When it comes to food, everybody knows the North Fork for its organically grown produce, natural baked goods and fresh-caught seafood.
But other North Fork culinary traditions create a heritage that links to the past through recipes and dishes adapted from the Old World.
One of those is potato candy, which was a holiday favorite in Fred Terry’s childhood home. Terry, who owns The Lobster Roll Northside in Baiting Hollow and the Lobster Roll in Amagansett, was born and raised on the North Fork and is descended from one of its oldest families.
“My great-grandmother Theresa Collins was from County Cork, Ireland,” Terry said. “Ireland is known for potato candy because the only thing they had in the late 1800s was potatoes and sugar.”
Terry’s great-grandmother brought her own potato candy recipe with her to the U.S., where she married Columbus Terry, who owned farmland in Baiting Hollow. (The Terrys are considered the second family to settle there.) Their son, Richard — Fred Terry’s grandfather — married Edna Jane Hallock.
Fred Terry recently found his family’s recipe for potato candy in his grandmother’s diary in an entry dated from 1937. The instructions aren’t very sophisticated — they only say “boiled potatoes, drain and dry, use fine sugar and vanilla.” But Terry’s family drew from the recipe and turned the treat into a Christmas tradition, one that was celebrated each year at his grandmother’s house on Main Road in Baiting Hollow.
“Christmas was a very special holiday,” Terry said. “We would go to this little saltbox of a house, which dates back to the 1800s. She lived there until she was 82, 83 years old. But potato candy was just part of the whole festivity: turkey, ham, potato candy and pumpkin pie.
“We did a lot with potatoes then because we grew them,” Terry continued. “We were not big farmers. Columbus Terry had about 200 acres and Charles Hallock had 200 acres, which is now the Timothy Hill Ranch, all of Middle Road from Roanoke Avenue to Osborne Avenue. Then they married each other and combined farms.”
That vast expanse of land was where Terry, as a child in the 1950s, foraged with his family for fillings to put into their potato candy.
“They used grape jam,” Terry said. “We only picked wild grapes because nobody really grew grapes back then to make jam. There were lots of jams and jellies that came off our farm road. We had a mulberry tree and we have a lot of black walnuts. We would grind the black walnuts and add sugar. We would get cranberries from the Riverhead cranberry bogs, which was always a lot of fun.”
So, it sounds like you can stuff potato candy with just about anything. But exactly what’s in the starchy sweet?
“A potato candy is nothing more than a dough; it’s the starch with potatoes and lots of sugar in it,” Terry explained.
Potatoes are boiled, just as if you were making mashed potatoes. Several cups of sugar are then added to the mixture.
“It’s basically cooked potato with water,” explained Terry. “It’s not potato flour. It’s cooked potatoes that are mashed with sugar. And for a little flavoring they would use vanilla. Then you develop a viscosity, so you can roll it and what you end up with is pretty much like a jelly roll.”
Be prepared for a high sugar content when you taste the sweet treat. The candy has the texture and consistency of marzipan, minus the almond flavor.
While today’s palates may not warm up to the intense sweetness of the original recipe, it can easily be adapted. Less sugar will take the focus off the dough and put it on the filling. Flavors added to the base can also alter the taste. Most modern recipes have evolved and changed over the years as generations’ worth of eating habits have changed.
“There are a lot of potato candy recipes now that include eggs, which of course means you have to cook them,” Terry said. “But the recipe we have, they didn’t have any eggs in Cork, they didn’t have anything they were so poor. They made it in the most simplistic way, but it was the fillings that made it. I’ve seen fig filling, I’ve seen virtually every kind of jam and jelly in the world put into it. We integrated as much as we could from the farm. We had a pear tree, we had a couple plum trees, we had a peach orchard. Nuts go really well with it; all of the above you can put into potato candy.”
Edna Jane Hallock Terry’s recipe for potato candy
Boil four small to medium potatoes.
Drain and dry thoroughly.
Add 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract.
Add 6-8 cups confectioners’ sugar until dough doesn’t stick.
Refrigerate dough for 30 minutes before rolling.
When ready to roll, sprinkle more confectioners’ sugar onto board.
Roll out dough to 1/4 inch thickness.
Smear jam, jelly or chopped nuts onto dough.
Using a spatula, carefully roll jam-covered dough like a jelly roll.
Cut roll into small inch-thick rolls.
Chill before serving.