There’s something addictive about that moment when you hand someone a homemade treat and that person’s face lights up as if you’ve just given him or her a hug. It turns baking into therapy, food into an olive branch and those you share it with into a family.
I’ve experienced that joy for many years, by virtue of being the delivery girl every winter. I may have switched from wearing hair bows and Christmas dresses to newsboy caps and tall boots, but that feeling stays the same, and I always come bearing gifts.
Ever since I can remember, December is when my mother takes to the kitchen like a magician and begins to turn out hand-crafted happiness. The aroma of sweet cakes baking in the oven or candy bubbling hot in a pot on the stove greets me at the end of each day. The sugary sensation alone is enough to make you swoon, especially on a bitterly cold day.
Take one bite of pound cake, English toffee, pralines, baklava or sugared pecans and you know that this didn’t come from the store. Yet again, my mom has a way of making you feel as though she has baked all of the love in her heart into each treat. When you taste it, you know she made it with you in mind.
Opening a wax paper-lined decorative tin and popping a piece of chocolate- and pecan-coated crunchy toffee into your mouth is bliss. I know this for myself, but I’ve heard it from others. Over the years, the gifts have gone out to countless friends, family members, teachers, co-workers, customers and colleagues. My dad and I are the proud delivery folks for my mother’s creations, soaking up the good karma vibes wherever our dispensing takes us.
Every reaction just makes my day, and I collect the compliments to take home and share with my mom. It’s witnessing the excited expressions on my friends’ faces as they recognize the telltale shopping bags bulging with tins. Other times, it’s handing out that extra tin I always carry “just in case” when I see someone, perhaps an acquaintance, who seems down or unhappy, and watching that person’s face transform into a beaming smile.
One year on “delivery day,” an ice storm hit our North Georgia town and knocked out the power at my high school. Mr. Friedman, my English teacher (and oracle), was without a lunch, but he feasted on the treats all day. Although he had a little bit of a sugar buzz, I’ll never forget the utter contentment on his face as he sat munching toffee and pound cake in between and during classes, a Bob Dylan-esque cap sitting jauntily on his head. It is, somehow, a perfect memory.
My mother has been making people feel this way for at least 25 years. And luckily, she has taught me the same recipes, so I can spread a similar joy.
The woman has mastered pralines and sugared pecans, finicky candies that can so easily set up like cement without an intrepid hand to control the process. And a few years ago, she decided to take on a new challenge: English toffee.
Now when I say challenge, I mean this in relation to a woman who is fearless in the kitchen. At 6 years old, she was standing on a kitchen chair over the stove and trying to make candy with half of the things she needed. If she had three of the required ingredients, she was “going for it.” No amount of failure deterred her, and to this day, I’ve never seen anyone so tenacious.
These days, my mom churns out batches of her own recipe for English toffee without a second thought. So when I tell you not to fear making toffee, or any candy, it comes with the reassurance and tips provided by “the magician.” Don’t let the list of instructions intimidate you — it’s to be sure you’ve got all you need to know! Make it one time and you’ll feel like a pro, and an excellent gift-giver.
Screw your courage to the sticking place and take up the challenge to defy expectations of sub-par gifts or gift cards with delightful homemade treats.
(Makes almost 3 ½ pounds)
½ cup water
2 teaspoons of butter, melted, to brush foil
2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons light corn syrup (this makes the texture less like peanut brittle)
1 teaspoon salt (if using unsalted butter)
3 cups chopped pecans
12 ounces milk chocolate chips
6 ounces semisweet chocolate chips
1 pound of unsalted butter, or 1 pound of lightly salted butter if opting out of the salt
Tools to make it easier on yourself:
Heavy-bottomed medium saucepan
Two ¼-inch, 15″ x 20″ plywood boards
Wide heavy-duty aluminum foil
1. Tear off 23″ in length of 18″-wide, heavy-duty aluminum foil and brush the matte, non-shiny side with melted butter. Fold 2 ½” on each side, forming a makeshift pan. This should leave you with a 13″ x 18″ surface on which to pour the hot toffee. This fits perfectly on the plywood with some room around the edges. This will function as your “pan” for the toffee. An actual pan keeps in the heat, which doesn’t allow the toffee to set up as quickly. The board will also keep the hot candy from scorching your work surface.
2. Stir together the ½ cup water and corn syrup.
3. Pour this mixture into a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add sugar and butter and clip your candy thermometer to the side of the pan before it gets hot. Turn on the heat to medium high, stirring constantly.
4. While this is cooking — it should take a while to reach 310 degrees Fahrenheit — put ½” of water in the bottom component of the double boiler and turn it on low. Pour your chocolate chips into the top component and melt chocolate. Once the chocolate is melted, turn it off and it’s ready to spread on the toffee.
5. Chop pecans and have them ready to sprinkle on the finished toffee.
6. The candy is going to start bubbling and thickening, and eventually turn a caramel color, until it reaches 310 degrees (the “hard crack stage” in candy making).
7. When it reaches that temperature, remove from heat immediately.
8. Carefully pour candy onto foil evenly. If need be, you can grip the plywood base to tilt it in the right direction if it doesn’t spread.
9. If you use these exact measurements, wait 4-5 minutes before cutting the toffee. If you use a smaller space, you will need more time for the candy to cool.
10. Using a pizza cutter (blunt is best; sharp will go through the foil, but if all you have is a sharp pizza cutter, use a light hand), run through the toffee length and width to create 1 ½-inch squares. (If your pizza cutter doesn’t leave an impression, it’s still too warm and you might want to wait another minute before trying again). This will help the toffee to break later, rather than forming definite squares.
11. After cutting, lift the top part of double boiler off and dry the bottom of it so it doesn’t drip onto the candy. Take a spatula and spread a thin layer of chocolate over the top of the toffee. You can use just enough to cover the surface, but thickness is up to personal preference.
12. Liberally sprinkle the chopped pecans on top of the melted chocolate.
13. Place an unbuttered sheet of foil on top of the toffee and tuck foil around edges. Place your second board of plywood on top and flip it over.
14. After flipping, remove the top board and let sit for 1-2 minutes before you remove foil. If you peel the foil and it starts to stick, wait another minute and it should come off.
15. Once you peel off the foil, repeat the chocolate and nut process.
16. Cover this with another piece of foil and the second plywood board, and flip it over again.
17. Remove the top piece of foil and, retaining the bottom piece of foil, slide it off of the board and onto a wire cooling rack.
18. Sit the wire rack in the coolest room of your house. The toffee needs to cool for at least a few hours.
19. After it is cool, break the toffee into pieces. It usually breaks where the pizza cutter went through. If it isn’t breaking into even pieces, it doesn’t matter.
20. Store the toffee in wax paper-lined tins at room temperature and it will keep for weeks.