Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Toffee Making Novel

I was determined this year to make toffee, for several reasons. First of all, it's so good. Yum! Second, I tried making it years ago and all the butter separated out and it was terrible. I pretty much hate failing at anything, but it has especially bothered me all these years that a simple recipe beat me. It's just a recipe! It shouldn't be that hard! Why didn't it work? What went wrong? Was it the recipe? Was it me?

So really, this journey to make good toffee is really more about revenge for long ago kitchen grievances even more than just wanting some toffee. Despite discouraging stories from relatives (hi aunt Jane!), I was determined to not let the toffee beat me.

I scoured the internets looking for recipes and, most importantly, research on the science of toffee and candy making in general. I learned in grad school that if things aren't working right, you better know WHY everything in your experiment (recipe) is there, because only then can you troubleshoot and figure out what ingredient or procedure might be going wrong or tweak things to make them work better. So I was looking for answers to questions like: why do some toffee recipes have corn syrup and others don't? Should you stir toffee as you cook it or not? Why does butter separate out from the sugar? Why is there water in the recipe? What is the scientific molecular structure of a piece of toffee anyway?

Turns out, sugar chemistry is a $%"@#&, which is why I leave it out of my Cell and Molecular Biology class, and basically people don't know all that much about what's going on scientifically to the molecular structures of the sugar, so I can't share that with you all. I'm sure you're terribly disappointed... (ok, so I didn't look really hard in real scientific sources - it is my vacation, after all and I knew you all wouldn't mind.) But I did find a few helpful websites in my search:

This guy does seem to be a toffee expert and to know what he's talking about. So I picked up several things from his secret toffee tips: 1) the procedure is just as important as the recipe, 2) age your toffee a week before you eat it for better taste/texture --- easier said than done! and 3) keep your toffee in the refrigerator or freezer. However, I wasn't a fan of his toffee recipe. I didn't feel like trying to find 'soy lecithin' and it annoyed me that you would have to weigh your ingredients. While I don't doubt that it is better to weigh ingredients rather than just measure normally, I don't have a scale at home, just in the lab, and I'm not about to weigh my food on the same lab scale I use for toxic and cancer-causing compounds. Besides, my lab scale only works in metric.

Knowing a little bit more about what I was going for, but still having no actual recipe, I decided to check a favorite food blog (101 cookbooks) to see if she had ever made toffee. I was in luck! And, not only did she have a recipe for Toasted Pecan Toffee, but she wrote about failing at another try of making toffee also, when she tried to modify the recipe to make it more 'natural.' So this, and a few of the comments convinced me that I should use a recipe with corn syrup - it seemed to be more likely to work. (My old recipe years ago that was a major FAIL did not have corn syrup in it.) I was pretty convinced this was going to be the toffee recipe I tried to make first. But still I didn't feel like I had a good enough grasp on the process of making the toffee, so I kept searching.

And then I found a baking 911 site dedicated to toffee! It had good answers to most all of my questions and after reading it, I finally felt like I knew what I had to do when making my toffee to make it turn out! I won't repeat all the tips here, but I would strongly suggest you read their site if you give toffee making a try. (Just don't try searching for their 'perfect toffee' recipe - it got moved and it appears to be only available to paying members.)

A few other clues on the baking 911 site also made me think my 101 cookbooks recipe was a good one - corn syrup and water both seem to be pretty important, as well as using salted butter - good to know! So now I was ready to cook! (finally, I'm sure you're thinking!)

I still wasn't confident enough in my recipe to toast pecans and go to that work (or worse, waste the nuts) if the toffee didn't turn out, so I decided to make the 101 cookbooks toffee plain.

So, I melted in a medium saucepan:

1 c. of butter, cut into pieces

Then I added:

1 1/2 c. white granulated sugar

3 T. corn syrup (Karo brand, though often we have a generic on hand... maybe it matters, maybe not)

3 T. water

And then I cooked on medium heat (I have an electric stove), stirring pretty constantly. And stirring slowly, not quickly. I was suprised that the toffee as it was cooking did not boil up very high, I was actually thinking that my pan was going to be too small and I was going to be chipping toffee off my stove, but it didn't boil up very high at all. I used a 'fake' wooden spoon made out of that stuff that looks like plastic but won't melt until it gets to be 500 deg or something crazy like that. (Maybe that matters, maybe not.)

Here is a picture of the pan and spoon I used:

It took forever to cook, probably close to an hour of stirring slowly (the second time I made it, I actually timed it and it was about a 30 min process - I guess it just seemed like an hour). The mixture was a little thick and the bubbles sort of looked like lava lamp bubbles, so I wouldn't necessarily recommend doing this while very tired. You might wake up to the smoke detector sounding the alarm of your burnt toffee because you were lulled asleep by the bubbles.

Finally, it reached 300 deg F and that's when the recipe said it was supposed to be done. So far, so good, it seemed to be all one substance, lacking a distinct pool of liquid butter on top or anything like that. I have a tendency to overcook candy (ask Will about my chunk of teeth-extracting caramel) just because I'm afraid it's not done enough. But this time I just went for it and poured it onto a sheet of waxed paper lining a cookie sheet. I spread it pretty thin (probably a little too thin) and it took up about all the pan (a jelly roll pan, actually.)

And then I waited for it to cool so I could try it.

When it finally seemed cool, it still didn't look like any separationg had happened, and when I broke a piece off, it seemed crunchy like toffee is supposed to be...

And it was good! Yum! I had made edible toffee! Here is a picture:

I decided to put chocolate on it. Mostly because Will said he'd probably eat more of it if there was chocolate on it. And I didn't want to be the only one eating it in my house (remember - two sticks of butter AND 1 1/2 c. of sugar in there!) Here are pictures of that and of the toffee all broken up:

Evaluation: it is good! The recipe seemed easy enough and it worked! I probably spread it a little too thin. And yes, it is better several days after making it, at least in Will's opinion. He actually mentioned yesterday that he thought the toffee was better than when I first made it, and he didn't know the secret tip about aging your toffee for a week before eating! I didn't trust my judgement on that issue since I knew it was *supposed* to taste better, so I wasn't an objective evaluator.

I wanted to try it one more time, though. For two reasons. One, just to make sure it wasn't a fluke that it worked and I'd never be able to get it to work again. And two, because the toffee seemed a little on the light side, colorwise, and I'm wondering if I really should have cooked it just a little longer.

So today I made it again. This time with toasted pecans, like the 101 cookbooks recipe calls for. (except I only put the chocolate/pecans on one side, not both). It is also very good! Toasted pecans are a good addition. I cooked it to 305 deg F this time, and the color does seem better this time. The "soy lecithin" guy's recipe is to cook to 310-315, so I think I could even go a bit higher without scorching it, but 305 seemed to work fine for me. (*Note: I did NOT test my new $10 digital candy thermometer from Target before using it* I'm not sure why, too lazy I guess - it seemed too much like lab work.)

Here are a few pictures from today's toffee:

Don't just take my word for it that it's good. Stop by and I'll give you a piece or two! (see you tomorrow Jane and Laura!)
If you like toffee and you like candy making and don't mind a half an hour of meditative stirring, I'd encourage you to give toffee a(nother?) try. I'd love to hear about your experiences if you try this recipe.


Anonymous said...

Testimonial from Aunt Jane! FANTASTIC toffee!!! I will try your recipe, and methods, whenever I come down from my toffee induced sugar-high from yesterday!

Thanks for the hospitality!

Kate said...

Note: use salted butter (according to baking911 website.)