“Remember, remember, the 5th November: gunpowder, treason and plot” is about the only thing people recall from key stage 3 history lessons. Well, that and “Richard of York gave battle in vain”, which doesn’t really count now that I think of it.
Ask any child in year 8 around this time of year and they’ll tell you that bonfire night commemorates the date that Guy Fawkes – an aggrieved Catholic intent on overthrowing the anti-Catholic James I – was caught under the houses of parliament holding a lit match atop a mountain of gunpowder, practicing his best ‘wasn’t me, guv!’ expression. Luckily for the king, he was caught in the nick of time and marched off to the Tower of London to be, er, questioned.
It’s often the torture – sorry, questioning – part that’s the most memorable (for 12 year olds, at least.) All that stuff with the rack and deformed signatures on forced confessions just really seems to focus year 8’s. Illegal methodology aside, Guy Fawkes was found guilty of treason and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered on 31st January 1606.
Well… no. For a start, it wasn’t Guy Fawkes who came up with the plot to blow up the king and houses of parliament. That was the brainchild of Robert Catesby – an influential and wealthy man from a Catholic family who had watched his father and brother in law imprisoned for their faith.
Enraged by years of persecution (and perhaps harbouring a desire for more power), Catesby scouted out a band of like minded rebels and managed to rent out the cellar directly under the houses of parliament. Convenient, right? They spent the next few months gradually filling the space with 36 barrels of premium grade gunpowder and then waited patiently for the right time.
Of course, this situation raises questions about the competency of James’ security; for a notoriously paranoid king, it seems crazy to think that his guards didn’t perform regular checks on the contents of the cellars underneath the most important building in England.
Anyway, poor Guy Fawkes was given the job of lighting the fuse and then legging it like crazy to Europe, safe in the knowledge of a job well done. Meanwhile another plotter, Sir Everard Digby, was due to abduct the king’s daughter at the time of the explosion and install her as puppet queen who the Catholics could control. Unfortunately for Guy Fawkes et al, the plot was uncovered at the last minute and the plotters were exposed, eventually captured and executed.
But is that the truth?
As I said, it seems crazy to assume the government didn’t know about 36 barrels of gunpowder quietly festering just feet below the nobs and nobesses of the land (but not really the nobesses, thanks to a no ladies rule). And in fact, it’s just that: crazy. Sure, James I might not have known about it himself but there are strong arguments to suggest his first minister Robert Cecil did and was keeping a close eye. In fact, an anonymous letter warning one MP to stay away from parliament on the fated night ended up in the hands of Cecil as early as 26th October, yet he chose not to act straight away. Perhaps he was waiting for the plot to continue until he could gather enough evidence to be certain of executions or, for the cynical observer, to catch the plotters at the eleventh hour to make himself and the government appear even more heroic to the public.
And so we gather by every year to remember Guy Fawke’s ill-fated foray into arson by watching a human shaped sack of hay burn on a giant bonfire while children sit on their parents’ shoulders, whining for hot dogs and toffee apples.
It was, wasn’t it?
The term ‘toffee’ traditionally just referred to boiled sugar rather than the creamy, individually wrapped sweets grandmas keep in their pockets. Toffee apples’ simplicity and cheapness makes them a decent money spinner for food vendors on bonfire night, but also a family friendly treat; children can replenish the ebbing sugar rush of Halloween, and parents can soothe their own guilt with the knowledge that somewhere underneath the sugar and syrup is a lump of fruit. The trouble with this bargain, of course, is that most kids throw their toffee apples away once the hard sugary layer has been nibbled off to reveal a disconcertingly mushy apple on a stick.
The idea of preserving fruit in syrup or sugar is as old as time; the ancient Egyptians used honey to preserve all manner of things from food to, er, dead bodies. Toffee apples, while not quite as old as ancient Egypt, made use of that great tradition in a cheap and useful way by ensuring that the final few apple harvests of late October wouldn’t go to waste.
The Oxford Companion to Food suggests the phrase ‘toffee apple’ first crops up in a food context when the BEF Times mentioned them in its 1917 Christmas edition. However, as author Alan Davidson points out, the invention of the 2 inch medium mortar, nicknamed ‘the toffee apple’ in 1915 suggests the sweet treat was already well established in Britain.
