Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Uncle Henry's Christmas toffee

Reader, I hope you have patience and/or interest in more cooking projects, because Miles and Laurel is just steamrolling ahead with holiday recipe recaps. I have the rest of the year to ramble about soups, okay?  Outside of the workday, my poor overworked oven and stove have been completely booked with the season's culinary adventures.

Last night, it was Christmas toffee! 

There's a story behind this project.  My dad has made this toffee every Christmas for as long as I can remember - at least 25 years, he said last night.  We always call it Aunt Francis' Christmas Toffee, after my dad's great-aunt (I think that's right).  But I learned last night that it was actually her husband, Uncle Henry, who made the toffee annually for family parties.  Francis actually made some fudge that was reportedly less well-received at these gatherings, so I'm not sure how she nabbed credit for this one.  Anyway, I will have to work hard now to retrain myself to call it Uncle Henry's Christmas Toffee.

I wanted Dad to teach me how to make it, both because of the family tradition and because I want to bring some to Colorado for Christmas.  (Shh, if you are reading this from Colorado!)

The recipe is astonishing simple, and it reads like this:
  • an Enormous, Tremendous Amount of butter
  • a Huge Portion of white sugar
  • Quite a Lot of corn syrup
  • a few handfuls of almonds
First, you boil the almonds for five minutes and then take the skins off.  You need three dishes for this part of the process.  I seem to remember this process from my youth as excruciatingly tedious, but it totally wasn't that bad.  Deal with it!

As an added bonus, I think the almonds look really pretty afterward.

Then you melt the butter and sugar and corn syrup all together in one pan over medium heat.  I didn't take a picture of it because the butter, frankly, is frightening in quantity.  But once it all mellows down to a mostly even consistency, you add in the almonds.  This was Josh's job.

Then you just stir...and stir...and stir.   Here's Dad, coaching me sternly:

The color starts out very, very pale.  Then it carefully turns a little bit browner, one tiny shade at a time, as the almonds toast gently and the butter and sugar combine.  Then it bubbles and bubbles, not unlike a caldron.

My dad taught us the four stages of candy-making, based on heat level: soft ball (like fudge), hard ball (like caramels), soft crack and hard crack.  This toffee should be at soft crack level, which is pretty serious heat that's way above boiling.  Through the cooking process, you can test your batch by dropping a spoonful into ice water.  If it's gummy, it's not done yet.  When it turns to the consistency you're seeking once you drop it into water, it's ready!

Watch the colors change.  I can still smell the toffee just looking at these photos.

When it gets to the desired soft crack, you whip it off the burner and pour the contents into a pan (or two pans, if you tripled the batch like we did).

And smile and hope you didn't burn it!

Then you hang out and wait for the pans to cool.  You can put them outside or in a cold garage to expedite the process.  You can lounge by the fireplace during this time.  Don't fret about the toffee - the hard work is done.  We waited, like, an hour. 

Then comes what some might call the most fun part. You have to mash and crunch the toffee apart into very small pieces.  I wanted to use a hammer.  I still think you could use a hammer.  Dad had us use regular dinner knives.  It's a little tricky to start the process, he says, so he got a corner going for us.

Pound, pound, pound!  This is very satisfying.

And there it is: buttery, caramely, almondy toffee.  It's just a tad softer than brittle, to give you an idea of its consistency.  The triple recipe made an enormous amount of toffee, but between Josh's office, my office, and the Christmas batch for Colorado, we may have to tackle it again on our own later this month.

Thank you, Dad - and thank you, Uncle Henry!

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