This is not your average holiday party. None of that chit-chatting with people you don’t know, no dread at measuring up in the social skills department.
You’ll still gather with folks you might not know. But you’ll leave with a whole new batch of friends, as many treats as you want, a sense of empowerment — and with a feeling that this might, maybe, contain a kernel of what the holidays are all about.
Welcome to one of Judy Ellis’ turkle-making parties.
She says: “Turkle-making is all the gifts that I give (except for my grandchildren). I view it as something of a gift to just be together. And people take home all the turkles they want.”
Her turkles, usually known as “turtles,” are pecan-caramel clusters dipped in chocolate. (The reason she calls them turkles is part of story; be patient.)
For her parties, Judy provides the supplies, the instruction and her kitchen. Others bring their willingness to interact with chocolate and, most importantly, an openness to the occasion.
“I like the things that happen when you get a bunch of interesting people together with something to play at. And the conversation is fascinating and we all end up with a bunch of turkles, and it’s messy and it’s kind of silly.
“I look forward to it at Christmas. People will make time to get together with each other at Christmas. Sometimes they’ll get together with you during the rest of the year — but it’s an unusual thing to get people to stop and play together. I like that part.”
• • •
The first step in making turkles is arranging the pecans, three or four in a circle, 60 circles per pan. Judy gives the instructions and a little demo — it’s not rocket science — and while the hands are busy, the conversation has free range. It turns out that Judy’s turkle-making parties have their genesis in life on dairy farms in California and Idaho.
“A lot of what you did on the dairy was share what you do.”
In California, groups of school children would be put to work milking the cows, feeding the calves and pigs, petting the sheep and horses, gathering eggs. In Idaho, at their “real” dairy, visitors could help drive the tractor, sling bales of hay, help record vaccinations. In all cases, everyone was encouraged to join in.
“My husband was a marvelous teacher. He had the ability to figure out where a child needed to be challenged to go to the next step. If they really didn’t think they could do something, he would subtly design something and stand back and allow the child to discover he could do it.
“He was just really masterful that way. I prized that in him and I learned to do that, too. … ”
She pours a pile of nuts on a tray. Her fingers shepherd pecans into circles.
“Part of what the turkles are about is that people learn how to do it. They learn that it’s quite within their ability to do.”
It’s true. Arranging the pecans is easy. The next step, disciplining the dollop of caramel that binds them all together, is a little trickier.
“Some people give up, and some people persist and get so they can do it. It’s fun to see how people deal with frustration, and it’s a safe place to say, hey, I don’t want to do this.”
After the caramel cools, it’s time to dip the clusters. Judy makes it look easy, of course: Grab one by the sides, immerse it up to the middle of your fingernails in chocolate. Shake it off, and, with a little flick of the wrist, set it on the parchment paper to cool right-side-up.
“Any part in the process that you like, you can specialize. One of my children’s neighbors has a daughter, I guess she’s now about 15; she just has a knack for dipping since she was about 10. She just hunkers by one of the temperers and she just dips the whole time she’s here. She’s just a natural.”
“(Teaching turkle-making is) kind of consistent with what I’ve done for a long time. I don’t have a chance to teach you how to milk a cow, here.”
• • •
When Judy’s kids were little, the family would get a box of DeMet Turtles for Christmas. It was a box of maybe 12 candies, and they would last all of five seconds. At some point, it occurred to Judy that she could make them. She had always made caramel, but it was the chocolate that stumped her. Initially, the family would unwrap Dove candies.
“So at the beginning of our turkle-making we would have a ‘shelling of the chocolate.’ That limited your capacity, because you just couldn’t shell that many.”
They had always included other people when the family made turkles, and the followers grew. As Judy’s kids grew into careers, they’d give turkles to their coworkers — who never let them forget it. A friend had a hip replacement, so Judy took the supplies over to her house and that became an annual event, too.
“I have friends up in Cambridge. We started making turkles together when the youngest was 2 years old and she’s now 14. We start talking in September about when are we going to do the turkles.”
Now Judy hosts eight or 10 parties before Christmas, with both old and new friends, including a party auctioned as a fundraiser at the Boise Baroque Chamber Orchestra Holiday Buffet. She makes caramel six gallons at a time.
• • •
Judy, her husband, Alan Ellis, and their family moved to Indian Valley between Council and Cambridge in 1981 and ran the dairy until 1991. She jokes that then her hired help went to college. (Her kids, she means.) Judy served as Adams County commissioner from 2001 till 2007.
“Then I got out of public office and at every job I applied for they said I was overqualified. Which I believe means that my hair was gray. ... I concluded I needed to find a way to make my own job because I was ‘overqualified’ for everything (else).”
She loved to pick blackberries, so she hatched the idea to plant a blackberry plantation. It was a friend who pointed out the obvious idea.
“I said, oh, I could do blackberries in the summer, turtles in the winter. ... so (my business became) ‘Turkleberry.’
“People say, well, where are the blackberries (now)? I moved away from my blackberry plantation. So it’s not truth in advertising to call them turkleberries. But it’s such a droll name that I love it.”
She researched packaging. She ordered French chocolate — and Swiss chocolate — and Belgian chocolate — and sampled her way through, you know, research. Which is to say, finding a creamy chocolate that melted on the tongue. (Belgian won.) She bought temperers to keep the chocolate precisely at temperature. Around that time as well, her husband died.
“At the time I was feeling pretty isolated, living up in Council. …”
It was a tough year: Then she came down with West Nile virus.
“I had it for nine months. It was encephalitis and I was pretty sick. But I could (make turkles) between naps. And I did (craft) shows on the weekends, so I maintained human contact.”
Her business flourished, and while she loved making turkles, she didn’t enjoy the packaging and shipping.