What about the recipes?
Popular theory suggests that candy apples (please note the careful wording there!) were the invention of American sweet manufacturer William Kolb who – like Isaac Newton himself – was struck by inspiration when an apple accidentally dropped into a vat of boiling sugar syrup. Okay, maybe not exactly like Isaac Newton. Regardless, Kolb immediately saw the potential to make cash and rot teeth and lo, the toffee apple was born.
Kolb’s invention may have come in 1908, but the first printed recipe for anything resembling a toffee apple wasn’t published until around 1919 (if you have an earlier one please let me know!) It appeared in American book Rigby’s Reliable Candy Teacher under the less crowd pleasing name ‘Apples on a stick’.
Take small apples and stick in each one at the top, a small wooden skewer, such as butchers use to pin roasts. Now cook a batch of Molasses Taffy to 280 degress F. Then dip the apple in the hot batch so as to cover it completely. Let the surplus syrup drip off, then stand them on a slab until cold.Rigby’s Reliable Candy Teacher, W.O. Rigby, 1919.
A 1908 recipe for molasses taffy read thusly:
…for molasses taffy boil to the soft ball 1 quart of New Orleans molasses, 1 tablespoonful of granulated sugar. Now stir in 2 tablespoonfuls of vinegar, ¼ pound of butter, and boil until it becomes hard and brittle in cold water. Just before removing from the fire stir in ¼ teaspoonful of soda dissolved in hot water and pull.Household discoveries: an encyclopaedia of practical recipes and processes, Sidney Morse, 1908.
First I began by making my molasses taffy – an American term for a chewy toffee. I scaled down the sizes and boiled molasses with sugar until it hit 116 degrees Celsius: soft ball stage. Once that had been achieved I threw in some vinegar and butter and boiled it to 146 degrees Celsius: hard crack stage. Then, I dipped a green apple into the mixture and coated it well.
The apples looked impressively sleek and dark. True, they did also look a little like the poisoned apple in Snow White – kind of black and oozing – but even so, still quite magnificent.
Unfortunately though they didn’t taste or feel anything like what I thought of when I thought of toffee apples. I had wanted a satisfying crack to the shell but these were still slightly chewy (though I think that was down to my dodgy thermometer reading.) I’d also hoped for a sweet tangy flavour, whereas these were decidedly more bitter in a treacly kind of way.
So I tried again, this time with a recipe from 1924 for ‘Lollipop Apples‘.
Select very small red apples, wash and dry them, put a stick or skewer in each, and dip them in the glace.Mrs. Allen on Cooking, Menus, Service, Ida C. Baley Allen, 1924.
[To make glace] 1 pound sugar, 1/8 pound cream of tartar, 2/3 cupful water. Place all the ingredients in a small saucepan, stir only until the sugar has dissolved, then cook to 320 degrees.
This was more like it. I selected the reddest apples I could find and once my sugar had reached the hard crack stage, dipped the fruit in carefully.
They certainly looked the part as I hung them from a tray to harden: red, glossy, and with a very satisfying tap when I knocked my knuckle against one. They tasted much better too, exactly as I remembered them from my childhood: first a sugary, caramelised sweetness as I bit into the shell and then a slightly sour type of sweetness from the apple. Unlike my childhood self, though, I found I actually wanted to finish my apple even after the sugar had been eaten. Hooray for personal growth!
I know that this year’s bonfire night is different to the bonfire night we might have hoped for but for those of us staying in tonight, I recommend giving these a go; they were truly delicious and comfortingly nostalgic. And hey, maybe if enough of us make them then next year when I ask year 8 what they know about bonfire night they’ll surprise me with a comprehensive historiography of toffee apples instead of the usual!
450g granulated sugar
56g cream of tartar
155 ml water
- Place the sugar, cream of tartar and water in a pan and heat until it is boiling. Swill, don’t stir the pan.
- While the sugar is melting, skewer the apples from top to bottom with wooden skewers. Make sure the skewer goes through the full length of the apple.
- When the temperature reaches 146 degrees C, turn the heat off.
- Quickly dip the apples, one at a time, into the sugar until they are evenly coated all over.
- Place the apples on greaseproof paper and allow to harden for several minutes.