"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Running lesson from confectionery

Bear with me on this one. There really is a point for runners.

This seems to be the year for sponge candy. I first got reminded of it by Julie Berg's post. She didn't have much luck making it. Then I discovered "Wilde in the Kitchen" who, also being trained as a chemist, thinks like I do; her experiments with it are here, including pictures of some failures (and, if you dig in the comments, proof I've been working on this a while) and her successful attempt. This past week, I found another blogger who's tried making it [here].

I had a dozen recipes and tried those that seemed like the most probable to give success. Here's what it's supposed to look like:
And here's what mine ended up looking like, regardless of recipe:
I left off the chocolate coating, which can hide a variety of flaws. The picture I used was using the recipe from "Wilde in the Kitchen," where she does a good job of explaining the details. Something was wrong, but what?

In confectionery, it's important to know what the different components are meant to do. She uses gelatin as a foam stabilizer, but it ends up forming jello-strands that stick to the spoon used to incorporate it and it really isn't necessary, as others have succeeded without it. The amount of sugar simply decides the size of batch. The amount of corn syrup (or other adulterant) need only be enough to prevent crystallization; the amount needn't be precise. The water added just gets boiled off. The biggest concern is the amount of baking soda used; if it doesn't solubilize, it doesn't react and there's very little water in the candy when incorporated - I'm certain that far less can be used and probably should be added after disolved in water (an experiment yet to be tried).

The key to what went wrong is the color. Most failures have the same rather pretty orange hue. After eliminating a dozen possibilities, what I found was that the burner on my oven has a hot spot. At 310 degrees, one has hard candy, at 320 one has caramelized sugar. My thermometer was reading the appropriate temperature, but the opposite side of the pan was caramelizing and the reaction quickly carries through the solution.

I think I'm only one or two batches away from perfection now.

So what does this have to do with running? Most marathoners follow schedules written by some self-proclaimed expert. If it doesn't work, they try different ones until they find one that works. Then they claim that that is the only route to success. My sponge candy endeavors have shown that the specifics of a recipe aren't terribly important; similarly, the details of a training schedule aren't that important. You just have to know what each bit is supposed to do and have at least the minimum of each. The key to success in either running or confectionery is being certain that you're actually following the plan, rather than missing important points.


Glaven Q. Heisenberg said...

What are the chances that an obsessively compulsive tinkerer - such as, say ... you - would come to the conclusion that the secret to success both in candy-making and running, if not in life in general, is to obsessively and compulsively tinker with things that didn't work the first two (or twenty-seven) times.

Buy it broke then fix it yourself? That may be groovy for you, but not me, man! Something either works for me the first time ... or I move right along! Ask any of my twelve ex-wives.

Man, nice bait and switch: Lure us in with pix of candy, then turn the confab to running.

Shame on you!

Anonymous said...

This is some pretty good advice -

Michael Henze

Jean said...

Great post, Steve! I think a similar thing can be said for working with sourdough, as I have found when making my pizzas!

Glaven Q. Heisenberg said...

Phils signed Thome to a 1-year contract.

Rumor is we're after Cuddyer now ...