“I think I spent more time packaging than making the turkles. So I got out of the mailing business.”
• • •
These days, Judy lives in Boise and works for Boise Baroque Chamber Orchestra. She took down her Turkleberry website, but she hasn’t stopped making turkles, especially at this time of the year; their making is inextricably linked to celebrating the holidays.
But on her own terms.
“It sounds odd, but I dislike Christmas. I dislike the pressure to buy things that you don’t need; I don’t like the children screaming in the store when the parents are determined they’re going to finish their Christmas shopping. I don’t like the Christmas songs on the PA.”
Don’t get her wrong: Christmas is about other things.
“I love to sing Christmas carols. I love to play Christmas carol duets. I love to sing the ‘Messiah.’ But every time I sing the ‘Messiah’ — which is normally early in December — when I walk out, Christmas is accomplished. I’m always a bit surprised that people are still selling Christmas trees. ...
“You need to know that when I was milking cows, I learned it was very important to have music that calmed me (because) the cows gave more milk when I was calm. I searched around for all kinds of music — and I ended up playing the ‘Messiah’ twice a day. All year long. I’m sure the cows knew all the words. ...
It all comes together when Judy looks around her kitchen: Strangers-now-friends working around the table. Hands sorting pecans, dribbling caramel, dripping chocolate. Conversation and questions and laughter and discovery.
“People who sing get to be connection junkies. There’s something about the unity, the breaking down of barriers between people … when you sing. It’s a transcendent feeling and people really get quite hooked.
“Turkle-making is close. ... ”
Turkles (pecan-caramel clusters)
Makes 7-8 dozen, depending on how large they are
2 cups white sugar
2 cups white corn syrup
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup butter
2 cups heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
pecans — about 2 pounds
milk or dark chocolate — about 2 pounds. For glorious turkles, find something that feels “buttery” on your tongue.
Combine corn syrup, sugar and salt in a thick-bottomed pan, and cook on high, covered, until mixture begins to boil and the steam washes any sugar crystals down the sides of the bowl. Stir to help dissolve any sugar that hasn’t yet dissolved.
Uncover pan and continue cooking on high, stirring occasionally.
There will be a danger that the mixture will boil over the sides. If that happens, or looks likes it’s going to, continue cooking at medium or lower if you need to. It takes longer but makes a whole lot less mess!
Cut the butter up into small pieces and stir into syrup until melted.
Slowly stir in the cream. It’s like adding water to canned tomato soup — if you add it a little at a time you can get it mixed; if you pour it all in at once, it stays separate.
Continue cooking to 235 degrees or until a small amount of the mixture dropped into a bowl of ice water makes a firm ball — a ball that doesn’t disintegrate in the water, can be formed into a ball, and will hold its shape unless you flatten it with your fingers. Your goal is to have the caramel chewy; not hard enough to break a tooth when it’s cold, but hard enough that it’s not runny. You may have to eat some to try it out. Poor you!
Allow the caramel to cool for about 15 minutes and then stir in the vanilla.
You can see that the caramels would be fine to eat just like this. If you want to make caramels, cook it a bit firmer, say to 238 degrees, stir nuts in if you wish, pour into a buttered pan and cut into squares when cool.
Otherwise, stick with the 235-degree caramel and keep going:
Cover two (or more) cookie pans with parchment paper. Make clusters of the size you desire out the pecans. (I find a 3-pecan turkle to be an easy size for space-efficient packaging.)
Drop spoonfuls of the warm caramel onto the pecan clusters. Don’t overdo it or you will have a lot of caramel gluing the separate clusters together. If that happens, cut the turkles apart with a knife and fold the excess caramel back onto the nuts before you dip.
Allow the caramel to firm up. If it’s cool outside, you can set the pans outside to firm up faster. They are also easier to handle if they are firm.
Melting the chocolate
Melt the chocolate very slowly in the microwave on 40-50 percent power a few minutes at a time. Stir the melting chocolate often to help the chunks melt down. If you don’t allow the chocolate to exceed 120 degrees, it will keep its “temper” and will set up nice and shiny. If it loses its temper, it will develop white streaks or a general cloudiness when it sets up.
If the chocolate does go over 120 degrees, you will need to “re-temper” the chocolate by cooling it down to 82 degrees. You can do this by stirring it over cool water. Then add some grated chocolate that still has its temper and bring it back up to 88 degrees for milk chocolate or 91 degrees for dark chocolate.
The melted chocolate at 88 degrees will be barely warm to the touch. Test it by placing a bit on your chin. If it is neither hot nor cold, it’s just right.
Dipping the Turtles
Dip with the room temperature between 66 and 70 degrees. This is important. If the room temperature is over 70 degrees, the chocolate may develop white streaks as it sets up. Also, avoid having the chocolate set up in a draft. This can cloud their appearance as well.
Hold the clumps of pecans and caramel upside-down and plunge them into the chocolate to the depth of about half of your fingernail. You only need to cover the tops, but you will need to let your fingers get in the chocolate. Then flip them over and set them down on a cookie pan covered with parchment paper. (Don’t use waxed paper; the caramel will stick to it and you will end up eating waxed paper in your turkles.) Allow the turkles to set up at room temperature. (Don’t stick them back out into the cold while the chocolate sets up.)
As you dip, you may need to reheat the chocolate briefly in the microwave, if it cools down to the point that it starts to harden in the bowl. It is probably possible to rig up a water bath to keep the chocolate steadily at the right dipping temperature. (A double boiler with boiling water is too hot!)
After the turkles have set up at a room temperature below 70 degrees, they can be stored at a room temperature of up to 80 degrees without melting. Or you can keep them in the refrigerator or freezer.