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Noni Doni’s 12 Bakes of Christmas – Day 1: Best Easy English Toffee

When I put on my apron, I become Noni Doni. Then, especially during the holidays, I bring out a collection of favorite tried-and-true recipes I’ve relied upon for decades.

Today is the first recipe, and 11 more will follow in the days leading up to Christmas, making up the 12 Bakes of Christmas. Although I refer to the recipes as “bakes” – some — like today’s– are cooked on the stove, not in the oven.

If I had to choose one of my favorite holiday treats to make and give as gifts, it would be English Toffee.

It’s easy to make (if you follow the directions), you can whip up a batch in minutes, it’s a crowd favorite, it has a long shelf life, and it’s good for mailing.

It requires just a few ingredients, but you can revise it for your preferences. (See recipe options below.) For example, I stopped topping this toffee with walnuts many years ago, for two reasons. First, many people are allergic to walnuts. Second, have you seen the price of walnuts lately?

For example, this year I tried something new: chopped pretzels. First, I tried pouring the hot toffee over matchstick pretzels that were spread on the buttered cookie sheet. Unfortunately,  the pretzel sticks prevented the toffee from spreading, so it was thicker, and I didn’t get as many pieces out of that batch. (But still, it was delicious.)

Next, I tried sprinkling chopped matchstick pretzels over a blend of swirled melted white and semi-sweet chocolate. That worked great. It added some crunch and extra saltiness to the toffee.

No matter what the topping you choose, once the chocolate has hardened you just break the toffee into pieces, or score and cut with a heavy knife. That’s it. You’re set and ready to package for gift-giving in jars, tins, special boxes or clear bags.

For an idea of how delicious and addictive this toffee is, over the years, some longtime recipients have taken to calling it Crack Toffee, which pretty much says it all.

The heartbreak of broken butter

A few suggestions: First, stir your mixture often, just enough to keep the mixture from sticking to the bottom of the pan, but don’t overly mix it, or it could encourage crystal formations, and it may even cause the butter to break from the sugar, which is a sad affair.

Fear not. If you do find that the butter has separated from the brown sugar, do not despair. Sometimes it can be corrected by removing the pan from the heat and stirring it with a whisk to coax the butter into the mixture. Also, you can carefully (it will splatter) add a few tablespoons of boiling water, stirring constantly.

Finally, if neither of those tricks work, then continue cooking and stir cream into the mixture (start with 1/4 cup, then 1/2 cup, and if needed, 1 full cup). If it looks like you succeeded, and the butter has incorporated with the sugar, congratulations. Remove the liquid from the heat, add some vanilla or even whiskey or brandy, and you’ll end up with a delicious caramel sauce, which is not a bad thing. For a gift, pour into cute jars with a pretty label. People will love it.

If you don’t have cream, then as a last resort, go ahead and pour the mixture onto your prepared baking sheet, sop up the excess butter with paper towels, and let the sugar mixture cool so you can  break up later as an ice cream topping.

I’ve been making this recipe since I was in my 20s after I found it in a 1977 Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, Gifts from your Kitchen.

I would show you the page that features the recipe, but it’s too embarrassing.

Oh, what the heck, you’ve seen worse photos on ANC. Here it is. In my defense I’ve had this cookbook for 45 years. OMG. I don’t feel that old! But there’s no disputing that the recipe looks that old. As you can see, I scribbled revisions beside the recipe for making larger quantities, or different temperatures.

I have quadrupled the recipe, but usually, I just double it, which is more manageable.

Because English Toffee is very rich, it’s something I only make at the holidays. It’s always worth the wait. Enjoy.

Classic English Toffee

1/2 cup salted butter
3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup chopped walnuts (optional)

In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, stirring often, cook butter and brown sugar over medium heat until the candy thermometer reaches 290 degrees. (Note, I’ve found it works better when using a pot that does NOT have a non-stick surface.)

Remove from heat and spread the mixture onto a heavy, buttered cookie sheet (or a slab of cold marble).

Immediately sprinkle chocolate pieces on top of the hot toffee. Let stand 1 to 2 minutes, to allow chocolate to melt.

Use a knife or spatula to spread the melted chocolate over the toffee.

For a marbled effect, alternate white chocolate chips and semi-sweet chocolate chips to the hot toffee, and with the edge of a spatula drag the two colors into each other until you’re happy with the results.

Quickly sprinkle nuts (or whatever you choose) on top. Let sit in a cool place to harden.

Break into pieces, or use a heavy knife to cut into pieces. Makes about 1 pound.

Options:

  • Instead of the semi-sweet chocolate-chip topping, use white chocolate chips, milk chocolate chips, peanut butter chips or chopped candied fruit,
  • Instead of topping the melted chocolate with walnuts, omit completely, or use almonds, pecans, finely chopped candy canes or chopped pretzels.
  • For a firmer toffee, stick to the recipe’s 290 degree stopping point.
  • For a softer toffee, stop cooking anywhere between 275 to 285 degrees.

Doni Chamberlain

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded A News Cafe in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain holds a Bachelor's Degree in journalism from CSU, Chico. She's an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She's been featured and quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Slate. Bloomberg News and on CNN, KQED and KPFA. She lives in Redding, California.

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