My grandmother lived in a small town in Arkansas, the town where my father grew up. She died when I was six, so my memories of her are somewhat limited. But those I do have are vivid to me, though undoubtedly burnished through the patina of time. I particularly remember visiting her with my brother in early summers, when we had relatively free reign of the area around the house.
Right across the little, barely used road by her house was a guest house, constructed by occupants of the German prisoner of war camp on my grandfather’s land during the Second World War. Before it was filled in, there was a long-defunct pool behind this little house, where we’d find huge bullfrogs and watch electric blue dragonflies and spindly waterbugs skim across the water. In the garden, there was a tree with a branch that reached out to make a perfect U shape, like the tree was showing off the muscles in its arm. This was a perfect perch for me when I was only little. It was low enough to the ground that I could hoist myself up on my own, but high enough that my legs would swing when I got situated. Before I could climb into my perch, though, we’d have to pick off the shed shells of June bugs that clung to the tree bark, new ones every day. These perfect little translucent bug bodies that a June bug just woke up and walked straight out of. I think my brother collected them and created his own little exoskeleton army in the perfect, private, little round of grass between the tree and the hedge where we hid our treasures.
My grandmother’s kitchen had terracotta tiles on the floor and I remember a big piece of dark wood furniture, a chifferobe maybe, with drawers. In those drawers, my grandmother stashed candy and we always took delight in the feeling that we were sneaking, though I imagine she put it there for us intentionally. She must have noticed the ever-diminishing size of the stash when the grandkids were around. I particularly recall those orange slice candies, the bright orange, sticky things covered with granulated sugar, soft like a gumdrop, shaped like an orange segment and uniquely flavored with “orange”. You know, that flavor that tastes nothing like orange, but if given something to eat blindfolded, you’d immediately recognize the taste as orange, the way “green apple” tastes nothing like apple, but is a flavor unto itself.
Those candies are a little hard to find now, usually relegated to the penny candy aisle of convenience stores, or in some old-fashioned market. I went a good thirty years after my grandmother died without really even thinking about them until one day at the little country produce shop in town, I saw a bag hanging on by the checkout stand. I saved that bag until just the right time, when I could savor the taste and see if those candies are what I remembered. They are, and the taste transported me to my childhood, I don’t buy them often, but save the idea for special days, though some years ago I came across some orange slices in the grocery, and remembered a few short, poorly written recipes in 1950s cookbooks for “orange gumdrop cookies,” so I set to tedious work trying to create an edible memory, which is now a special treat, like a solid, chewy slice of my childhood, served with a cold glass of sweet milk.
Orange Slice Candy Squares
Cutting the orange candy is a bit of a job, but in the end you’ll get a bar that is tooth-stickingly chewy and sweet like the candy they come from.
1 pound orange slice candy
1 pound brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
Pinch of salt
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for the candy
Powdered sugar for dusting
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line a 9 by 13 inch brownie ban with parchment, or my preference, non-stick foil, leaving some overhang to lift out the bars later.
First you have to cut the orange candy into small pieces. There are two ways to do this – by hand or in the food processor. The food processor is easier, but may be a bit alarming at first. Dip the blade of the food processor in flour, the sprinkle 1 Tablespoon flour in the bottom. Dump in the candy, then sprinkle over another Tablespoon of flour. Start pulsing the processor in medium bursts. The machine is going to shake around, so hold on to it. At some point, it may slow down, but that’s okay. Stop the processor and take a pair of scissors dipped in flour and snip any large pieces into smaller ones. Give it a few more pulses, then snip the rest. To cut the candy by hand, fill a small glass with flour, dip the scissors into it and start snipping, dipping the scissors frequently to keep the candy from sticking. This will take quite awhile. But now you’ve done the hard part.
With a hand mixer, or in the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the eggs until well blended, then dump in the sugar. Beat on medium until the mixture is pale tan and the sugar is no longer looks granular. Add the vanilla and salt and beat, then slowly beat in the flour until completely mixed. Dump in the candy pieces and beat until they are well distributed. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 30 – 40 minutes, until the top is crusty and a tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Loosely cover the top with foil halfway through baking to prevent over-browning.
Cool in the pan for a few minutes, then lift the bar onto a wire rack using the overhangin foil or parchment. When cool, cut off the edges as they will have become hard, then cut into small squares. Dust the squares with powdered sugar, doing your best to get some on the sticky sides. These will keep for several days in an airtight container. They get better with time.
Makes 30 small squares