What would Christmas be without candy canes, those sweet, peppermint-flavored, sticks of red and white hard candy deliciousness? But what is their origin, and how did they come to be associated with Christmas?
There are many popular explanations for the origin of candy canes, and all of them sound plausible. Depending on who you ask, you may hear that the canes are meant to be a letter J, for “Jesus,” that the white color stands for purity while the red stripes represent the stripes on Christ’s back when he was beaten before the crucifixion, that the hardness represents the church’s strong foundation, or that the peppermint flavor harkens back to hyssop, a sacred Old Testament herb. While any or all of these meanings can easily be applied to make the candy more meaningful, the truth is actually much simpler.
Starting in about the 17th Century, when sugar became more widespread thanks to trade with the “New World,” European confectioners began producing hard candy sticks. At that time, anything made with sugar was still considered a treat, and mostly reserved for special occasions (such as Christmas). Eventually, parishes began giving the hard candy sticks to children during advent to keep them quiet during service. These versions were bent at on end to resemble a shepherd’s crook and, by extension, a bishop’s crosier.
These first “candy canes” were not flavored, but were made from plain sugar. Over time, in countries where Christmas trees were popular, people found that the candy canes made the perfect edible decoration. The crook at the top of them held them in place on the tree’s limbs. Candy canes remained this way — plain white and unflavored — until the first half of the 20th Century, when stripes and peppermint flavoring were added.
Today, candy canes can come in many colors and flavors, from traditional peppermint to fruit-flavored, chocolate, and more. The following is a recipe to make your own candy canes at home, plus a few recipes using candy canes:
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup white corn syrup
1/2 cup of water
1 teaspoon of peppermint extract
A few drops red food coloring
Place all ingredients into a saucepan. Boil without stirring until it reaches the soft crack stage (285°F, measured with a candy thermometer). Remove from heat. Divide candy in two parts. To one part, add a little red food coloring. Pour onto a buttered surface. When cool enough, pull each separately, then twist one around the other. Cut into 6″ sections, form them into canes, and allow them to harden.
Candy Cane Fudge
2 10-oz. packages vanilla baking chips
1 14-oz. can sweetened condensed milk
1/2 teaspoon peppermint extract
1 1/2 cups crushed candy canes
Line a square, 8” baking pan with greased aluminum foil. In a saucepan over medium heat, combine the vanilla chips and sweetened condensed milk, stirring frequently. When almost melted, remove from heat and continue to stir until smooth. Stir in the peppermint extract and candy canes. Spread evenly in the bottom of the prepared pan and chill for at least two hours. Cut into squares and serve.
1 cup all purpose flour
1/4 cup cocoa
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon peppermint extract
2 cups powdered sugar
12 large candy canes, crushed
Preheat the oven to 350° F. In a bowl, sift together flour, cocoa, baking soda, and salt. Set aside. In a measuring cup, stir together 3/4 cup milk, and vanilla. Set aside. Using an electric mixer, cream together the brown sugar and 1/4 cup of the butter. Add the egg and reduce speed to low. Add about a quarter of the combined dry ingredients and a third of milk mixture and beat together. Repeat until all ingredients have been thoroughly and a smooth batter forms. Using a tablespoon, portion out mounds of batter, spaced about 2” apart, on parchment-lined cookie sheets. Bake for 11 min. Transfer the baked shells to a wire rack to cool. Using a mixer, whip together 1/2 cup of butter, until fluffy. Add mint extract and 2 tablespoons milk. With the mixer on low, gradually add powdered sugar. Beat until fluffy. Fold 1/4 cup crushed candy canes into the filling. Using level tablespoons, top half of the shells with icing, then add a second shell to create a sandwich. Be sure to spread the filling to the edges of each. Roll the edges of each whoopie pie in the remaining crushed candy canes, and serve.