Making Mints: Pulled butter mints are a dying art, but worth trouble

Pulled butter mints are a dying art, and Ken Putnam knows why.

"It's very, very difficult," he said. "I made them and messed up for a year."

Most people who know Putnam know him as a bicycle expert. He has owned Ken's Bike Shop, now at 2750 Reynolda Road, for 28 Years.

Others know that he is quite skilled at making these old-fashioned candies that must be pulled like taffy.

"I have to make sure I get extra workouts this time of year when Ken is making these," said his wife, Christine Rucker. "They are very addictive."

Putnam, who lives in East Bend, used to give the mints as Christmas gifts to regular customers. "Everyone brought back the empty tins and wanted more," he said with a laugh.

To keep up with demand, he now mostly reserves the gifts for friends, though he does keep samples in the store during the holidays.

Putnam, 62, has been around the mints his whole life. "When I was growing up in Chapel Hill in the 1950s, a sergeant in the Highway Patrol would come around every Christmas to get mints from my mom for the governor's table," he said.

His mother, Francys Putnam, was a home-economics teacher and caterer. His dad, Kenneth Putnam Sr., worked in the restaurant business for years. His mother's prized mints were a source of extra income. "That's how she paid for our Christmas gifts."

His mother taught all of her kids how to make butter mints. But of Putnam's three sisters, "one of them makes them, and two others tried and failed," he said.

He started to learn this old art during college breaks and in 1970, when a botched knee surgery kept him at his parents' house. But it wasn't until later that he started to perfect the mints.

Making pulled butter mints is difficult because timing and temperature are critical. Heating the syrup a couple of degrees too much or taking a break to answer the phone when it's time to pull the candy will at least compromise the quality and at most ruin a batch.

Pulled butter mints may seem simple at first. "It's butter, sugar, oil of peppermint and water. That's it," Putnam said.

First, a mixture of sugar and water is boiled to make a syrup. Butter is added and the mixture is boiled until it reaches the hard-ball stage. For Putnam, that's usually just under 260 degrees.

Dry conditions are ideal because moisture drawn into the syrup from the air can affect the results and cause crystallization of the syrup, which is supersaturated. That's to say, it has a high ratio of sugar to water.

When the proper temperature is reached, Putnam pours the mixture onto a cool, buttered marble slab. Now the race against time begins. The mixture must cool enough to be handled, but remain quite warm so that it is soft enough to be pulled.

Putnam lets the mixture cool undisturbed until the edges stiffen enough to hold their shape. Then he folds the mixture several times with a metal spatula to cool it a bit. This takes less than a minute.

Next, he picks up the mixture in a rough log shape and starts pulling. This can be dangerous at first, because the mixture is often still hot enough to burn. "I usually get better at this around December when I've developed calluses," Putnam said, recounting countless burns and blisters from this stage of the process.

On a cold, dry night, he'll take the mixture outside to pull it. If it's wet or not cold, he'll open up the refrigerator door and pull in front of it.

To pull the candy, Putnam stretches it a couple of feet, folds it over on itself with a slight twist, and keeps repeating the process. He works fast and barely handles the candy, just touching it with his fingers. The speed helps avoid burns. The light handling helps incorporate more air into the mints to achieve the light and airy texture.

Within minutes, he transforms the mixture from partly transparent to opaque white. It also develops a satin finish and a ribbony surface.

Then Putnam quickly stretches it into a long rope about an inch in diameter. He cuts that into shorter lengths, about a foot long, then immediately cuts them all into bite-size pieces.

He spreads them out on a plate to prevent them from sticking together. Then all that's left is for the pieces to rest.

The pieces are hard at first. Putnam warned against biting into a freshly made butter mint. "It'll pull the filling right out of your tooth," he said.

But soon, the mints "cream" or soften to a candy that has a slight crust on the outside and an interior that's wonderfully smooth and creamy.

Putnam said he can tell how good a batch is by how long it takes to cream. A really good one may cream in 90 minutes. A not-so-good one may take 36 hours. "But even if it takes 36 hours, you'll still have something that tastes good."

Putnam's mother died in 2007 at age 91. "It was really nice when my mom got older and had a hard time doing it. I could make the mints that she gave to her friends."

To help others keep this dying art alive, Putnam will give a demonstration at 2 p.m. Sunday at Century Kitchen restaurant in East Bend.

Mints, Putnam said, used to be a traditional candy to serve at weddings. And good ones would always cause a little thrill -- and maybe a little envy -- among guests in the know.

The mints require so much concentration and physical labor, Putnam said, it's hard to make more than a couple of pounds in an evening. But it's worth it when he makes a particularly good batch, or when he sees someone's face light up at the mere mention of them.

"When someone gives you a gift of these things," he said, "it's one of the coolest gifts you can get."

Mrs. Putnam's Butter Mints

Oil of peppermint is sold at pharmacies and should be used with care.

2½ cups sugar

¾ cup water

½ stick plus ½ tablespoon butter (4½ tablespoons)

13 drops oil of peppermint

1. Place sugar in a medium saucepan. Add water. Heat over high heat. When mixture starts to boil, turn down to about medium-high.

2. Stir mixture constantly with a wooden spoon. Have a cup of water and pastry brush ready; use water-dipped brush to brush any grains of sugar from sides of pot. When brushing, touch only the sides above the liquid, not the liquid.

3. Once the sugar has completely dissolved and the mixture is clear, add butter. Do not stir in the butter and do not stir the mixture after this. Turn down the heat a notch and place a candy thermometer in the pot, clipping it to the sides.

4. Continue to cook the mixture without stirring until it reaches right under 260 degrees -- 258 or 259 -- on the thermometer. (Read thermometer at eye level to ensure an accurate reading.)

5. Meanwhile, butter a marble slab and 2 plates.

6. When the mixture reaches proper temperature, immediately remove from heat and pour onto marble slab.

7. Use an eye dropper to put the oil of peppermint onto the mixture on the slab. Wait until the mixture gets hard around the edges, about 30 seconds. When an edge is lifted and stays in place, it's ready. Then quickly pick up the mixture and fold it over to incorporate peppermint. Use a bench scraper, heatproof spatula or two knives to fold it over. Each time it's folded, move it to a cooler part of the slab. Keep folding until it is cool enough to handle, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Roughly shape into a foot-long log.

8. Once mixture is cool enough to handle, start pulling it. Hold it just by your fingers and pull it into a long strand, roughly 1½ to 2 feet, then fold strand back together, twisting slightly. Keep thickness of mixture as even as possible. Repeat until mixture becomes opaque, gets a satin-like finish and forms ribbons.

9. Pull once more into a long rope about an inch thick. Using heavy-duty scissors, first cut mixture into roughly foot-long pieces. Then quickly cut into 1/2– to 1-inch long pieces. Be careful not to press on the ribbon's ridges with your fingers. Pieces do not need to be uniformly cut, but they do need to be cut quickly before they harden. Spread on a plate so the pieces won't stick together. Let rest a few hours to "cream." Wrap in waxed paper and store covered at room temperature. Mints will stay good for about a month.

Makes 1 pound, about 100 mints.

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