Sunday, December 29, 2013

English Toffee

A few years ago, I worked with a lady who always made the best toffee at Christmas.  And every winter after she cooked up a fresh batch, she'd send a small box to my department at work, where it barely lasted until the end of the day.  Her toffee was famous around our office.

Eager to try making it myself, I asked her if she would share her recipe with me, and I confidently plopped butter and sugar into a stockpot and started cooking.  What resulted was disappointment, as well as a few tears, over batch after failed batch that either burned, crystallized or separated.  I thought I was doing everything right, and simply had no idea if it was my electric stove, the high altitude, or just me.

After four attempts in one evening and a trashcan full of what began as perfectly good butter and sugar gone to waste, and only one batch that mysteriously succeeded but that I was unable to replicate, I put my attempts to rest.

And it wasn't until I began making my own salted caramel sauce, having discovered the secret use of a little corn syrup to counteract the crystallization of the granulated sugar, that I started daydreaming about making toffee again.  Maybe, just maybe, the same trick that helped me succeed at caramel making would guarantee a perfect batch of toffee.

But even though I was fairly certain it would work, it took me another winter to finally decide to try again.

Before our trip to see my family for Christmas, I wanted to cook up a batch of toffee to take along, as well as some seasoned almonds and pecans that I packed up in pretty little striped boxes a friend had given me for my birthday last summer.  So confident was I that the toffee would work this time, that I doubled my recipe and started with a whole pound of butter.

After melting the butter, I added the sugar, corn syrup, water and nutmeg.  I watched with bated breath as the sugar dissolved.  I carefully rinsed the sugar crystals off the wooden spoon, just in case.  I stirred the boiling sugar, ever so gently, my face hot and damp as I couldn't take my eyes off the toffee, my heart literally pounding for those 30 minutes, fearful that those beautiful bubbles would suddenly turn into grainy lumps.

As the timer ticked and the sugar darkened to amber and everything still looked as it should, I still couldn't relax.  It wasn't until I drizzled strands of toffee into ice water to check that it was at the hard crack stage, and then stirred in the vanilla and salted cashews and spread the toffee out onto the baking sheets that I knew.  It was, unarguably, a perfect batch of toffee.

One Year Ago:   Dark Chocolate Cherry Trifle with Grand Marnier
Two Years AgoA White Christmas

English Toffee

  • 1 pound unsalted butter
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup light corn syrup
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla
  • 2 1/2 cups chopped salted nuts, divided (I used cashews, but almonds or pecans are also good)
  • 2 cups bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate chips or finely chopped chocolate
  • 1/2 - 1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
  • 2 baking sheet pans
  • parchment paper
  • wooden spoon
  • heavy-bottomed stock pot
  • pastry brush

Baker's Note:
The addition of the corn syrup helps to prevent the sugar from crystallizing and/or separating from the butter while cooking.  Maintaining even temperature while cooking is important; a gas stove would be ideal, but I only have an electric stove, so a good quality, heavy-bottomed stock pot helps to maintain the temperature.

Line the baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.  Place the butter in the stockpot and melt over medium/medium-low heat.  Add the sugar, corn syrup, water, salt and nutmeg.  Stir gently with a wooden spoon, to dissolve the sugar, taking care not to splash the sides of the pan.  Use a wet pastry brush to wash down any sugar crystals that stick to the sides of the pan.  Rinse and dry the spoon to get rid of sugar crystals.

As the mixture begins to boil, continue to cook over medium/medium-low heat, stirring constantly but slowly and gently, just lazily trailing the spoon through the boiling sugar.  Cook until the toffee reaches the hard crack stage, about 25-30 minutes.

Baker's Note:
Candy thermometers have a recommended temperature for the stages of candy making from caramel to soft crack to hard crack, etc.  I find these to be unreliable, especially at high altitude, so I don't use a thermometer.  Instead, when the toffee begins to darken to pale amber in color, I drizzle a few strands of the toffee into a glass of ice water and then test the consistency between my teeth.  If it's chewy, it's not ready; continue testing it every minute until it crunches, and the toffee has reached the hard crack stage.

When the toffee has reached the correct temperature/hard crack stage, remove from the heat.  Quickly stir in the vanilla (the toffee will hiss and bubble) and 2 cups of the nuts.  Immediately pour onto the parchment-lined baking sheets, spreading it out to 1/4 inch thick.  Sprinkle with the chocolate chips; after a few minutes, when the chocolate is glossy and beginning to melt, spread the chocolate over the toffee.  Sprinkle with the reserved 1/2 cup nuts and the sea salt.

Let the toffee cool at room temperature for 30 minutes, then refrigerate to finish setting the chocolate.  With a sharp knife, break the toffee into shards and pack into containers.

Yields about 4 pounds toffee

Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen

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