I may love chocolate, but I’m not a candy fan. Jelly beans, sour gummies, hard candies, lollipops, Swedish fish…they just don’t do it for me. Cookies, brownies, cakes, mousses, and flaky pastries are more my thing…can you tell I’m a baker? I do have a HUGE sweet tooth, but candy is usually way too sweet for me. Or, at least that’s what I thought until last weekend, when I tried English toffee for the first time.
Two words: Butter. Crunch. Say it with me. Buttercrunch. Crunchy, buttery buttercrunch.
I never thought I’d be one to like toffee; I always thought of it as old lady candy. Or maybe I’m thinking of taffy?
But after trying one bite I was converted. I believe my first words after it graced my tongue were “MMM BUTTERY”. It was not a stick-to-your-teeth caramel nor a painful-to-chew candy. It had a light, pleasant crunch and melted in my mouth after one bite (yeah, there was also chocolate on there – so it was officially better than brittle). This, my friends, was a candy game changer.
The next day I attempted to recreate this buttercrunch, with only my taste buds’ memory to work from. After some quick research I discovered that it’s called English toffee: it’s a crunchy butter and sugar base spread extra thin and covered on one or both sides with chocolate and nuts.
I knew I needed to try a hazelnut and milk chocolate combo for my first attempt; I imagined that the buttery-ness of the toffee would elevate the milk chocolate and hazelnut flavors to an almost Nutella level of deliciousness. And you know what? That’s exactly what happened.
I’ll be honest: I’ve made this 13 times this past week, but I botched 4 of those batches. I don’t own a candy thermometer so I had to guess by the color of the toffee when it was done. The first four batches were total disasters – first I overcooked it, then the butter and sugar kept separating as soon as I took it off the heat, and then when I finally got it to stay together I overcooked it again (not really my fault, my cat distracted me). Fifth time was the charm, and since then I’ve been able to make perfect toffee. Here are my tips for making toffee successfully every time, without a candy thermometer:
Keep the heat low and steady. It’s important for the butter and sugar to melt together evenly. Although other recipes will say to keep the heat on medium high, I found it safer to keep it on low – especially because stove-tops can vary so much. I have a gas range; for me, slow and low was the way to go.
Combine everything before it boils. When you throw everything into the pot and turn it on low, get to mixing immediately. You want the butter and sugar to be completely melted and combined before it gets to a boil so it won’t separate later.
Stir constantly. Other recipes will tell you to never stir the toffee once it starts boiling, but I think it’s a silly rule. Yes, it will caramelize more quickly that way, but this can lead to overcooking or uneven heating, which can lead to separation. Gently stirring throughout the whole process consistently works.
Add water and salt in the beginning, leave out the vanilla extract. Every time I added vanilla extract, it separated. Skip it. Adding water in the beginning will help the sugar dissolve more quickly, and will force you to cook the toffee longer so it can boil off – giving everything time to combine and cook evenly. Salt also aids in stabilizing the temperature of the toffee.
Baking soda is important. It reacts with the acidity of the cooked sugar to make miniscule air bubbles, contributing to a lighter crunch.
Test the toffee in cold water. Here’s how you know how your toffee is done without a candy thermometer: when it’s approaching a medium-brown color, you can just drop a tiny blob of it into a glass of cold water, then take it out and bite it. If it’s still chewy and sticks to your teeth, let it go a minute or two longer and try again. Once it’s crunchy rather than chewy, it’s done. If it’s got a very hard crunch and tastes like burnt sugar, it’s overcooked.
If you need more toffee help, I found these sites to be super helpful:
Put your own spin on it; this toffee is super versatile. Though this milk chocolate hazelnut version is certainly a party-pleaser, I also tried a salted dark chocolate almond version that was pretty great. But don’t stop there! Try a simple dark chocolate with smoked sea salt (Wei’s idea!), or for the candy lovers, white chocolate with crushed candy canes. The options are endless. So whether you need a last minute holiday gift or you’re just craving something sweet, you have no excuse not to make yourself some of this buttercrunch.
Hazelnut Buttercrunch Toffee
by L., inspired by Ben & Bill’s Chocolate Emporium
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tbsp water
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 cup hazelnuts
1 cup chocolate, chopped fine
Toast nuts at 350F for 5-10 mins, then when cool enough to handle rub them with a clean kitchen towel to get most of their skins off. Pulse them in a food processor (or chop them by hand) until very fine. Measure out the baking soda and set aside. Prepare a sheet pan with a silpat or buttered aluminum foil.
In a heavy saucepan on low heat, melt the butter, sugar, salt, and water together. Whisk constantly while melting to make sure it’s homogenous. Keep whisking; after a few minutes the mixture will begin to boil, like lava glugging.
Switch to a wooden spoon and continue to stir slowly for 7-15 minutes, while watching it like a hawk. It will slowly turn from milky white to tan to warm amber. When it reaches this color, before it goes into dark brown territory, remove from heat and quickly mix in the baking soda; it will lighten considerably and puff up.
Immediately pour the toffee out onto the prepared sheet pan and spread it as thinly as possible – if you can see the pan underneath through the toffee that’s a good thing, don’t worry about making it perfectly even. Quickly sprinkle it evenly with half of the chopped chocolate and let it sit for a minute to melt from the heat of the toffee, then spread it evenly to all the edges. Sprinkle evenly with half the chopped nuts, pressing them down gently so they stay put in the chocolate. Let it cool in the fridge for 15-30 minutes or until chocolate is no longer soft.
Melt the remaining chocolate. Once the toffee is completely cooled, flip it over and spread the melted chocolate thinly over the the entire surface then immediately top with the remaining chopped hazelnuts, again pressing them into the chocolate. Work quickly because the chocolate will start to set up right away on the cold toffee. Throw it back in the fridge for another few minutes until chocolate is completely set. (You can also skip spreading both sides with the chocolate and nuts, it’s still delicious if only one side is covered!)
Once cooled, either use a sharp knife or use your hands to crack the buttercrunch into small pieces. Keep in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a week. Crumble it over ice cream, fold it into whipped cream, or – my personal favorite – eat it alone as the addictive snacking food that it is.