My friend Carol will tell you I am NOT a cook, and she’s right. Cooks invent new ways to turn daily caloric input into stuff I can only dream about (unless Carol invites me over for dinner, because Carol is a cook).
Me? Food geek. Food geeks could care less about daily meals, but give us a challenge, or slip some fascinating cookery science into the mix, and we’ll spend an entire week in the kitchen, coming up with new recipes. So this time, I came up with salted hazelnut toffee with chocolate, which is pretty daggone tasty, if I do say so myself.
Backstory: Every holiday season my mother-in-law** made the world’s best toffee. It was crunchy-tender, not too sweet, redolent of toasted peanuts and chocolate, and had a delicious, unexpected spurt of butter at the finish.
She made it in a special square cast-iron pan, one precious batch at a time. Only a favored few ever got Bernie’s toffee, but if you were lucky, those golden-nuggets-of-delight were the highlight of the season.
Once I married Bernie’s son, she shared the recipe. I never once correctly reproduced it; no matter how closely I followed her instructions, mine came out too soupy, too hard, too grainy, or too something. I think she left out a critical process, because whenever I’d ask her about it, she’d simply give me an enigmatic smile.
“You need the special pan, dear,” she’d say serenely. I grimaced and turned my failures into ice cream topping (the eventual destination for all failed candy recipes) for years. Eventually, I gave up.
Fast-forward to December 2014:
I needed to
bribe thank a co-worker for project help, so I stopped off at the local Sees Candy. They had Victorian Toffee that looked just like Bernie’s toffee, so I bought some to share with the crew.
Whoa!! That stuff wasn’t fit to be in the same ROOM with Bernie’s golden-nuggets-of-delight!!
I needed to conquer toffee for the holidays. Thanks to the Internet, a guy named Harold McGee,*** and a few extra years of candymaking experience, I reproduced Bernie’s toffee…then went her one better and invented my own.
This version is a lot easier to master, and instead of peanuts, pays homage to Glassland with genuine Oregon hazelnuts and some subtle spices. Here’s the recipe, along with some advice.
I’m not much for eating sweets but I love making them, probably because–like making glass–it’s as much science as art.
- Read the directions and follow them exactly (or figure out the science and learn how to break the rules). Heatwork–not just the temperature you reach but the time it takes to get there–can be important, as can the order in which you add ingredients.
- An accurate candy thermometer is critical (I actually use two, a standard bulb thermometer that stays in the pan and an infrared digital that tells me when I’m getting close)
- The cooking pan is also important; it should have a thick/heavy bottom that can heat extremely evenly to prevent hotspots. If you don’t have one you’ll need to stir constantly (and pretty quickly) to keep the candy heating evenly. I have a Kuhn-Rikon pressure-cooker that works perfectly for this, but if you’ve got a cast-iron pot you’ve got the classic candy-cooker.
- Silpats are best. Most candy-makers turn candy out onto buttered wax paper, or parchment paper. If you’ve got a silpat (silicone sheet), you’ll be happier. I don’t like using aluminum foil because it tends to need peeling off the candy and makes a mess.
- Prep EVERYthing before you start melting the butter. It only takes one second of searching/chopping/unwrapping for boiling toffee to metamorphose from golden-nuggets-of-delight to burnt-offering-from-hell.
- Butter the sides of the saucepan before you start. The butter helps prevent crystallization from building on the walls of the pan and ruining the toffee. (For me, anyway) butter works better than washing down the sides of the pan with cold water.
- Use toasted almonds as a nut base. You’ll notice almonds tucked into the hazelnuts in this recipe, even though they don’t get top billing. I’ve found that they add a sort of meaty foundation that boosts the flavor. The other way you can go with this is to boost the hazelnuts to about 340 grams and then add 30-40 grams of shredded coconut (toast it right along with the nuts)…but that’s up to you.
- Boost the nutty flavor with matching nut oil(s). If you’re really serious the toasted nut flavor (and you have a nephew who obliges you with fresh hazelnut oil for Christmas), add a half teaspoon of hazelnut oil to the butter as it’s melting. TEST your oil first to make sure it’s not rancid; I’ve noticed that hazelnut and walnut oil, especially, turn pretty quickly once opened.
- I use European-style butter because it generally has a higher butterfat percentage with less moisture content than North American butter–it makes a slightly richer-tasting candy. But either type is fine.
