Let me preface this post by saying that I know some of these things should be painfully obvious, but I hope that some of my readers are, at times, as distracted as I while trying to do many things at once — like playing SimCity while cooking.
Lesson 1: Respect the capabilities of your equipment. Five pounds of sugar cooks quite nicely in my largest pot and cools quite nicely in my mixing bowl. A few weeks ago, I tried to make a 7 1/2 pound batch. The time I spent trying to get the sugar up to temperature while not letting it boil over ended up making the process take longer than it took me to make two, 5-pound batches today. I was able to start cooling the first batch in the mixer while bringing the second batch to a boil. Five pounds of sugar yields around 9 each 6″ small paper plates full of fondant, and each hive eats 4 plate fulls in 3 – 4 days.
Lesson 2: Paper plates work well, especially the small, 6″ size ones. We can fit four plates to a hive. We have a spacer between the brood chamber and the super so that the plates fit without letting in cold, winter air. Only two dinner-size plates fit in the same space. I’ve tried making fondant on baking trays, but it ended up a soupy, sticky mess that wouldn’t hold its form, which is why we switched to plates. However, today we poured a batch onto a wax-paper covered cookie tray, which leads to lesson 3.
Lesson 3: If the sugar mixture goes above “soft ball” on the candy thermometer, it is likely to set up very quickly and very hard. If you notice the fondant getting hard when it is still hot, get it out of the mixer (or, worse, saucepan) quickly. My first or second batch of fondant turned into a giant sugar-cube in the bottom of my pot in about 30 seconds while I was searching for my pan. However, you can add water and slowly bring up to a temperature at which the sugar will dissolve again to get it out of there.
Lesson 4: Drape your counter tops with beach towels! The YouTube videos we’ve watched all seem to feature organized people not making a mess in their kitchens, but hot fondant drips. It’s so much easier to throw towels in the washing machine than to dispose of newspaper. We like to recycle, and I don’t think anyone wants us to recycle sugar-coated newspapers. Plus, you can drape the towels over the edge of the counter for added protection. I guess you see why I blog instead of making YouTube videos. Plus, no one (except maybe my husband) wants to watch an old lady dance to “I Love Rock and Roll” while stirring boiling fondant.
Lesson 5: Hot fondant burns about the same as hot wax. If you get some on your hand, remember which faucet is the cold water and which is hot. It doesn’t help to run hot, hot water over hot fondant. This is why many people recommend using oven mitts, but I don’t like wearing gloves unless I have to — like when I pick up the hot mixing bowl. There’s a time and a place for everything, but stirring the sugar water while wearing gloves doesn’t work for me.
Lesson 6: If you take the plates out to fill the hives, the bees will find them (and you) in about ten seconds, especially if you’ve added Honey B Healthy or essential oils. If the fondant is soft, it’s easier for the bees to digest, but not good for hugging to your chest to keep the bees off. If you do end up with a t-shirt covered in fondant, head indoors quickly and make sure none of the bee-knee babies is following you!
Lesson 7: Don’t be surprised if the bees eat your paper plates. We weren’t, because my brother-in-law had the great idea (and I don’t mean that sarcastically) of leaving notes about how many frames had what on them in the hives, but when he went to show my husband his system, there were no notes in the first three hives. The half-eaten index card was proof of his sanity — a big relief to us all.
Lesson 8: Softer fondant is easier for the bees to digest, and as we’re giving this to them when nature is making life difficult for them, my goal is to get the right consistency. However, if it turns out “wrong,” the bees will eat it anyway. Too soft, and it will absorb water from the air and turn to syrup. “Too hard”, and it’s easy to stack, store, and transport. Don’t stress about it. If the fondant ends up just right, we can’t stack the plates, but we’re fine with our dining table looking like we’re expecting the Edgar-eating roach from Men in Black to come for a tea party and the plates of sugar never stay there long.
Lesson 9: It’s worth the time and effort. Bees are stupid and will go ice-skating on a bucket of sugar water when they are hungry. Our bees are out and about when temperatures rise above 45 degrees, but the buckets take a long time to warm up and often have ice on them until mid-afternoon. I’ve been experimenting with ways to let them wet feed without becoming hypothermic, and may have one successful method. I’ll blog about that once we’re convinced it actually reduces bee loss.