8 Odd Things You Can Candy, From Beets to Vanilla Beans

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Candied things are special. By cooking in a simple syrup and then drying, the moisture is removed and replaced with sugar which acts to preserve that which is being candied. The flavor is both sweetened and smoothed out, and the texture transformed. And it's a great way to use up kitchen bits that would otherwise go to waste, like empty vanilla pods and citrus peels.

Candied components imbue desserts with a shot of magic, and if you like mixing up your sweet and spicy flavors, candied things can be your sneaky ally. Think candied cayenne pepitas atop pumpkin bread pudding, or spiced candied beet chips over goat cheese cheesecake. For candied citrus peels, like the ones pictured above, use any basic recipe but add a dose of chili powder to the mix and you may never go back to plain old sweet again.

Typically, granulated sugar is used in cooking, and most items respond well to a sugar-dusting when drying. But I like to employ more wholesome sweeteners for the cooking task; Sucanat, maple syrup, and honey can all be used to nice effect. (For the sake of simplicity, granulated sugar is listed in the recipes below, but I encourage trying natural sweeteners too.) If I'm going to dust for the drying, I usually cave in to a quick roll in (organic) granulated sugar, it results in a sparkling finish that incites reverie and a texture hard to achieve otherwise.

Although typical candying candidates include citrus peel, violet, ginger, and pineapple, there's a whole world of other morsels out there that perform perfectly when drenched in sugar. Here are some of my favorites, some not that unusual, and some which may seem strange, but are really wonderful.

1. Kumquats

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Candied kumquats do funny things to me. They're like candied citrus peels, but include some pulp and are thus more flavorful and have a divine texture, more like poached fruit. Heavenly. Use them on salads, fish and meat (if you swing that way), crepes, ice cream, cakes, or my favorite, a big tangle of them on top of chocolate mousse. Add cayenne powder for a perky kick.

  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 20 kumquats, sliced and seeded

In a saucepan bring sugar and water to boil, stirring until sugar has dissolved. Increase heat to a boil. Add kumquats and return to boil before reducing heat to a simmer. Cook for about 20 minutes; until the kumquats are tender and liquid is thick. Transfer to bowl and let cool. Store in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

2. Vanilla Bean

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If you use fresh vanilla in the kitchen, you may end up with a surplus of empty pods, which you can candy! It preserves them for marvelous later use, and bonus byproduct: Vanilla syrup for cocktails or cream soda.

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • vanilla beans

In a saucepan bring sugar and water to boil, stirring until sugar has dissolved. Add scraped vanilla pods and remove pan from heat, allowing to cool for 30 minutes. Remove vanilla pods from liquid, which you can now use as a vanilla-scented simple syrup. Preheat oven to 200 degrees. Trim pods and slice into long slivers, lightly roll them in sugar and lay them on a baking sheet lined with parchment. Bake until dry, remove from oven, transfer to a rack and cool completely.

3. Horseradish

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If ginger is so popular, why not other spicy roots? Candied horseradish can be put to work in desserts (pictured here with beet sorbet) or savory dishes, like as a sweet spicy garnish on smoky vegetables, rice dishes or beet soup.

  • fresh horseradish
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • pinch of salt

Scrub horseradish until it's clean and cut into two inch strips about 1/4 inch thick. Cook in boiling water with a pinch of salt for 15 minutes, or until tender.and cook until tender. Drain. Put water and sugar in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Add horseradish and create a low simmer, stirring regularly, cook until syrup is thick. Remove horseradish slivers, coat with sugar, and allow to dry. Store in an airtight container.

4. Beet Chips

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The beet's natural sweetness make this one a natural, and its earthiness makes it good for both savory and sweet garnishing. Grand to go on top of soup, salads, or for fluttering across the awesome chocolate beet cake.

  • 4 baby beets, sliced very thin
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 1/2 cup sugar

In a saucepan bring sugar and water to boil, stirring until sugar has dissolved. Increase heat to a boil. Add beets and return to boil before reducing heat to a simmer. Cook for about 30 minutes; until the beets are somewhat translucent and liquid is thick. Preheat the oven to 250 degrees and transfer the beets to a baking sheet lined with parchment, bake until firm, about an hour. Transfer to rack and cool completely.

5. Herb Flowers and Leaves

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Candied rose petals and violets, like those above, go way back, but I like to put a spin on that and candy herb flowers and leaves instead. Candied lavender flowers? Candied sage blooms? Candied rosemary leaves? They are wacky and wonderful. Perfect on sweet or savory dishes, and fun for botanically-minded cocktails. (While you're at it, consider candying any of these: 42 Flowers You Can Eat.)

  • Unsprayed herb blossoms or leaves
  • 1 large egg white
  • 1 cup superfine sugar

Make sure leaves or blooms are completely dry. Beat the egg white in a small bowl until blended and brush both sides of each flower or leaf with it, then dip in sugar. Put the flowers/leaves on wire racks and let dry in a cool, dry place for 2-3 hours or overnight. Store in an airtight container for up to a year.

6. Strawberries Chips

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Candied strawberries add a sweet and bright crunchy pop to cakes, pastries, pancakes, cereal, whatever you can think of...

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 10 strawberries, rinsed and hulled

In a saucepan bring sugar and water to boil, stirring until sugar has dissolved and then let cool completely. Preheat oven to 200 degrees. Slice strawberries lengthwise as thinly as possible. Dip slices in cooled syrup and lay them on a baking sheet lined with parchment. Bake until dry but still bright red, about 2 hours. Remove from oven, transfer chips to a rack and cool completely.

7. Pumpkin Seeds

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Hulled pumpkin seeds, known as pepitas, take to sweet and spicy like most nuts do, but even better somehow. Topping just about anything with them improves it mightily. I use them on all of my pumpkin desserts and savory squash dishes (butternut risotto, curry pumpkin soup, etc.)

  • 1 cup pepitas
  • 1/4 cup maple syrup
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • pinch salt
  • black, cayenne, or red pepper flakes to taste

Toss the seeds in syrup, salt and pepper and lay on a lightly oiled baking sheet. Roast at 300 degrees, turning occasionally, until golden and caramelized, about 20 minutes. Remove, sprinkle with brown sugar and more seasonings to taste, transfer seeds to a cooling rack and cool.

8. Ginger

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Candied ginger is pretty well-known and not necessarily that surprising, but it's one of the most versatile of all candied things, so it's included here. It can be used to top baked goods, like the vegan gingerbread cupcakes with lemon frosting pictured here (sigh), stirred in vanilla ice cream, and especially as a chewy fruity moment in spicy rice pilafs or salads, think of it as an exotic swap for raisins. And the syrup: Save it for cocktails, ginger ale, waffles, what have you.

  • 1 pound fresh ginger, peeled, sliced as thinly as possible
  • 4 cups sugar
  • 4 cups water
  • pinch of salt

Put the ginger slices and salt in a saucepan, add enough water to cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and let ginger simmer for ten minutes. Drain, and repeat. Empty the pot and add the 4 cups water with sugar and ginger slices, and cook until boiling. Reduce heat and let simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and strain ginger slices out (reserving syrup for homemade ginger ale, ice cream sauce, cocktails, or whatever else you can dream up). Toss the slices in sugar, shake off excess and dry on racks until cool.

Tags: Cooking | Fruits & Vegetables | Recipes | Vegan | Vegetarian