Have you ever revisited a recipe you used to make? That happened to me over the weekend when my daughter asked me to make a batch of English toffee to give to her teachers as end-of-year presents. It had been about a decade since I went on my toffee-making kick. I’ve always been interested in recipes that involve a chemical transformation but don’t require careful measurements.
Toffee is like this: once you’ve made it once, you can eyeball it and get it to the right stage of hardness only using sight and smell. Once the sugar-butter mixture is hot enough to toast the almonds, it’s perfect.
After I put the recipe in the paper, I started to get a few complaints from readers who attempted the recipe, only to have it break into gobs of sugar and puddles of butter. I tried the recipe again, and sure enough it broke on me. When it happened one more time, I called the great Atlanta food scientist (and great friend) Shirley Corriher to get her input.
“Just stir a little water in if it breaks,” she said. “You’ll get your caramel right back.” It worked like the promised charm.
If you try this recipe and the mixture does break, just be sure to add as little water as you can get away with. Once you go above three tablespoons you’ll end up with a chewy rather than brittle toffee.
The toffee, for the record, did not break on this latest attempt. In fact, it was so good that I began to wonder why it’s taken me a decade to go back to it.
Makes 25 servings
Pulse the almonds three or four times in a food processor until they are broken into large chunks.
Remove about half and set aside; grind the remaining almonds into a coarse meal. Set aside.
Melt butter with salt in a medium saucepan over a medium flame. Stir the sugar in slowly with a wooden spoon.
Continue cooking, stirring pretty constantly for about 15 minutes. The sugar will at first sink to the bottom of the pot. It will gradually melt and begin to incorporate into the butter. The mixture will turn from yellow to off-white and begin to look like taffy — gaining slightly in volume and turning slightly elastic. It will then gradually darken to tan, keeping a pearlescent appearance. When it turns tan, stir in the large chunks of almond and the vanilla, which will darken the toffee. Continue stirring until the almonds begin to toast and become very fragrant, about 5 to 10 minutes (your nose will tell you when it’s ready). If it begins to “sweat” a few beads of butter on the surface, take it off the heat. If the mixture breaks, whisk in water by the spoonful until it re-emulsifies. Stir it vigorously off the heat and pour into an ungreased stickproof 11-inch-by-15-inch baking sheet and help it to settle into the corners of the pan.
Cut chocolate into chunks and melt over a double boiler. Spread half the chocolate over the surface of the cooling toffee with a pastry spatula. Cover with half the finely ground almonds. When cool enough to harden (about 20 minutes at room temperature), invert the pan over another pan and bend it to loosen the toffee. (Don’t worry if it cracks.) Spread the other side with melted chocolate and dust with the remaining ground almonds.
Place in refrigerator to harden thoroughly. Break into pieces and pack with any excess ground almonds into airtight containers or bags. Refrigerate or freeze until ready to serve.
Per serving: 375 calories (percent of calories from fat, 69), 5 grams protein, 27 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams fiber, 29 grams fat, 40 milligrams cholesterol, 83 milligrams sodium.