I can be quite a chicken when it comes to candy-making; the idea of whipping out the dreaded thermometer and twisting my body into awkward angles trying to figure out if the silvery liquid inside the steamy glass is reading 290 degrees or 291 pains me. I can’t understand how one lousy degree is the difference between a lovely confection and torched Teflon; I don’t care for those sorts of constraints. On the other hand, I’ve always been one for a challenge-I once dove head first off the high dive when my older brother, David, dared me to. As it turns out, breaking the water with your head and not your hands feels like your brain has just exploded inside your skull and I didn’t get much satisfaction from “winning” that challenge. Really, the only thing I had to show for it was an unimpressed older brother and a splitting headache.
On a less water-logged note, my mother is a fiend for toffee. I heard once that our taste buds change every 7 years or so (at least that’s what my mother told us in desperate attempts to get us to eat vegetables, insisting it will taste better than the last time we held our noses and forced them down) but not hers, oh no. Her affection for anything of the toffee family has only grown: she’ll dig out the mini Heath bars from the Halloween candy, she’d never snub a SKOR bar, and just the other night at our favorite custard stop, Butter Brickle ice cream was on the menu-she swooned, I tell you, swooned! Personally, I didn’t think the brickle portion of this particular custard was anything fabulous, I’m pretty sure it was nothing more than chopped up Heath bar, and listening to her rave about it was like being poked in the shoulder by a big intimidating bully shouting, “You want a piece-a me!?” A challenge, Mr. Brickle!?
Not wanting to be kicked around by a child-sized ice cream cone, I set to work crafting what would hopefully be a decent, if not edible, candy. But mine would out-do those other grocery-store-checkout-lane toffee bars. I think they best they have to offer is an artificially-sweet, stale tasting block of brown sugar coated in milk chocolate and a grittiness that doesn’t go away no matter how much you chew it. I remembered a recipe from Orangette for espresso-walnut toffee, a candy that had deep flavors of cinnamon, molasses and espresso with the added crunch of toasted walnuts and melted bittersweet and white chocolates on top. Mise en place, let’s get started-en garde, toffee!
Inspired by Orangette
2 cups walnuts
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
2 tsp instant espresso powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
1/3 cup water
1 Tbs dark unsulfured molasses
5 ounces fine-quality bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped (I used Callebaut)
5 ounces fine-quality white chocolate, finely chopped (I used Callebaut)
1 ¼ cups (2 ½ sticks) unsalted butter
Heat the oven to 325 degrees, sprinkle the walnuts onto a baking sheet and toast for 8 minutes or until they are fragrant. Allow to cool for a few minutes, then give them a rough chop, reserving ½ cup of the walnuts for topping. Butter a baking sheet and set aside. Chop the chocolate finely and reserve it to two separate bowls. (Note: The first time I made this, I didn't separate the chocolates, as you can see from the photo. It tasted the same, but it's much prettier if you don't swirl them from the get-go.)
Combine the dry ingredients into a bowl and mix the water and molasses together in a separate cup. In a medium sized saucepan, melt the butter and then add in the dry ingredients and molasses/water mix, stir frequently until the sugar is dissolved, about 5 minutes. Once the sugar is dissolved, crank the heat up to medium and attach the (dreaded) candy thermometer to the side of the pan. Stir frequently until it hits 290 degrees and the toffee is a deep amber color, it should pull around the spoon and away from the sides of the pot in lovely golden ribbons.
At 290 degrees, immediately mix in the toasted walnuts and pour the toffee onto the buttered baking sheet. Using the back of a greased wooden spoon (or you can lift up the whole sheet and do a little shimmy-shake), spread out the toffee to ¼ inch thickness all around. Sprinkle the chopped chocolate in alternating rows over the hot toffee and allow it to rest for 1 full minute (maybe 2). If you left some chocolate pieces too large, pop it in the oven at a low temperature for 2 minutes or so, it will soften up. With the back of a spoon or offset spatula, spread the chocolate over the toffee; be careful not to mix the white and bittersweet just yet. With the tip of a knife, swirl the chocolates together just enough; then pop the whole pan into the fridge for about an hour.
Chop the toffee into any size pieces you like; I find it splinters on its own under the press of a heavy knife, toffee is independent like that. What I tasted was the most delicious, melty and insanely good toffee I’ve ever had. It has an incredible depth of flavor and doesn’t sit like sandpaper on your tongue; the chocolates begins to melt against your teeth before the toffee cracks and suddenly it’s clear to me that I have won this challenge, oh Toffee. I can nearly hear the Heath bar crying, “Touché, Elise, touché…”