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By Popular Demand: English Toffee

Sunday, January 13th, 2008

Although my candy recipients appreciate all the candies I make, the majority of them are most eager to sample the toffee. This year I made two different kinds of toffee: the same classic English Toffee I have been making for a decade and Coffee English Toffee, which I first made earlier this year. In the USA, English Toffee, made famous by Brown and Haley’s pink tins of Almond Roca, is a bit of a misnomer—like English muffins or French fries. The toffee you typically find in England is actually more like a semi-hard caramel. A former co-worker brought some back from England last year and I eagerly helped him finish the bag of toffee chunks. I’ll take either kind of toffee, thank you.

Making English Toffee isn’t terribly difficult, but it does take a little time. Since it is so popular with my candy recipients, I make 3 – 4 batches, usually over the course of 2 evenings. I grind up 10 pounds of almonds for coating, though not all 10 pounds go into the candy. I usually lose about 15% to almond flour, generated during the chopping process, which I sift out. It’s easiest to coat the dipped toffee by laying them in a bed of almonds; a couple pounds go to layering 2 jellyroll pans. A few hours of dipping and coating with almonds, and I’m done. To differentiate the toffees, I left the tops of the coffee toffee almond-free, and later striped them with milk chocolate.

If you have never made toffee before and would like to, I’d recommend skipping the enrobing and coating with almonds for your first batch. You’ll shave off at least an hour or two in prep time and get a feel for making toffee. Un-dipped toffee is great broken over coffee ice cream or just eaten raw. With all the butter and sugar, what isn’t there to like?

English Toffee, like most sugar candies, is hygroscopic, which just means it absorbs moisture from the air. Excessive exposure to air will cause the toffee to lose its crunch, so you want to keep it wrapped with waxed paper in an airtight container until you are ready to serve. Of course, the best, and most delicious way to safeguard toffee from humidity is to wrap it in chocolate. I like dark chocolate, so I dip mine in 72% Valrhona Araguani chocolate and then set them in a bed of freshly chopped almonds. Dipped toffee will stay fresh for several weeks.

Below are just a few highlights of toffee making:

Cook 2 1/2 cups unsalted butter, 2 cups sugar, 1/2 cup water, 1 teaspoon salt and 1 cup of chopped almonds until mixture registers 305° F while stirring constantly.

Quickly pour toffee onto oiled marble board or silpat mat. As it cools, repeatedly score toffee to desired sizes.

Once toffee cools you can slide it over the edge of working surface and break along score lines.

Dip toffee in your favorite chocolate.

Place dipped toffee in a bed of chopped almonds. Sprinkle almonds over top to completely cover in almonds.

You can also skip the top coating of almonds and drizzle contrasting stripes of milk or white chocolate on the tops.

Recipes, exhaustive instructions and photo galleries can be found on the English Toffee recipe page and Coffee English Toffee recipe page. Other good resources, in alphabetical order, include:

50 pounds later, I return after a well deserved break

Saturday, December 29th, 2007

Pictured above is this year’s batch of holiday candies. I started with 17 pounds of chocolate, 10 pounds of sugar, 1 1/2 gallons of heavy cream, 5 pounds of butter, 1/2 gallon of corn syrup, 10 pounds of almonds and a few other ingredients to produce about 50 pounds of candies. This year I made 7 different kinds of candy: English Toffee, Coffee English Toffee, Classic Cream Caramels dipped in milk chocolate and another batch just wrapped, Espresso Caramels, Gianduja Truffles, Mocha Truffles, and Pecan Maple Caramels. I will share more detailed photos of each in a later post.

With each holiday season comes a return to The List, which I use to manage recipients of holiday candies. The total number of recipients has been hovering at just over 40 recipients over the years to divide the nearly 50 pounds of candy between. I wish I could make 100 pounds of candy, but I just don’t have the time. It is always a challenge to pick out 40 or so recipients from the ever growing list of friends. Read more about the challenges of maintaining the list.

Near Disaster
I almost thought my chocolate tempering machine broke while dipping caramels. The display started to flicker, the motor sound changed. To be honest, I was almost relieved, since I still had to make and dip truffles. A broken tempering machine this late in the season would mean no more candymaking and a much needed rest for me.

The past few years I have been taking a few days off of work in mid-December to help absorb the more than 40 hours that go into my annual candymaking marathon (read about last year’s). I wasn’t able to take time off this year since I just started a new job, and needed what little vacation time I had for the Holidays. The tempering machine hung in there, and apart from making a few strange noises that night, continued to turn out great tempered chocolate for my caramels and truffles.

A sort of homecoming? Tins return to base.

