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Making Old Fashioned Sweets at Home


Making sweets at home is a cheap and rewarding process that means you get ultimate control over the ingredients used. The best advice I can give when it comes to making home-made confectionary is allow yourself plenty of uninterrupted time especially when it comes to making ‘pulled’ sweets. Even if you don’t have a sweet tooth yourself then a repertoire of home-made sweets is still useful as they make excellent thought-filled gifts.

To me sweets are not just sugary treats; sweets are memories capsulated in sugar that can transport us back to childhood in an instant.  The playground favourites and pocket money delights of shrimps, black jacks and fizzy cola bottles; instantly bring back memories of endless summer days, invincibility and amazing adventures. We all have our own childhood favourites with memories strongly attached to them and the wondrous thing about sweets is that the smell, touch and flavours are so powerful that a single taste of much-loved childhood sweet can transport a pensioner back to being four years old stood in a dimly lit sweet shop.

British sweets have a long history with the term ‘sweet’ deriving from the Old English ‘swete’ meaning pleasing to the mind and senses, perhaps this sums up why us British have such a love affair with sugary confection. From medieval cough comfits to buttered Brazils and coffee creams we have developed and devoured them all with great glee over the past 800 years.  We live in an era where sugar is in abundance and one where sweets are mass manufactured and readily available to everyone, there is barely a shop that doesn’t sell sweets. With so many sweets at our fingertips it is not popularly appreciated that the variety and range of traditional sweets on offer today have such a long history. Sweets such as aniseed balls and humbugs that are often thought of as Victorian are actually descendants of medieval medicinal comfits. Even the popular chocolate novelty figures that are made for Christmas are descendants of magnificent cast sugar and marzipan sculptures that once adorned Medieval feasting tables. So it just goes to prove that the British sweet tooth is nothing new.

Now I love a nice boiled sweet and indeed for me the taste of barley sugars brings back childhood memories of being stuck in the back of a Volkswagen Beetle with the family dog Jasper feeling queasy from the travel motion. From humbugs to sherbet lemons, chocolate limes and pear drops one thing is for certain you can’t beat a good boiled sweet and they have a very British history. At the beginning of the 19th century, when the country was flooded with cheap sugar from the Empire’s Caribbean plantations boiled sweet production soared. As sugar produced by the slave trade poured into the western ports such as Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow we readily devoured it with glutinous glee. The process of making home-made boiled sweets is one of my little kitchen indulgences. I take great delight in forming the syrup and then pulling, folding and twisting the shiny pliable mass that eventually becomes boiled sweets.

Barley Sugar Twists


These barley twists are just like they used to sell in the chemists when I was a child and they bring back many a memory and as I watch my children chomping on them they create new ones.

I like a strong barley flavour, so this recipe uses more barley than other recipes I have seen. If you like a milder, more sugary taste, then simply halve the quantity of pearl barley.


90g pearl barley

Thinly pared rind of ½ lemon

Juice of ½ lemon

1.2 litres of cold water

700g sugar

¼ tsp cream of tartar

  1. Place the barley, lemon rind and water in a large saucepan. Bring to the boil and then leave to simmer on a low heat for one and half to two hours, until the barley is soft. Set aside to cool.
  2. Strain the barley into a sieve lined with some muslin. Retain the liquid and add the lemon juice and measure out 600ml of the strained liquid and place it into a clean saucepan.
  3. Lightly oil a marble slab or baking sheets. (a heavy marble slab really is the best idea). Use a plain oil such as sunflower as other oils can impart strong flavours that are undesirable in sweets.
  4. Add the sugar and cream of tartar to the barley liquid and place on a low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until the sugar has dissolved.
  5. Bring to the boil and do not stir. Cover the pan and boil for three minutes.
  6. Uncover the pan and boil the syrup until it reaches what is called the “hard crack” stage, 156◦c/ 310◦F
  7. Pour the syrup onto your greased slab or tin so that it spreads into a beautiful, shallow, golden pool,
  8. Leave until cool enough to handle, and firm around the edges.
  9. Using a lightly oiled metal palette knife gently tease the syrup away from the surface of your slab or tray. Once you have an edge lifted, then pull the edge up with your hands and fold back on itself so that it is doubled over. Smooth out any wrinkles using your hands.
  10. Without delay fold the opposite edge over to meet the first edge
  11. Gently life the folded sheet of syrup using your trusty oiled palette knife.
  12. Using sharp, oiled kitchen scissors cut the sheet into strips ½ inch wide and twist each strip into a spiral as it is cut.

Work quickly as you will only be able to do this before the barley sugar sets – time really is of the essence when pulling sweets.


  1. Leave the strips to harden then store in an airtight container. Enjoy!

A word of warning this method requires hands that can withstand high temperatures as the syrup has to be worked whilst it is hot and pliable.

