Q. Is there any easy way for me to make syrup at home?
A. Yes! You can easily make syrup yourself. Combine 2 cups sugar and 1 cup water in a microwavable bowl or 4-cup glass measure. Heat at HIGH 6 minutes or until mixture boils. Stir until sugar is completely dissolved. Stir in 1 teaspoon maple extract. Refrigerate leftover syrup. Makes 2 cups.
Q. What does it mean to cook syrup to a "soft-ball stage"?
A. Most of the classic candies -- fudges, fondants, caramels, toffees, and brittles -- start from a boiling syrup of sugar and water. To achieve proper candy consistency, the syrup must be heated to the proper temperature. Typically the recipe will indicate both a temperature and (for cooks who don't have a candy thermometer) a stage: soft ball, firm ball, hard ball, soft crack, or hard crack.
To determine the stage, pour a small amount of the hot syrup into a cup of cold water. Then, using your fingers, remove the cooled syrup. At soft-ball stage, the syrup can be rolled into a soft ball that flattens when removed from the water. At firm-ball stage, the syrup can be rolled into a firm ball that does not flatten immediately. At hard-ball stage, the syrup can be rolled into a firm ball that gives some resistance when pressed.
Candy cooked to soft-crack stage can be stretched into threads that are hard but elastic. At hard-crack, the threads are hard and brittle, and break easily.