Tuesday, December 20, 2011

English Toffee with Chocolate and Almonds

Growing up in the Pacific NW, Christmas was all about Frangos (always referred to as Frango mints in my house, no matter the flavor) and Almond Roca. Frangos are a melt-in-the-mouth chocolate candy with some special addictive quality (is it salt? or something else). Almond Roca is crunchy toffee coated in chocolate and almonds. Only at Christmas did we have the gold foil-wrapped Roca, as opposed to the cheaper (and more enviro-friendly) unwrapped seconds.

When I was living abroad, I missed Almond Roca and was excited to find a recipe in my trusty Fanny Farmer cookbook for "English" toffee with a variation that included the chocolate and almonds that made Roca so great. Not sure what makes the toffee English, but it certainly is delicious. Even better, it's really not tough to make, even without a candy thermometer. I'm not opposed to thermometers and other measuring devices, it's just that they never seem to work well for me. Though I try to follow a kind of "measure twice, cut once" methodology, the end result is often still skewed. But when I follow my instincts, at least in cooking, I do much better.
I turned out a perfect batch of toffee in Scotland, so imagine my surprise upon returning to the States and having failure after failure. Every time the butter seemed to separate into an oil slick on top of the toffee. I admit, there were tears of frustration. Then I got smart as decided to be scientific about it. I reviewed my ingredients compared to what I used in Scotland.

The first thing to go was the "hippie" sugar, aka evaporated cane juice. I feared that there was more moisture in this sugar and it was throwing things off. Still, I failed.

I then looked closely at my butter. I was using Trader Joe's organic unsalted butter. Seemed straightforward enough, but if the sugar wasn't the culprit, the butter had to be. Looking closely at the TJ package, I noticed it had added milk solids and said something about this making it richer. I wondered if these added solids were messing with the melting and candying. Sure enough, when I swapped in plain grocery store butter, my toffee again was perfect.

The moral of this story is, just use the white sugar and the nice-but-not-gourmet butter! And check the label on the butter to make sure there is nothing extra. I've produced batch after batch of wonderful homemade Roca and haven't cried (about candy) in years.

A note about nuts: most recipes are phrased something like "1 c. chopped almonds". I am far too lazy to chop my nuts and then measure them out. How wasteful to end up with too many and how annoying to end up with too few. Instead, I always use "1 c. almonds, chopped". I can't imagine that the end result of any of my efforts has been significantly affected by this approach, but I thought I'd mention it all the same.

INGREDIENTS
1 lb. unsalted or sweet butter
2 c. (13.5 oz. or 400 grams) granulated white (or caster) sugar
4 oz. good-quality chocolate (I use Theo but any 70% cocoa chocolate would be nice)
1 1/4 c. (3.5 to 4 oz.), chopped raw almonds

DIRECTIONS
  1. Grease a jelly roll pan or any large metal baking tray with a lip on it. Set out a clean pastry brush, two spoons (preferably wooden) and a small cup of cold water. If you think you'll want to test your toffee while it's cooking, set out one or two more small cups of cold water and some more clean spoons. This is all to avoid "sugaring". You never want to put a dirty spoon back into your toffee pot
  2. Break up the chocolate into smallish pieces, put in a bowl and set aside--you can melt it while the toffee cools
  3. Combine the butter and sugar in a medium sized, heavy-bottomed pot with a lid
  4. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the butter and sugar are dissolved and the mixture comes to a boil. Stir in the almonds, keeping back about 1/4 to 1/3 cup for topping
  5. Use the cold water and pastry brush and wash down the sides of the pot. The goal is to get any granules of sugar to dissolve and go back into the mix. Otherwise you could end up with gritty toffee. You can also put the lid on the pot for a few moments to let the steam help dissolve the sugar
  6. Now comes the stirring! Switch to a clean wooden spoon (might not be necessary, but I like to be extra careful). Boil the toffee slowly, still over medium heat. Stir slowly and constantly in one direction. Only touch the sides of the pot if the toffee seems like it's going to scorch
  7. Cook until it reaches the "hard crack" stage, about 290 degrees F. As mentioned above, I don't use a candy thermometer. Instead, I wait (as patiently as I can) until the toffee is a nice deep golden brown. It takes longer than I think it should every time. The toffee also always looks to me like it will "sugar". It's opaque and kind of clumpy looking. Just keep stirring and have faith
  8. Once the toffee has reached "hard crack" (I always wait until I think it'll burn if I leave it a moment longer), pour as evenly as you can over your baking tray. You can shake the tray a bit to even out the toffee, but don't try to spread it. It never fills my tray
  9. Let the toffee cool a few minutes before scoring (though I can't say that scoring has ever yielded uniform pieces once the chocolate goes on, but it's worth a try)
  10. While the toffee cools, melt the chocolate. I use the microwave, but you can also melt in a double boiler--this might take longer)
  11. Score the toffee, then spread the melted chocolate evenly over it. Sprinkle on the remaining almonds
  12. Let cool fully, then break into pieces (theoretically the scoring helps with this)
  13. Try not to eat it all at one sitting and store in an airtight container. Keeps quite well at room temperature as long as it's well sealed