- Corn syrup first. It helps retard the tendency of the sugar to crystallize and make the toffee grainy. Most of the recipes I saw add it fairly late in the process; I add it early to make sure the molecules are evenly distributed before the sugar arrives.
- Go by weight, not volume. Note that I’m listing the weights of ingredients (mostly); candy proportions are persnickety. I find weight to be more accurate.
Salted hazelnut toffee with chocolate
- 300 grams (about 1.5 cups) whole hazelnuts
- 75 grams (about 0.75 cup) whole or slivered almonds
- 230g (1 cup) of unsalted European-style butter
- 1 teaspoon Karo syrup (white corn syrup)
- 1/2 cup water
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 200 grams (about 1 cup) sugar (my favorite is a mix of 80g white refined sugar, 120g light/golden brown sugar)
- 1 teaspoon GOOD vanilla
- 5-10 grates of fresh nutmeg
- almond extract
- pinch of fresh cardamom
- 250 grams of really good chocolate
- 2 teaspoons of fancy salt
- heavy-bottomed saucepan, at least 2 quarts, to cook the toffee mixture
- 1 silpat mat
- 1 jellyroll pan (cookie sheet)
- 1 wooden spoon, silicone spatula, set of measuring spoons, measuring cup for wet ingredients, knife for nut chopping, etc.
- accurate digital scale
- candy thermometer
- medium-sized bowl for nut/chocolate topping
- small cup, plate or mise en place bowl for the flavorings that go into the toffee mix
Nuts. Put the silpat on the baking sheet, spread all the nuts on top, and toast in a 300-degree oven for 15-20 minutes. Check on them every 5 minutes, rotating the nuts and checking them. If they begin to smell like toasted nuts or start to show color; remove them immediately (they’re starting to burn). Mix the nuts up, then coarsely chop half the nuts and set aside (these will go into the toffee). Finely chop the other half (these go on top of the toffee) and put in the topping bowl. Set aside.
Chocolate. I used a mixture of Ghiradelli Semisweet, Varlhona Milk, Godiva Milk, and Scharffenberger Dark, but that’s because I’m also doing chocolate taste tests. Use whatever good chocolate you like best; I tend to prefer a mix of light and dark. I find it easiest to chill the chocolate bar a bit and then grate it, but you can also chop it or put it through a nut chopper or food processor (don’t overprocess).
You’re looking for intact (not smushed) pieces of chocolate no bigger than rice grains when you’re done. Pour them into the toppings bowl with the nuts, mix, and set aside.
Flavorings. Pour a tiny bit of almond extract into your flavorings bowl, swirl it around and dump out the excess, so that you just have a thin coating of extract on the bowl. Any more than that overpowers the rest of the flavors. Add the vanilla, grate the nutmeg on top, and add the cardamom, stir briefly to mix. Set aside.
Sugar. Any type–brown, dark brown, turbinado, white refined–will work, as long as it’s crystalline and you go by weight, not volume. Pure white sugar will be sweetest, with less concentrated nut flavor. Dark brown will be redolent of molasses and probably too strong for most folk. I used to use 200g of golden/light brown sugar, but lately I prefer a 40:60 mix of white:light brown (80g white, 120g light brown)..
Salt. A crunchy sea-salt is a nice contrast; I had some Fleur de sel around but any fancy coarse salt will work. The larger crystal is an unexpected flavorburst in the midst of all that sweetness–the particles should be maybe 2mm in size, no larger.
Prep everything else. Unwrap the butter and set it in the cold saucepan. Rub one stick thoroughly around the sides of the pan, coating them more or less evenly with butter. Sounds odd, I know, but you’ll thank me later when your syrup doesn’t crystalize.
Measure out the water in the measuring cup and pour in the corn syrup. Set the cup by the stove, where you can easily reach it. Measure out the salt and brown sugar, set them next to the water mixture and put the toppings bowl and nut/chocolate mixture nearby. Attach the candy thermometer to the pan, get your spoon ready.
Clean off the silpat, set it in the jelly roll pan and put it next to the stove, ready to receive the toffee.
Now take a deep breath.
On your mark, get set…make toffee!
Put the saucepan with the butter on the stove, crank it to medium-low heat. Let the butter melt slowly, stirring a bit to get it going. When the butter melts, add the water and stir that in, then add the salt and brown sugar. Stir it all together, and start watching the thermometer.
You’re going for a boil, but take your time doing it. The faster you heat, the faster things can go wrong. It takes me 30-40 minutes to get to the toffee point on my thermometer. Do NOT turn up the heat to make the thermometer rise faster; you’ll likely scorch the toffee.
