"Your family still makes hard tack? I didn't know anyone still made that!"
Inevitably, every year when one of us Gansters hands out our hardtack candy for a Christmas gift, we get this reaction.
Yes, we do still make hardtack candy and we do it together. Although none of us remember exactly when it became a Ganster family tradition, we know we've been making it for at least 20-some years.
It started as an all-day event when we would gather to cut down our Christmas trees, then go to my parents' house to make the candy. Over the years, as my parents got older and we all went to the ease of artificial trees, the candy-making part stuck.
And over the years, we have changed the cast of characters as the third-generation grew and brought friends and significant others. Sadly, we lost the biggest kid and candy-sampler of all -- my dad, Bill Ganster -- in 2008.
The tradition may have been a bit unsure then, but my dad loved making candy with his grandkids so much, we knew we had to carry on in his honor.
This past Sunday, we gathered at the Richland home of my mom, Dolly Ganster: my sister and brother-in-law, Betty Ann and Dave Alchier, of Bakerstown; my 30-year-old niece, Valerie Alchier, also of Bakerstown; my nephew, William Alchier, 28, of Bethel Park; and my crew -- my children Eliza, 23, of Aspinwall; Kenton, 21, a junior at Duquesne living on the South Side; and Cole, 18; plus my husband, Paul Sauers, and I, all of Hampton. My son's friend, Stef, of Uniontown, came as well as our family friend, Casey Carr, 20, of Hampton.
Not a large crowd by some family's standards, but the key players in our family.
My mom has a large slab of marble that serves as the base for the candy as it is poured, lava hot, for scoring before we break it into bite-sized (more or less) pieces. She also has all the other essential equipment: two large, heavy aluminum pans (that my mom says are at least 50 years old), an industrial-sized pizza cutter that looks like something from a horror movie, and the candy thermometer. The marble has been around as long as I can remember and this year, my sister found another slab in my dad's workshop. Since the marble retains heat, having two slabs ensures one is cool enough for the candy, making the process quicker. You could easily make the candy on a cookie sheet, but it wouldn't be nearly as much fun.
Mom always buys the flavors a couple of weeks in advance after consulting my sister and me on favorites. I personally don't care what we get as long as there is cinnamon, my favorite. Usually we have five to six flavors, each made separately.
The marble sits on the well-covered dining room table and everyone mans their stations as Mom stands by the stove and stirs the ingredients, carefully watching the temperature as it boils and reaches the right stage. Then we hear, "Heads up everyone, here I come!"
My little white-haired, 82-year-old mother with the hot bowl comes through, all of us parting like she is royalty She tilts the pan over the marble and one of us helps scoop the hot candy syrup out. You may ask why one of us younger folks doesn't take over that part. No one dares.
The work on our end begins as we shape the liquid into a large rectangle, keeping it from pouring off the sides; then as it begins to solidify, one of us scores the pieces with the above-mentioned monster pizza cutter and we all break off large pieces, then break those down. The candy has to be cut quickly before it hardens.
Pieces are tossed into a large bowl filled with powdered sugar. Next, the candy is scooped out of the sugar and into a colander or slotted spoon so the excess sugar falls off.
Many hands are needed. Since there usually is a Steelers game on in the adjoining living room and plenty of snacks, some do tend to wander off. I'm not mentioning any names here.
This year we made tutti-frutti, buttered rum, peppermint, orange, lemon, and of course, my cinnamon. Since cinnamon is so strong and scents the whole neighborhood, over the years we have learned to leave it for last.
At the end of the day, we weigh the candy. This year we made about 15 pounds --enough for us to divide up for a few gifts each, packaged in decorative bags.
That chore done, we order pizzas for a family meal before we part ways.
Another year of candy making done, another year of Ganster family candy making in our hearts. Thanks, Mom.
3 3/4 cups white sugar
1 1/2 cups light corn syrup
1 cup water
2 drams Lorann Flavoring (approximately 2 teaspoons flavoring)
Food coloring as desired
Mix the sugar, corn syrup and water in a large saucepan. Stir over medium heat until the sugar dissolves. Boil, without stirring, until temperature reaches 300 degrees or until drop of syrup forms hard, brittle threads in cold water. Remove from heat. After boiling has ceased, stir in flavoring and coloring and pour into lightly greased cookie sheets. Cool and sprinkle on powdered sugar, if desired, break into pieces. Store in airtight containers. Makes approximately 2 pounds of candy.
-- Lorann Oils
Kathleen Ganster: firstname.lastname@example.org.