For many, the holiday season would not be complete without special candy and sweets to eat. For Betty Dirks of Hillsboro, even better than eating sweet candy brittle is seeing it crack as it quickly cools in the pan.
“You have to work very fast to make it spread even when it is time to pour it out,” Dirks said. “It sets up almost instantly and you can’t use tools, that might break the bubbles and you want the bubbles in there.”
Dirks used special hand motions Saturday to show how she twisted and tapped her brittle baking pans to crack the cooled candy.
With almost 60 years experience making peanut brittle and similar varieties, she is an undoubtable expert. Dirks formerly owned Betty’s Delights in Hillsboro and made 60 pounds of candy per day.
“That was when I had to supply other stores,” she said. “Now I just make it as a hobby for friends and family, and to sell a bit at Christmas.”
While Dirks declined to give out all of her trade secrets, she said her original brittle recipe was passed to her through her husband’s aunt.
“It’s a family recipe, but I, of course, have made little changes through the years to make it better,” she said.
Dirks makes original brittle with peanuts, but has added several variations now popular with regular Christmas customers.
“I make cashew brittle, almond, coconut, peanut-coconut, and coffee,” she said. “I just started with the coffee brittle this year and people really like it.”
Her typical brittle recipe contains syrup, sugar, water, butter, vanilla, and baking soda, but Dirks said the secret to making good brittle was in the mixing process.
“You have to be careful to keep the air bubbles; they make it easier to eat,” she said. “It’s all in the technique. You just work at it and you can tell by the looks of it when it’s time to pour it in the pans.”
Dirks uses three large baking sheets that hold 2 ½ pounds of cooling candy each.
“Very often I will get up at 5 a.m. when it is nice and cool, to make brittle,” she said. “By breakfast I will have put out 17 pans full already.”
Dirks said brittle was a good candy for Christmas, but not for other times of the year.
“You can only make it when the weather is cold,” she said. “If it’s humid, then it doesn’t work, just like divinity.”
An artist as well as baker, Dirks enjoys the packaging process of her home-based brittle business.
“I like to decorate my own bags,” she said. “I used to paint on chocolate when I had the store. It would take a lot of time, but I would see a picture and figure out how to make it with candy.”
Customers can purchase Dirks’s decorated bags of brittle at Kessler Kreations in Hillsboro or at The Big Scoop in Marion through the holiday season.
“I’ve been making brittle since we were married and we will be celebrating 60 years together, next year,” she said. “Ernie is always such a help with packaging and delivering.”
Ernie Dirks also admitted he enjoyed helping with the taste testing too, but tried not to cut into Betty’s profits by trying too much.
“It’s always good,” he said. “I like it all.”