You don’t have to stir continuously right now unless you’ve got a very thin-bottomed pan (please tell me you don’t)…but keep your eye glued to that thermometer. The mixture will start to bubble in earnest around 190F. At about 225F, it darkens slightly and thickens up. Approaching 245F, it’ll slow and appear to get stuck for a bit.
Be patient–DO NOT turn up the heat–and give it a stir. By 250F, it’ll be forming a thick, lava-like mass (if it pops out onto your skin it’s like being hit with lava, so be careful). Stir occasionally, have some faith, and keep watching the thermometer.
At 255F, grab your bowl of coarsely chopped toffee nuts. At 260F, dump them in and start stirring like a madman.
At this point the toffee could do many not-good things:
- It can start crystallizing (the buttered sides should prevent that)
- It can separate
- It can spatter
To avoid, keep stirring, focusing on any darker spots that start appearing (usually around the edges of the pan). What you’re aiming for is a smooth covering of golden brown goo over all those nuts, so keep stirring and…
WATCH THAT THERMOMETER!!!!!!!
At 280F, it’s getting dark enough to alarm, and the toffee has officially reached “hard ball” stage. This is when a bit of it, dropped in icewater, will form a hard ball. Of course, by the time you do the test, your toffee will have achieved “burnt offering” temperatures, so don’t try it.
REMOVE FROM HEAT once it passes 280F. Technically you can take it up to 290 and it’s perfectly fine, but once it passes the 280 mark the temp will zoom very fast, so I don’t wait until 290.
Immediately, stir in the flavorings (the vanilla and such) and mix thoroughly. Then pour onto the silpat, scraping it all out. (BE CAREFUL) Set the pan into the sink and fill with soapy water–the sooner you get it into hot water, the easier it will be to clean.
Pick up the spatula, and use it to spread your toffee as thinly as you can without getting crazy about it. Don’t worry about the nuts, and if it makes holes, just let it flow together.
Adding the topping
Now, while it’s still very hot, spoon the chocolate/nut mixture on top. The chocolate will melt and adhere the nuts to the candy. You can help it along by pressing and sliding the spatula a bit along the topping, filling in the holes.
If you want to be fancy, you can spread just half the topping, pressing it into the candy to accelerate melting.
If you like, you can get some tongs, lift the toffee from the silpat (it will lift easily) and flip it over. Then quickly spread more choconut topping on the other side, so that you get double-coated toffee. There should be enough residual heat in the toffee that the chocolate on both sides melts and gives you a solid, thin coating of nuts and chocolate.
Me, I don’t bother. A nice thick top layer is enough for me.
I’ve tried the obvious, i..e., coating the silpat with the choconut mixture and then pouring toffee over it, so that both sides would be coated. Doesn’t really work–the hot toffee assimilates the chocolate and nuts like a Borg–but it does add a deliciously chocolate toffee base to the candy.
Scatter a bit of coarse salt on the last side that got chocolate, as a final touch. The amount you use is up to you; I rarely use the whole amount.
It’s a little tough to describe, so when I made another batch of this stuff tonight I shot pics (not easy when you’re handling toffee napalm, lemme tell ya). Maybe this will help:
I stick the whole pan in the freezer (or outside, since I usually make this in December) for a few minutes so that it hardens faster. It’s not necessary; in an hour or so the toffee will cool and solidify. When it’s hard, you can either gift the whole slab with a little hammer, so that folks can break it up themselves, or whack it with your own hammer and serve it in chunks.
The latter is more fun, especially since you get to keep all the shrapnel for yourself. Mix it with the leftover choconut topping and it’s an excellent ice cream or waffle topping.
There are obsessed individuals who chop this stuff up into plus-or-minus-precise cubes while it’s still hot and soft, so that everyone gets identically sized pieces…but we won’t talk about them.
I’m told this type of toffee will keep for a week or two if kept covered in an airtight box, and it will freeze well. I’ve never seen a batch of homemade butter nut toffee last out the day, so I’ve no idea if that’s true.
Anyway, enjoy, and merry happy joyous year-end festivities to you all.
*Well, baking and candy-making, anyway
**Who became my ex-mother-in-law so long ago I doubt either of us even remember what the other looks like, although I sure as heck remember that toffee
***Author of On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, which may be the single most wonderfully comprehensive book on food geekery ever written