(published in The Agony Column, newsletter for the Maud Hart Lovelace Society)


by Theresa Jarosz Alberti

“The banana splits proving insufficient, they made fudge.”    Heaven to Betsy

Anyone who’s read the Betsy-Tacy books knows that fudge was important… betsy-trunkmaybe not quite as important as boys, but in the realm of cuisine, fudge ranks up there with onion sandwiches and cocoa in a pail.  Maud loved to add food into her descriptions of events and gatherings, and fudge was popular enough to be mentioned over 25 times in the series!

Recently, in a fit of curiosity and probably hunger, I went on a little research-dig about fudge—why was it so important in the Tomes?  What was its history?  And more importantly, could I actually make fudge the way The Crowd did—not cheating with my usual marshmallow crème, but the old fashioned method?

I discovered that fudge has a short history, but with an interesting Betsy-Tacy tie-in.  The exact origin of fudge isn’t entirely clear.  There is some speculation that that fudge may have a link to Scottish tablet, a non-chocolate candy made from butter, sugar, sweetened condensed milk and vanilla.  Tablet has a more brittle and grainy texture than fudge, and has been around since the early 18th century.  There is also speculation that the first fudge may have resulted from a botched batch of caramels.

The first documented mention of fudge comes from Emelyn Battersby Hartridge, a student of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York (the college attended by Carney Sibley, and mentioned extensively in Carney’s House Party).  A letter written by Emelyn was found in the college archives, and revealed that her schoolmate’s cousin had made fudge in 1886 in Baltimore and sold it for 40 cents a pound.  Emelyn requested the recipe in 1888 and made 30 pounds of fudge for the Vassar Senior Auction.  Fudge became immediately popular and spread to other women’s colleges; later, Smith and Wellesley developed their own recipes for the confection.

The original recipe for fudge contains just 4 ingredients:  sugar, cream, unsweetened chocolate and butter.  The recipe looks simple, but without proper care—attention to measurements, temperature and constant stirring—it’s easy to overcook or undercook a batch.  The availability of candy thermometers has simplified the process, as well as the development of “no-fail” recipes using ingredients such as sweetened condensed milk or marshmallow crème (which provide structure to the recipe without relying on just the crystallization of the sugar).

This brings me to the cooking portion of this article:  yes I did make fudge according to Emelyn’s recipe, which is most likely the recipe that The Crowd in Deep Valley used years later.  We can’t know for sure why fudge was so popular in the Tomes, but my guess is that it was a quick sweet treat they could whip up easily with basic kitchen staples.  One of the key aspects of making fudge is boiling the mixture to a “soft-ball” stage (234 to 238 degrees F).  The traditional method of determining this is by dripping a bit of the mixture into cold water and seeing if a soft ball forms.  Even though I’m sure this is the method that our friends in Deep Valley used, I did use a candy thermometer and thanked modern conveniences!  No molten dripping mixture for me.

I was worried about leaving behind my no-fail recipe, but I found the Vassar version pretty simple, and the fudge turned out great!  It is less creamy than my marshmallow crème fudge, slightly grainy (but not unpleasant) and very densely chocolate.  I was happily surprised, and it was devoured at a party I attended the next day.

Here’s the recipe, if you’d like to give it a try.  Notes from me are added in italics.  Enjoy!

The “Original” Fudge Recipe

–From Emelyn B. Hartridge of Vassar College

2 cups granulated white sugar
1 cup cream
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
1 tablespoon butter

Additional butter for pan

Butter an 8” x 8” pan.  Combine sugar and cream and cook over moderate heat.  When this becomes very hot, add the chocolate. Stir constantly.  Cook until mixture reaches soft-ball stage (234 – 238 degrees, this took about 10 minutes).  Remove from heat and add butter.  Cool slightly, then mix until the fudge starts to thicken (stir thoroughly for 2-3 minutes).  Transfer to a buttered tin.  Cut into diamond-shaped pieces before fudge hardens completely.  If cooling on a doorstep, beware of thieves.

Additional fudge-making tips:  use a wooden spoon for stirring, and never put a candy thermometer directly into the boiling mixture.  First heat it in a cup of very hot water, then move it into the hot candy mixture until it reaches the desired temperature. Similarly, place it back in the hot water and allow it to cool down gradually.