(See the rest of our DIY Christmas advice and recipes.)
Nothing could be simpler, or cheaper, than candy-making. These lollipops cost a few cents per batch and come together in about 15 minutes, which means you can tailor batches for each person on your gift list. Experiment with flavor combinations that suit the recipient to make this an especially thoughtful and personal gift that has an impact far beyond the cost and time involed.
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup corn syrup
1/2 cup water
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
Lollipop sticks (or wooden skewers cut to size)
Liquid food coloring (optional)
1 teaspoon citric acid (optional)
1. Turn a cookie sheet upside down (the air flow underneath will help the pops cool), cover with parchment paper, then spray parchment paper with oil. Alternatively, cover the cookie sheet with a Silpat, or similar silicon sheet. Or, even better, put lollipop molds on the cookie sheet and spray lightly with oil.
2. Combine sugar, corn syrup, water, and cream of tartar in a sauce pan over medium heat. Stir constantly until the sugar dissolves. Keep stirring until the mixture begins to boil. Place the candy thermometer in the pan, then keep your spoon and hands off.
3. When the mixture reaches 300 degrees, remove from heat and let cool slightly, to about 275 degrees, before stirring in the rest of the ingredients. Working quickly, pour dollops (approximately 2 inches across) on the prepared cookie sheet, then immediately place a lollipop stick in each one, twisting to make certain it's well and truly stuck. You have to move fast, so have a friend help with the sticks, or just lay the sticks out ahead of time and pour directly onto them, twisting after your done with your dollops. (If using molds, seat the stick before filling.)
4. Cool lollipops until they're hard, approximately 15 minutes. Wrap individually in plastic wrap or colored cellophane, then tie together in a bunch with ribbon.
Flavored oils and extracts are available from supermarkets and specialty stores. Plan on 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of extract for lighter flavors — like lemon, lime, strawberry and most other fruits — while more powerful flavors like cinnamon or mint should be used with a subtler hand, 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon. (If the extracts are highly concentrated for baking, decrease portions by about half)
If you want a creamier sensation, add 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract with the flavoring. You can also add solid ingredients, although depending on the size it might make your finished pop a bit irregular in shape and they won't store for as long. Try finely grated citrus zest or finely diced hot pepper or red pepper flakes, add burst of heat to spicy lollipops.
If using food coloring, have fun with it by mixing colors that contrast with the flavor, like blue cinnamon lollipops, or red orange lollipops. Food dyes can be problematic for some kids, so feel free to leave them au naturel, just in case. Citric acid adds a bright tart sensation that works well with fruit-flavored lollipops. Optional, but recommended, although citrus zest can accomplish a similar goal.
Here are a few flavor options to get you started, but play with the formula. If an experiment doesn't work, all you're out are a few sticks and about $1 worth of ingredients.
Creamsicle: 3/4 teaspoon orange extract, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Black Licorice: 1/4 teaspoon anise extract, 1/4 teaspoon vanilla
Tabasco: 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon extract, 1 teaspoon Tabasco
Coffee: 1/2 teaspoon coffee extract, 1/4 teaspoon vanilla
Bacon: 1/2 teaspoon vanilla, finely chopped bacon cooked crisp, 1/2 teaspoon reserved bacon grease