Sunday, February 11th, 2007

Last week my wife called me at work to tell me there was a box at the door. I was expecting a package, but my wife told me that this wasn’t that package. She said there was a box of metal tins at our front door with a business card. When she told me who it was from I recalled the last time they gave me a bunch of tins, and so I was expecting a bunch of random tins that would be challenging to reuse. Giving someone my chocolates packaged in a tin that is clearly labeled as peppermint bark from Restoration Hardware is not the first impression I want when giving homemade candies. When I got home I was thrilled to discover several years worth of large tins—tins with familiar designs I had hand delivered over the last couple years.

Finding good metal tins that don’t already have food in them or, when empty, aren’t limited to holding only two truffles is actually a challenge. I buy almost all of my tins at Cost Plus World Market. Each year they stock a new pattern, and this box on my porch had tin designs spanning the past three years. This past November I dropped more than $100 on about two dozen tins of varying sizes. With prices ranging from $2.99 to $4.99, depending on size, the total cost of producing more than 40 gift packages during the holidays gets pretty expensive, with nearly 1/4 of the costs being packaging. Of course, my time is still not factored in—I gotta change that one of these days!

As of this writing, almost twenty tins I have given away have found their way home. Recipients are happy knowing that they are guaranteed to stay on the list the following year, and I am thrilled to save a little money. Since not all the tins make it home, I end up with a good variety of tins each holiday season, which is also nice. I haven’t seen our friends who dropped of the tins on our porch in a couple years, so I was surprised that they came all the way down from Marin to drop off the box on our porch. The sad thing is, had I known they were coming I could have filled one of the tins up with the Coffee English Toffee I had just made the day before! I’ll be sure to fill their tin up nice and full this holiday season.

As promised: Coffee English Toffee

Tuesday, February 6th, 2007

There’s nothing like having a food blog to motivate you to make something new. Add to that my promise to make my own mocha roca two weeks ago and I had to deliver. Originally inspired by leftover ingredients from my 2006 candymaking marathon and Brown & Haley’s Mocha Roca, I searched for a coffee toffee recipe online without much luck. Other candies I make with coffee flavor utilize espresso powder, so I figured it made sense to use some here, too. I noticed some coffee flavored candies also use real coffee or espresso, so after a trip to Starbucks for a couple shots, I was ready.

On my web search, I did come across Shaymee’s Dark Chocolate Espresso Toffee, which had no almond coating but was covered in milk chocolate stripes, similar to decorations I do for dipped caramels and truffles. Given that part of the reason I was making toffee was that I had leftover chopped almonds from the holidays, I compromised and only coated one side of the toffee with almonds. I think the bare chocolate side with stripes looks pretty dressy and easily differentiates this toffee from regular English Toffee.

When you first bite into one of these toffees, the coffee flavor comes on fast and strong, but quickly fades and is overtaken by the buttery toffee flavor. I’d personally like the coffee flavor to linger for a while—a sentiment echoed by several tasters—but I’m not sure exactly how to achieve that goal. Perhaps a liqueur or some other coffee flavoring would prolong the flavor—I’m open to ideas! I’m definitely planning on adding these to my holiday candymaking.

Ingredients for making Coffee English Toffee.

Pour in espresso shots before adding espresso powder.

Once mixture reaches 260° F, add 1 cup chopped almonds and stir constantly until 305° F.

Score toffee repeatedly while hot. Once cool it can be easily broken along score lines.

Remove excess chocolate by scraping or bobbing.

Carefully and quickly drizzle tempered milk chocolate over exposed chocolate sides of toffees.

I brought most of these into work and delivered them to nearly 30 people, most of whom had never had toffee that was less than 24 hours old. They were a hit and I had several people wandering by my cube later in the day to see if there were any left. The recipe, with detailed instructions and complete photo gallery, can be found on the Coffee English Toffee recipe page.

Mocha Roca: I’m going to make my own!

Sunday, January 21st, 2007

I promised myself I would steer clear of reviewing commercial candy on this site, but I had to mention Brown & Haley’s Mocha Roca. I almost bought some over the holidays while shopping at Costco, but it was part of a variety pack that included four separate tins: almond, cashew, peppermint candy and mocha. Given that I was about to make more than ten pounds of my own English toffee and two of the other flavors did not sound appealing, I decided not to buy it.

Earlier this month I was recently browsing some food blogs and came across an entry on Tweet Sweet’s blog entitled, “Almond Roca – It’s Not Just for Old People.” I had a good chuckle since, well, it’s true. Just about anyone not allergic to nuts has had Almond Roca, but it usually was not being given to you by your best friend in third grade or while trick or treating on Halloween. I recall being introduced to Almond Roca by my mother, who liked to joke that it looked like little cat poops rolled in kitty litter. Was that to scare me away so she could have more for herself? Anyway—I digress.

