As the countdown to the Easter holidays is under way, the Cayman Weekender continues to explore how to make Cayman candies and sweets that will evoke a feeling of nostalgia. Younger generations can learn the old ways of making local sweets so that the tradition is kept alive.
This week we visit the backyard of Rose Myles, who has been making peppermint candies for “26 lovely years,” she says. Ms. Rose learned her craft from her mother, Ms. Lorna, and her aunt, Ms. Laline, both experts in this tradition.
“I make them just as good as my mother,” Ms. Rose says.
Although Ms. Rose actually prefers chocolate to peppermint candies, the sweets are beloved across the island. Little bags of the shiny white peppermints are available in pharmacies and gas stations and are highly sought-after by schoolchildren in particular.
“My sweets even reach England and New York!” Ms. Rose says proudly, such is the passion for these rock-hard, minty delights.
Secret to success
Ms. Rose believes the secret to success is the peppermint oil which infuses the sweets with its distinctive flavor. Not to be confused with peppermint essence, a far weaker peppermint that is used in baking and easily found in grocery stores, peppermint oil is a more concentrated form and can only be purchased at pharmacies. Ms. Rose says a small bottle can be expensive, so she prefers to get hers from Jamaica. She also believes that her peppermint candies are so popular because she refuses to add any additives, such as color, to her sweets.
“People try and make me add red coloring to make them look like shop-bought peppermints, but I believe it dilutes the flavor,” she says, preferring to leave the candies in their natural white and shiny form.
Peppermint oil is derived from the peppermint plant, a cross between water mint and spearmint, found in Europe and North America. While the oil is a popular flavoring for food and a fragrance in soaps and other cleansers and cosmetics, it is also thought to have healthy benefits.
Research has found that peppermint oil may relieve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and indigestion and can be used to treat skin ailments as well. It is said to be very helpful in digestion as it has a carminative property of expelling gas from the stomach or intestines to relieve flatulence, abdominal pain or distension.
“If I have a sore belly, I always pop a peppermint candy in my mouth,” Ms. Rose says.
The menthol in peppermint oil has also been found to provide relief from cold and flu symptoms, such as nasal congestion, and is a main ingredient in many chest rubs to help relieve congestion.
How to make peppermint candies
- 8 oz water
- 5 lbs sugar
- A few drops of fresh lime juice (for a softer peppermint candy add a few more drops of lime juice. This quantity makes hard candies.)
- A few drops of peppermint oil (Ms. Rose swears by the Ayrtons brand from Jamaica)
Be warned, making peppermint candies is not for the fainthearted and requires heat-proof hands and strong arm muscles. Ms. Rose also suggests making a batch early in the morning when it’s still cool, as the effort of working with the warm mix heats up the body quickly.
First. boil the sugar, water and lime in a big pot for one hour to allow all the sugar to dissolve and create a nice thick consistency. Then pour the mixture into a greased baking pan that is sitting over a bath pan filled with ice water. Set the baking pan in the bath pan to enable the hot sugary mix to cool so it can be handled. The mixture will be quite brown at this point. While it’s cooling, Ms. Rose continually works the mix with a spoon so it gets a pliable dough-like consistency.
“It needs to come together and stop running,” she advises.
After the mix has cooled somewhat (but is still very warm), pull it in the traditional method, which involves throwing the mixture onto a large nail hammered in a board on a wall and then pulling it about twenty times. The pulling of the candy is similar to pulling taffy. This final step is very important: stretching it out and folding it in half, then stretching and folding again, repeatedly, since the pulling action aerates the mix, incorporating lots of tiny air bubbles throughout the candy. This makes the final product lighter and less dense, ensuring a melt-in-the-mouth candy.
At this stage, Ms. Rose bores a little well in the gradually hardening mixture and then adds a few drops of peppermint oil to the mix. She pulls it about five more times to incorporate the oil “until I can smell the peppermint running all through the candy.”
Once Ms. Rose is happy with the color of the mix (it should now be pure white), she takes it off the nail and lays it out on a floured surface (to avoid the mixture sticking) that is covered in clean plastic. She stretches the mix by hand and pulls it into long, sausage-like strands. She then cuts the peppermint mix into small pieces of candy using a strong pair of scissors.
The end result is a hard, flavor-filled candy that melts surprisingly quickly in the mouth. Candies are either consumed straight away, especially by Ms. Rose’s grandchildren, or bagged for sale.
They will last in the fridge for a long while and retain their firm structure. Out of the fridge they may become softer and flatter, but it’s unlikely you will have them sitting around for very long!