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Like Milk on the Stove

I learned a French saying the other day: “surveiller comme le lait sur le feu.” It means “to watch like milk on the stove.” As someone who has all but given up on creamy oatmeal, I can appreciate with the French that if you walk away from a saucepan of milk on the burner, bubbles, toil, and trouble will inevitably ensue. I’m glad you could come by today. My grandmother’s candy is dairy-based, so I’ll be standing here a while. Grab some tea, move that cookbook off the barstool, and sit with me while I stir.

My grandmother’s birthday was yesterday. She would have been 97. She passed when I was pretty young, but not before leaving me with happy memories and this recipe. My mom held on to it for years but prefers making my grandmother’s other sweets (there’s a piece of Heath bar cake on the counter you can try if you’d like), so she let the candy recipe pass to me, and now it’s mine alone.

Well, I guess that’s not quite true. This recipe is mine to keep, but it isn’t mine to share. You see, before it belonged to my mother or my grandmother, it belonged to two elderly ladies with a rental apartment above their home, a proximity to Peabody College, and a dream of opening a candy shoppe in Gatlinburg. My grandmother lived in their apartment when she was in school. They always had a bowl of homemade pecan caramels that they’d happily give to anyone who asked, but the recipe they guarded with dramatic secrecy. That recipe was the key to their candy shoppe dream, so they watched it like milk on the stove.

A few years later, my grandmother met my grandfather, and the ladies found themselves in need of a wedding gift. My grandmother had charmed them during their years together, and so they decided to entrust her with their treasure. They specified that my grandmother was not to share their recipe, but she could make and give the candy whenever she wished.

I guard the secret of two women with a dream, and I carry the legacy of a couple who loved their community with the ferocity of a million small kindnesses. -Rachel Matar

So she did. Every year at Christmastime, my grandparents spent a week boiling and stirring and wrapping hundreds of pecan caramels. Later, my mom and aunt would join them to cut the wrappers and lick the spoons. Year after year, they gave candy away to friends, family, and strangers. If you ever met them, and I hope you did, I bet you’ve tried a piece. My sister works down the hall from a man who interned under my grandfather when he led the engineering department. He’s in his 80s now, but when she brought in the candy a few years ago, he remembered it like the easy laugh of the kind man who first gave it to him. Memories are sticky like that.

After my grandparents passed, the candy did, too. See, the recipe is good, but it isn’t easy. You have to stir continuously for hours. I can’t tell you how many, because I don’t know. Is it raining? That’ll change it. Are you using the big pot or the other big pot? That matters, too. And while imperfect candy makes a nice ice cream mix-in, it’s frustrating to spend hours on a project if you know it might not work. So for a while, Christmas candy became just a happy memory. My family chased it through candy stores and mall kiosks, wandering in to see if someone else had cracked the code. “Close,” we’d say, “but not quite it,” and we’d try to hide our disappointment.

A few years ago, I was flipping through one of my mom’s recipe notebooks, and I saw the magic yellow glow of an old index card with “Christmas Candy” written in my grandmother’s hand. The instructions were imprecise, but it wasn’t raining, and I like a challenge, so I stepped into the story I already loved. 4 hours of stirring, 12 of cooling, and 5 of wrapping later, I gave it to my family to try. We were quiet as we unwrapped, tasted, and considered before pronouncing a victorious “that’s it.”

So now I’m the keeper of this recipe. I guard the secret of two women with a dream, and I carry the legacy of a couple who loved their community with the ferocity of a million small kindnesses. No, I won’t sell any of it, although I’m flattered you asked. But you can take as much as you’d like. There’s still a few hours before the candy is done, so go on and head out if you’re tired. But this recipe is mine, and it’s precious to me. So I’ll watch it like milk on the stove.


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