when they can.
“Everybody likes to go to Braggs,” Peggy said.
A retired teacher, Cherry likes to keep everybody organized on the job, whether it’s freezing corn or making candy.
“We let her think she’s the boss,” Peggy said and laughed. “I’m 73. She’s 74, 11 months older. She’s the oldest of the five children.”
Peggy and Beth make candy in the home where Peggy has lived since December 1962, after marrying in March 1962. It was her late husband’s family home. He died in 2002 and she later married Stanley Thompson, who has his family home near Checotah.
As the mother and daughter shared memories of their family, Beth continued to dip peanut butter balls in chocolate using a toothpick.
“Dunkin Donuts has nothing on me,” she said. “There’s nothing compared to doing candy with family.”
Family candy making at Braggs is a great memory for Beth, with 17 acres of fun with cattle and chickens, places to play, and chocolate gravy for breakfast.
“I got to see my cousins and family and have good food,” she said.
Beth’s son, Brandon Schesny, 19, of Muskogee is the next generation. He likes to help make the candy, too.
Peggy said that, on the family farm, her mother would tell the children, “You can do anything you want as long as you don’t get hurt.”
“There were a lot of tales told in the kitchen,” Beth said.
The peanut butter balls are dipped in a Nestle’s chocolate chips and paraffin mixture, not almond bark. The mixture is softer and more tasty.
“You invest a lot of time and money in candy making,” Beth said.
She remembers her parents going to the candy classes at Janey Cagle’s Flowers. They used plastic trays rather than dipping. It just didn’t work as well. They went back to dipping the peanut butter balls with toothpicks.
“Dad was meticulous,” Beth said. “He would go behind us and doctor it up, so the hole where the toothpick was didn’t show in the chocolate.”
Peggy loves to cook and made chocolate chip cookies to send with Beth to school and made dinners to send to the hospital where her husband, John, worked as director of personnel for 33½ years.
“He liked to bake, but it was a one-man party,” Peggy said. “It was his way to relax. It’s mine, too. I like cooking all the way around but baking is my favorite, especially this time of year.”
If there is any chocolate left, the candy makers mixed it with roasted peanuts, pecans, chow mein noodles or anything else they had around. They also dipped pretzels in white chocolate.
Peggy wants to encourage families to get together and have fun.
“They’ll be making a bond that never goes away.”