Gifting Toffee

It may be totally impossible to say that phrase and not positively sing it whilst clapping your hands and maybe bouncing a little on your heels. And I'm not just saying that because I've been doing a lot of all three of those actions lately for reasons other than holiday confections. I know it's been quite a while since my last post, but I have a really good reason this time...

Baby C was born late August, a full two weeks early, and the surprises have not stopped since. She just turned three months the other day, and we are just hitting the sweet spot now (like all the books predicted, my baby is quite punctual and definitely didn't get that from me) where she greets mommy and daddy with big silly smiles and is falling into an excellent eating, playing and sleeping routine. Of course, these are all recent developments--the first two months were mainly a crash course in parental survival that no book or message board could ever have prepared me for. I wondered if I would ever be able to have any sort of hobby again that didn't involve a Baby Bjorn.

With the exception of a carrot cake deliriously baked at two weeks post-partum (and it was delicious), there hasn't been much activity on the baking front around here. And even if I'd had the brain power to blog, I couldn't bear to attempt to justify to you why the husband and I have eaten our way through no less than three boxes of Betty Crocker's Triple Chunk Brownie Mix since Baby C's arrival. I thought my KitchenAid mixer might need therapy, its sobs were so heavy. We don't believe in crying it out, so you can understand how heartbreaking it was to leave its gears so cold for so long.

Anyway, my point is that after a couple months of stumbling through the days with a newborn, things are getting back to normal around here. Well, it's our new normal, actually, and it's really pretty great. We're getting ready for Baby C's first Christmas, and she's even showing interest in what goes on the kitchen, kicking and chirping from her bouncer seat while I tell her about what's going into the pot or the mixing bowl. It's sort of like doing a live cooking show for an audience of one and I love it. She's entertained and I'm feeling more like myself again by working on some new recipes that just might become part of this year's Christmas treat tins.

Excuses to bake and candymake are plentiful right now, people--I hope you're taking advantage of that. If I can churn out some perfectly buttery, salty-sweet toffee (embellished with chocolate and almonds, no less) between changes and feedings and lollygagging on a Gymini play mat that plays Mozart's "Symphony No. 40 in G Major" overandoverandoverandover, then anyone can. Except for babies, they really should be kept away from cooking candy.

This toffee is a mashup of a few different recipes, and after a few tries (one that ended up splattered in a burnt, smoking mess all over my kitchen counter; do pay attention to your heat settings and try to minimize distractions, i.e. babies that wake up suddenly and very cranky from an afternoon nap) I arrived at this recipe that delivers the kind of toffee I love. It has a high butter to sugar ratio, and a good amount of salt that cuts through the sweetness of the candy and the chocolate coating. The snowy layer of almost-ground almonds dusted over the chocolate rather than in the toffee layer offer extra interest in terms of flavor, texture and an elegant appearance (although you can totally stir in chopped nuts later if you prefer). And it also saves you the embarrassment of having to lick your fingers clean of melty candy, since it will be bad enough that you'll be eating a quarter of the batch all by yourself as soon as it's cooled.

Gifting Toffee
Makes about 2 pounds

This recipe makes enough for two nice-sized gift tins of toffee. If you don't have fleur del sel, kosher salt can be used, but avoid using plain table salt as it can give a bitter, tinny flavor to the salty-sweet candy. The impressive amount of butter in this recipe makes refrigeration or even freezing a good idea if it will be stored for longer than a few days. This recipe can easily be doubled with great results, but try working with these smaller amounts, or maybe even halving this recipe as a practice run before making a bigger batch.

1 cup whole raw almonds
1/2 pound unsalted butter (2 sticks)
1 generous teaspoon fleur de sel (a level teaspoon of kosher salt also works, see note)
1 cup plus 6 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon corn syrup
6 ounces high quality semi-sweet chocolate chips (I like Ghiradelli)

Before you begin cooking the toffee, have at the ready a large cookie sheet (or two if you are doubling the recipe). I like to line mine with silicone liners, as it makes flipping the toffee while coating it much easier. Place half the almonds in a blender, food processor or clean coffee grinder and take them for a spin until they are chopped so fine they are almost like a powder with the occasional hunk of almond in the mix and set aside. Roughly chop the other half of the almonds by hand (for stirring into the candy later) and set aside.

In a medium, heavy bottomed saucepan, begin melting the butter over medium-high heat with the salt. Once the butter is about three-quarters melted, add the sugar all at once, followed by the corn syrup, and begin stirring immediately. Continue stirring, gently in a figure-eight motion, until the butter is completely melted and the sugar has begun to dissolve, about 5-7 minutes--the mixture will turn from looking like a separated mess into something much more smooth and homogenous. It will also just begin to bubble at this point and take on a lovely blond shade. Turn the heat down to medium-low and stir the candy occasionally. Think low and slow--the bubbling will be sort of groovy and dreamy-looking, not a full, rapid boil.

Once you notice a change in the color of the candy--about 10-15 minutes later--clip a candy thermometer to the side of the pan, making sure it doesn't touch the bottom of the pan. Continue stirring occasionally. You are looking for the candy to take on a beautiful, creamy toffee color and have the slightest scent of burnt sugar. The candy should ultimately reach a temperature of 290 degrees (soft crack stage), but once it hits about 280, take it off the heat, as it will continue cooking further and it can burn quickly. As soon as you remove it from the heat, stir in the almonds you've chopped by hand. Immediately (and very carefully) pour the toffee onto the prepared baking sheet. Use a heatproof spatula to pop any bubbles that rise to the surface of the candy while it's still hot. Set the toffee aside to cool for about 30 minutes.

When the toffee is cooled, melt half of the chocolate chips in a double boiler or in the microwave for 30 second increments, stirring after each one. Spread the chocolate in a thin, even layer over the toffee and sprinkle generously with the ground almonds. Pop the sheet pan in the freezer for about five minutes, or until the chocolate is completely set underneath the almonds. While the candy sets, melt the second half of the chocolate chips. Carefully flip the candy slab over and repeat the chocolate and ground almond embellishment process, putting the sheet back into the freezer for a final set. When the chocolate is completely hardened, break the toffee into charmingly irregular pieces and store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.

Recipe edited 12/14/09

CandyShauna Sever