Rhubarb and Custards

No feature on sweet making would be complete without a mention of the classic hard boiled Rhubarb and Custards. Just the thought of these sweets conjures up the taste of sweet creamy custard and tart, tongue tingling custard and has me frolicking down memory lane in no time.


A note on the importance of aerating the syrup:

Both the Rhubarb and Custard elements of this classic sweet begin from the same syrup, but the custard part of the sweet is aerated giving it a creamier, silkier texture in contrast to the harder, brittle rhubarb part. It is the pulling, or working the sugar that provides this aeration and change in texture and is key in this recipe…so no skimping on the pulling part!


450g caster sugar

150ml water

1 tsp. cream of tartar

15ml liquid glucose

2tsp tartaric acid

1 vanilla pod

2 drops pink food colouring

Tip:  I found the pure Rose Extract from Star Kay White available from Lakeland  ( really great on flavour and a little goes a long way.

For the violet flavouring I use Violet Flavour Drops ordered from Cream Supplies (they do all sorts of flavour drops, even Bakewell Tart).


  1. Make the sugar syrup by combining the sugar, glucose and cream of tartar and water in a large saucepan. Stirring until the sugar until it has dissolved.
  2. Oil a marble slap or thick baking tray
  3. Prepare an ice/water bath- big enough to place the saucepan in.
  4. Heat gently until the sugar is dissolved. Turn up the heat, and boil until the soft crack stage, 143°C. Add the tartaric acid, stir in, and place the pan into your ice/water bath.

The Custard Layer

  1. Pour the half syrup onto a marble slab/baking tray, then put the saucepan with the other half in back onto a very low heat on the hob (just to keep the syrup liquid).
  2. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla pod and work into the sugar syrup on the slab.
  3. Work the sugar syrup as described in the method for making barley sugar.
  4. Preheat the oven to 120°C.
  5. When cool enough to handle, lift the syrup off the marble slab/ baking tray, and work it into a cylindrical shape. Take the ends of the syrup strand, pull them together to form a ‘U’ shape, twist the two strands together, and work into a cylindrical shape again. Continue this for around 15-20 minutes, placing the strand into the oven (on a non-stick baking tray) if it gets too brittle and tough to work with. When you are done, put the strand back in the oven until you need it.

The Rhubarb Layer

  1. Pour the rest of the sugar syrup onto the marble slab/ baking tray. Add 2 drops of pink food colouring, and, when the syrup is cool enough, shape into a long cylindrical strand.
  2. Take the yellow syrup from the oven, and shape into a cylindrical strand of the same length as the pink strand. Tease the two strands together.
  3. Oil some sharp scissors and cut the strands into bite sized pieces.
  4. Dust with caster sugar.
  5. Store in an airtight container until you want to zing your taste buds into life with these creamy yet sharp classics.

Top Tip

To help protect your hands from the heat of this process coat your hands with a little oil

Floral Creams

These chocolate floral creams are a truly old-fashioned confection. I often struggle to find rose and violet creams and so I have resorted to making my own. For me these are the ultimate treat and I can’t help but think of bringing out the best china when I eat them, and to be honest I am tempted to wear a vintage hat and a splash of lavender water for the occasion.


3tbsp double cream

Food Colouring: Pink (for rose creams) or purple (for violet creams)

3tbsp rose syrup or 2tbsp violet syrup

275g (10oz) icing sugar

200g (7oz) milk chocolate (for rose creams) or dark chocolate (for violet creams) (min 70% cocoa solids)

1tsp groundnut oil or sweet almond oil

20 crystallised rose or violet petals, to decorate  (optional)


  1. Place the double cream, 1 drop of pink food colouring and the rose syrup into a bowl – or 1 drop of the purple food colouring and the violet syrup – and mix well.
  2. Sift the icing sugar over the cream mixture and stir to combine.
  3. Tip the mixture out onto a work surface lightly dusted with icing sugar and knead the fondant with your hands until it all comes together in a firm ball.
  4. Wrap in cling film and place in the fridge to chill for 30 minutes.
  5. Remove the fondant from the fridge and using your hands, roll 20 teaspoon-sized lumps of the mixture into evenly sized balls, then flatten them down slightly and place on a icing sugar dusted plate.
  6. In a double boiler or bain-marie place the milk (rose) or dark (violet) chocolate and the groundnut oil in the bowl and warm until melted. Remove from the heat and cool for 10 minutes.
  7. Line a flat 39 x 35cm (15 1/4 x 13 3/4in) baking sheet with baking parchment.
  8. Carefully take a fondant ball, one at a time, and, using two forks, dip it in the melted chocolate until coated all over. Be quick about it, as you don’t want to melt the fondant. Place the coated fondant ball onto the baking parchment.
  9. If decorating place a crystallised rose or violet petal on each chocolate and leave to set in a cool place. Do not place in the fridge to cool!


Well, after indulging in the much-loved tradition of making home-made sweets all that remains is to sit back with a well-earned cuppa and scoff a quarter of old fashioned sweets.

My daughter enjoying the home-made sweets






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