The mystery of szaloncukor (or “parlor candy”), the Christmas tree decorations that you can eat, but that nobody does, has been bugging us for some time now. Why the tradition of buying kilos of unmistakably bland jello-filled, chocolate-coated candy wrapped in unappetizing colored foil before Christmas and then trying to palm it off to children who deserve better until March – long, long after their new toys have been broken or forgotten? An article ominously entitled “the floundering cult of szaloncukor“ in news portal Fn.hu throws some light on the origins of this Christmas custom so exclusive to Hungary, and why things just ain’t what they used to be.
The origins of “parlor candy” are shrouded in uncertainty. According the Fn piece, but certainly not all sources, the tradition actually originates in Austria and Germany, where wealthy families would erect a Christmas tree in the Salon (usually the entrance hall) and decorate it with sweets wrapped in shiny paper. The original aristocratic Salonzucker of the Habsburg monarchy (although the sweets/decorations have been long forgotten in Austria) were soft, hand-made fondant sweets made simply from flavored, boiled and candied sugar. In other words, nothing like the gelatinous imitations found in Hungary today – the familiar chocolate coating was only added in the 1960s.
Every year, some 6,500 tons of szaloncukor are sold in Hungary, which amounts to almost a kilo and a half per household. The problem is that the szaloncukor seems to now be primarily thought of as a traditional Christmas tree decoration, rather than a treat for the sweet of tooth. This makes consumers highly price insensitive and likely to substitute quantity for quality. In addition, a study by researchers GfK has shown a fall in sales over the last three years as the market share of cheap variants has grown.
But it’s not all bad news. If you want the real thing this Christmas, you can always make your own szaloncukor – by following this recipe (in English, for the list of ingredients scroll down past the mézeskalács):
Combine the sugar, milk and water in a ceramic pot over the stove burner. Bring to a boil over medium high heat, stirring slowly. When it begins to boil, reduce the heat to low and let it simmer without stirring for 3 minutes. Pour into a heat-proof glass dish. (Don’t scrape the pot – it will cause the sugar to crystallize!) Add 2 & 1 TBSP of unsalted butter, and the desired flavoring(s). Stir with a wooden spoon until it turns white and stiff. Then pour the mass onto a damp napkin (cotton or kitchen towel), form into a rectangle about 3 inches thick. Let it stiffen a bit more, but before it becomes completely hard, cut into shapes with a wet knife (squares or rectangles, the rectangles are easier to eventually wrap).
Flavorings: In place of the water, I use coffee or orange juice. For the chocolate version, along with the butter I add a level TBSP of cocoa powder and a half teaspoon of vanilla.
In the past, this was the only way szaloncukor was made. Dipping and covering the candy with chocolate has become popular only in the last 20-30 years. The plain or chocolate covered squares (or sometimes brick shapes) are wrapped first in rectangular pieces of white tissue paper – with frilled ends – and then the center portions in colored foils. Yield: approximately 30-35 pieces.