After baking more batches of Anzac biscuits than I ever care to again (and taking a wee break to recuperate from baking fatigue), I found myself pondering the magical, foaming reaction between golden syrup and baking soda. When was it discovered? How popular is the candy that comes from the reaction? What do we all call it? Turns out, the crunchy treat is more interesting than its simple ingredients alone.
To make honeycomb toffee, or hokey pokey as we call it in New Zealand, you need sodium bicarbonate. It’s a familiar ingredient in our kitchens, used to make our baking rise. It is also a salt. A salt known to us as baking soda, bicarbonate of soda, or bicarb. Baking soda, in it’s most ancient and natural form, has been known to us since the Egyptians, in the form of natron. Now, I am no chemist, so I’ll let wikipedia explain: “Natron is a naturally occurring mixture of sodium carbonate decahydrate (Na2CO3·10H2O, a kind of soda ash) and around 17% sodium bicarbonate (also called baking soda, NaHCO3) along with small quantities of sodium chloride and sodium sulcate“. According to Mark Kurlansky in his book Salt: A World History, the Egyptians sourced it from a wadi (Arabic: dry riverbed) in a place called Natrun, and called the harvested salt netjry. The Ancient Egyptians used natron to help preserve bodies for mummification: and may have held a level of prestige to it: certainly, it appears that regular old sodium chloride was used for the mummification of less affluent people. From what I can tell though, the raising properties of sodium bicarbonate was unknown, although I like the symbolism of an undiscovered and unrefined raising agent being used for the afterlife, when the soul would hopefully rise again.
Baking soda really became part of our culinary repertoire two millennia later, with commercial sodium bicarbonate being sold from 1846, when two New York bakers founded Arm and Hammer. Prior to that, any foods that needed to rise were achieved with our old friend yeast. Sodium Bicarbonate reacts with acids to produce carbon dioxide, creating bubbles to raise the food being cooked. Baking powder is baking soda with powdered acidic compounds, which are activated in a liquid: meaning that when you’re baking something without an acidic ingredient (chocolate, syrup, etc), you’re not scrambling to add something, like lemon juice, to get the desired reaction.
Bicarb has been with us in its modern form for 172 years, meaning that there’s been plenty of time for creative
chemists cooks to play with it and create some of the delicious treats that we love today. The Food Timeline dates ‘sponge candy’ – a mix of corn syrup, sugar, water, gelatin, baking soda and chocolate with a vague date circa 1940. However, after doing some digging here in New Zealand, I’ve found earlier versions. I referenced a 1927 New Zealand recipe for hokey pokey in my Anzac Biscuit post, and it turns out that the National Archives hold a patent from 1896 for “a new confection, to be called Hokey Pokey”.
The patent holder was one William Hatton, a manufacturing confectioner from Dunedin, New Zealand. The patent included a recipe, as follows:
“a mixture of about 20 to 30 lbs of sugar, five to ten pounds of fructose is mixed with a little water to a degree not exceeding 400° Frh here from 2 to
23 oz of bicarbonate of soda is added causing the mixture to froth and become light – it is poured out and moulded into any desired shape”
As we can see, the essential ingredients and process is the same, and I’m yet to find an older recipe.
Hokey pokey enjoys popularity as a sweet around the world, with variations as diverse as the cultures that enjoy it. In South Korea, it can be called Dalgona, which is eaten flat on a stick, with an indented pattern in the centre. The goal is to nibble around that pattern, which would appeal to children the world over. It’s also known as ppopgi. In America, you can find it under the names sponge candy, sea foam, old-fashioned puff, fairy food or angel food. In the UK, it’s known as Cinder Toffee or Honeycomb; which is the same name found in Australia and South Africa – although when I was a child in South Africa we called it Crunchie, no doubt because of the Cadbury chocolate bars. Tellingly, Nigella Lawson says that Hokey Pokey is a Cornish term for honeycomb toffee, so I think it possible that the name may have migrated to New Zealand with some of our early European settlers. Such a wide range of names implies that there will be a culinary history in each country and region, and that if you want to find the original you’d better spend a lot of time in cookbooks from the world over hunting for the elusive first recipe.
So what is it about is the relationship between Hokey Pokey the candy, and Hokey Pokey the ice cream? Hokey Pokey’s first recorded use, recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary, was in 1884 in the Sunday Magazine; calling it a “curiously compounded beverage”. A year later in 1885 we have the first reference to hokey pokey as ice cream, where A.W. Tuer in Old London Cries describes it as “a firmer make and probably a stiffer material than the penny ice of the Italians”. Italian ice cream vendors are strongly linked to the word, and it is believed that migrant Italians may have sang a (now lost) song featuring the word to advertise their sweet treats. Otherwise, it may have come from an anglicized interpretation of an Italian phrase: cries of oh che poco – “oh how little” or ecco un poco – “here is a (little) piece” are put forward as possible contenders. So, Hokey Pokey as an ice cream – any flavour ice cream – was the original definition in the UK and areas of the United States.
However, I cannot find any record of ‘Hokey Pokey’ being used to describe ice cream in general in New Zealand: it appears in relation to the flavour and the flavour alone. The country’s oldest ice cream company still in existence, Rush Munro’s, was founded in 1926, but at first sold candy before extending into the ice cream business. Tellingly, their website states that “our founder, Frederick Charles Rush Munro, may just have been the guy who invented it [Hokey Pokey ice cream]”. I wrote to Rush Munro’s to ask if they had a year for their first sale of Hokey Pokey ice cream, and what these seven forms of toffee may have been, but am yet to receive a reply. It may well be possible that Rush Munro was the first to add Hokey Pokey candy to vanilla ice cream, creating the second most popular ice cream flavour in New Zealand.
As with anything to do with language, it is strongly defined by the area and culture that uses it. I don’t know where our confectioner Willam Hatton got the idea to call this candy Hokey Pokey while it was being used, at the same time for ice cream back in the motherland, but he did, and in doing so created a nice little linguistic puzzle, as well as an iconic kiwi food. I do think that it is more likely that in New Zealand the candy took the name before the ice cream, and the ice cream flavour – as opposed to ice cream as an umbrella term – took the name of the added candy when a genius brought the two together to create an irresistible treat that no visit to the beach is complete without.