My grandmother, Faith Garrard, had many signature dishes. But the one that was magic was her buttermints.
She made mints for friends or special occasions, working on a marble slab she acquired from a scrap pile at the Monument Works. And she became quite the expert. Of course there was that time when my dad (oldest of five and the first to marry) brought my mom home to meet the family. Granny Faith was so excited that she forgot to add the peppermint to the batch of mints she was making. But she didn’t own up to that mistake until many years later.
Only once did my sister and I get to actually watch her making mints. We saw that it consisted of a meticulous process, bringing the ingredients to the exact temperature, pouring the mixture onto the marble and then taking it in your hands and pulling it as it cooled. (A friend whose grandmother also made mints said she claimed that drinking beer kept her from burning her hands. A dubious story, now that I think back.) Finally, the mints were packed away in a canister where they could “cream,” a process that can take an hour or a few days or even a week.
Fortunately, before Granny Faith died, my uncle Sam documented the full process, and shared it with me. The recipe is simple but the technique is everything. All these years later, I still haven’t perfected it. Any given batch is as likely to be a dud as it is to be a hit. The secret, though, is that it’s still just butter and sugar and therefore, delicious.
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After I’d been making mints for a few years, I got the notion to enter them in the N.C. State Fair. That first year, I ended up winning a third-place ribbon. But the fair’s online database listed no first-place winner, so I called to ask just what my competition had been.
While I waited on hold, I tried to temper my expectations. Surely there couldn’t have been more than a couple dozen entries. Then came the answer: 3. And why no first place? Apparently the judges didn’t feel any of the entries “were of blue ribbon quality.” (Pity the guy who didn’t even get third place in a three-person contest.)
The next year, I decided to do some reconnaissance at the fair to figure out what it would take to win a ribbon. The winning mints that year were much bigger and more pillow-y than mine. And I noticed something really interesting: although the rules require that the entry include 12 mints, each plate on display contained 11 mints. That meant that only one mint from each entry was ever tasted. Now, my idea of state fair judging was based on Aunt Bea’s pickles being judged at the county fair. I thought there would be a team of experts who had to sample several mints to narrow down the ultimate winner. Evidently, that’s not the way it works.
So I decided not to fret over whether the mints had the right flavor and had creamed properly. I needed to concentrate on looks. After all, it doesn’t matter how delicious they are if the judges can tell just by looking that a batch isn’t in the running.
A few weeks later, I got a call from someone at the State Fair office. Nita Whitfield of Durham, a repeat blue ribbon winner (and subject of profiles in both The N&O and “Our State” magazine), asked if I wanted to contact her for pointers and advice. She ended up coming to my house and making a batch of mints in my kitchen.
Whitfield had very specific requirements. For instance, she used only Dixie Crystals sugar and a Revere Ware pot. Her recipe made batches twice the size of mine and used more than twice the amount of peppermint oil. While I eventually stuck with my Granny Faith’s original recipe, I did adopt some of Whitfield’s techniques. And I inherited my other grandmother’s Revere Ware pot, giving my mints a lovely connection to both grandmothers.
I usually start getting ready for the fair in September. I make four to six batches and take samples of each to my dad for testing. I make all my trial mints the same color in case I need to pull from multiple batches to get the perfect dozen.
Each year when the fair rolls around, I’m surprised to see there’s still a category for pulled mints. As I picked up my fifth blue ribbon, I knew better than to ask how many entries there had been. I just take heart in knowing that even if there’s not much competition, the judges still consider them “blue ribbon quality.”
From Faith B. Garrard and adapted from the Pleasant Green United Methodist Church cookbook 1980.
2 cups white granulated sugar
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) salted butter, plus extra for buttering
3/4 cup hot water
4 drops peppermint oil
2 drops food coloring
Place sugar, butter and hot water into saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring constantly until boiling. Cook without stirring until thermometer registers 260 degrees. Pour onto buttered marble slab. Add peppermint oil and food coloring.
Immediately start to lift up the edges and fold them over. Then lift up the newly formed edges and turn them over. Move and turn the whole mixture around on the marble, moving and pressing it to cooler spots so the marble can absorb the heat.
As soon as candy cools enough to be handled, pick it up and start to pull. Pull and twist, looping back around to pull again, until the mixture starts to hold its shape. When it seems to feel dry and ridges have formed, pull into a rope and cut into pieces with scissors. Let dry about 45 minutes. Store in tightly covered container until creamy.
Yield: about 48 to 60 mints