Last week, while crusing my local supermarket’s candy section looking for Reeses pieces Peanut Butter with Peanuts—turns out it was a limited edition—I came across a small tin of mocha roca and took it home to try. The flavor is very reminiscent of Ben & Jerry’s Coffee English Toffee Crunch; may it rest in peace in their flavor graveyard. Like so many people, coffee toffee crunch was ultimately done in by a diet high in fat. I think if Ben & Jerry had used a coffee ice cream like Swensen’s Turkish coffee, which I think has a leaner cream base, the life of their toffee coffee crunch might have been saved. The coffee flavor in this mocha roca is pretty good.

Taking matters into my own hands
If I could change one thing about the mocha roca it would be to roll them in almonds instead of cashews. The good news is that I actually have plenty of chopped almonds and dark chocolate left from my holiday candymaking marathon to make this myself. A quick search for recipes online has yielded no true coffee flavored English toffee recipes, but I think I can come up with my own without too much fuss using espresso powder or actual espresso in the recipe. I plan on making my own mocha toffee by Valentine’s day so look for an update and recipe in the coming month.

Like chocolate turtles? Check out chocolate dipped pecan maple caramels.

Saturday, January 6th, 2007

The first year I made candies I only made mocha truffles. The following year saw the addition of classic cream caramel and English toffee. Those three reigned for more than 5 years before I added gianduja truffles and chocolate caramels (I may make these chocolate caramels again, they were good, but my son hated the way they smelled when cooking). Last year saw the introduction of espresso caramels and a second failed batch of maple pecan caramels. This year I was again determined to add another candy to my repertoire.

Discovering the obvious
I spent some time looking for another type of candy to make. Although there is a lot you can do with truffles flavor-wise, I finally decided on a peanut caramel. It sounded like a home made pay-day candy bar, except I would be dipping mine in dark chocolate. When it came time to buy nuts for candies at Trader Joes, I suddenly realized I could substitute pecans for the peanuts.

My wife has been bugging me to make caramel pecan turtles, which she loves. I made a dozen about five years ago, but the problem with turtles is that they are difficult to package with other candies since they are very fragile. This past year I have been brainstorming on how I might combine these three ingredients that go so well together. I originally envisioned just making the classic cream caramel recipe and wrapping a pecan half inside before dipping in dark chocolate. For this recipe, the pecans are coarsely chopped and you just stir them in rather than wrap them. What could be easier?

A great way to jump into candymaking
This caramel is so easy to make, I would say it was the easiest candy for a person with no experience making candies to make (undipped truffles previously held that title). The cream does not need to be heated separately and the temperature only needs to be monitored once, so it was a very quick recipe to make. I wasn’t too sure about the temperature targets in the original recipe, it looked much higher than I like for most caramels. To be safe I lowered the target temperature a few degrees, but this still produced a caramel that was more firm than I like for dipping in chocolate, which I like to be just a little gooey. It was getting late and I debated just going to bed, but these caramels are so quick and easy to make I decided to go for another batch, this time adding some maple syrup.

Since it was late and I wasn’t sure whether adding maple syrup would result in crystallization like the failed maple caramels from last two years, I decided to just shove a silpat mat in my one remaining baking dish rather than line with foil coated with safflower oil. I quickly cooked the caramel with the added maple syrup to a lower target temperature than the first batch and poured it into the silpat lined dish. Once covered in plastic wrap, I headed to bed. The next morning I removed the caramel from the silpat I was pretty thrilled to have the entire slab just peel right off with no effort. This was much easier than peeling bits of foil. Sometimes the foil peels off in tiny slivers and takes 15 minutes or more to remove.

Combine the sugars, syrups and cream and boil until target temperature is reached.

Stir in pecans and pour into prepared baking dish.

Caramel cross section shows off the delicious pecan bits.

Caramels can be wrapped in wax paper if you prefer not to dip in chocolate.

For decorating with tempered chocolate, simply snip the corner off a plastic bag and begin piping.

Simple stripes of contrasting chocolate makes the candy look as good as it tastes.

I dipped these delicious caramels in Valrhona 72% Araguani chocolate. My wife was thrilled with the neat, bite sized turtles and I had several candy recipients say that these caramels were their new favorite—the English toffee still holds a comfortable lead. The maple flavor in these caramels is subtle and I may experiment with exchanging corn syrup for maple syrup next year. The recipe, with detailed instructions and complete photo gallery, can be found on the Pecan Maple Caramel recipe page.