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Happy Accident: The Invention of Fudge Came From a Caramel Surprise

Happy Accident: The Invention of Fudge Came From a Caramel Surprise

Betsy Scotto-Lavino

Fudge was a happy accident.  On Valentine’s Day in 1886, a batch of caramel re-crystallized, forming the consistency we know as fudge.  The anonymous inventor supposedly yelled, “Oh Fudge!” We are lucky this candymaker did not have a saltier vocabulary (pun intended). 

Fudge: A Brief History

Fudge became popular at women’s colleges in the late 1880s. This popularity is attributed to a student, Emmalyn Battersby Hartridge, bringing a fudge recipe she found in Baltimore back to Vassar. She made 30 pounds of fudge and sold it in a charity auction.

We can trace the original fudge recipes to Vassar, Wellesley, and Smith Colleges.  Within these schools, young women developed variations on the original recipe; trying to make the process simpler to achieve. To produce a good outcome, the baker had to carefully control the temperature and make sure she mixed constantly and for the right length of time.

The first fudge recipes contained only butter, sugar, and milk, or cream in various amounts. At some point, someone discovered that adding corn syrup or marshmallow reduced the chances of burning or undercooking and also helped with creaminess.  Aside from Emma, it is unclear who these early pioneers were, but we know fudge is an American invention.

A Family Tradition

black and white photo of fudge makers holding her baby
The authors grandmother holding her mother. Her mother clearly unhappy because she hasn’t yet had the fudge.

On a personal note, making fudge is a special tradition in my family. My family has arguably the best fudge recipe in the world with thanks to my grandmother. We shared “Grammy’s fudge” far and wide with very few rejections. Even people who said they did not like fudge, liked my grandmother’s recipe. For years, I assumed we were in possession of a kind of heirloom.

Given that assumption, you can imagine my shock when my mother told me that my grandmother’s recipe was not original. On the contrary, she copied her recipe from a newspaper. It turns out that the recipe she copied is likely the most well-known fudge recipe in the world, Mamie Eisenhower’s Million Dollar Fudge.

Mamie Eisenhower’s fudge recipe was the most popular fudge recipe throughout the 1950s and 1960s. With this unexpected revelation in mind, I dug out my grandmother’s recipe.  After a quick skim, I can safely report that my grandmother’s recipe has some substantial differences from Mamie Eisenhower’s. Apparently, Grammy Betty liked to make her own rules, or maybe she copied it wrong in another happy accident. Regardless, given these changes, it seems fair to conclude that this is an original recipe after all.

Betty Dillon’s Fudge Recipe

Makes 5 pounds of fudge


1/3 of a cup of butter

4 and a half cups of sugar

2 large packages of 12oz semi-sweet chocolate chips

1 tall Can of evaporated Milk

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1 Cup of Marshmallow Fluff

2 tsp of vanilla

Combine butter, sugar, and milk.  Boil for five and a half minutes stirring constantly.  Remove from heat. Add chocolate chips, marshmallow and vanilla and blend well until all of the chocolate is melted and smooth.  Spoon into large roasting pan and cool until firm in the fridge.

Cut into squares.

Spreading Holiday Cheer

I am not a cook. I tend to try cooking only under duress and happy accidents are infrequent.  Nevertheless, making my grandmother’s fudge recipe predictably fills me with joyful memories. A signature of our holiday, I looked forward to that sweet, creamy deliciousness all year. We delivered it to excited neighbors on Christmas Eve, and savored what was left over for the few short days it lasted in my own house. 

Now, I make fudge for friends and neighbors like my mother did.  I have received texts for this year letting me know that past recipients are eagerly awaiting a delivery.  There are few things I’ve made in my life that have brought such universal delight.  2020 seemed like a good year to be generous with delight. I hope this post lets it spread it a bit farther. Enjoy and happy holidays!