Not sure where the holiday baking tradition started. When looking up the origins of cookies I stumbled across some really interesting stuff. Originally, cookies were designed to be small testers for cakes. Chefs would take a small amount of batter and cook it to test a cake recipe. They then morphed into great travel snacks, like biscotti (supposedly created by wives concerned with malnourished husbands who were sailors or soldiers and wanted to make food/snacks with a shelf life!). If you google the history of chocolate chip cookies, you will find they were made by mistake (arguably, one of the best mistakes of all time!) and fortune cookies were originally made by a kind man who distributed them to the homeless with words of encouragement inside....isn't that awesome? Whatever the reason, cookie and treat making are a huge part of the holidays, for many people. They are great to present to visitors and for gift-giving. I have experimented with lots of baking over the years but there are a few recipes that stuck and have become the "It-would-not- be-a-holiday-without-this" treat. Which brings me to this holiday classic staple....Toffee.
My mom is a huge toffee lover. Every year around the holidays (or if we happened to be in the general vicinity of a chocolate shop) this was her favorite go-to treat. One year, I decided to try my hand at making some myself. Once I realized how easy it was to make, a new tradition was born. I love to knock and her door and surprise her with her favorite treat around the holidays. What I love about baking is that no batch is exactly alike so there is a lot of discussion surrounding the quality of each year's toffee. Sometimes I will modify the ingredients (for instance, using milk chocolate instead of semi-sweet or different nuts sprinkled on the top). One year I accidentally burnt the toffee and everyone loved it. It's these little details that I just love about tradition.
This is such an easy thing to make. It only has a few ingredients and would make a nice addition to any cookie tray or given separately as a gift on its own. Wrap it in parchment or wax paper in a cute little box and you have a nice treat to give!
One particularly touching thing my mother and grandmother used to do was to always have a few small extra trinkets stowed away so that they could welcome any unexpected visitors with a small thoughtful little gift. So nice!!!! Make up a few batches of these, store them in the freezer in some cute little boxes and there you have it! No guest will leave empty handed or empty hearted:) O.k Let's get started:
Gather your ingredients. You will need about 3 cups of almonds. I only used two cups for this demonstration and the nuts sprinkled on the top looked a little sparse. It all depends how many you like but you will have more than enough with three cups. In addition, you will need two sticks of butter, six tablespoons of light corn syrup, one cup of sugar and about 2 cups of the chocolate of your choice. The chips work well because they melt really fast. If you are going to use bar chocolate, be sure to cut it up into small chip sized chunks (You'll see why in the end steps.). Lastly, you will need two tablespoons of water. Ok, I lied, one more thing.....a candy thermometer!!!!
You will want a thermometer with a little clip on the side to keep the tip from touching the bottom of the pan and breaking.....yup, I've gone through my share of thermometers! Learn from my many fails!
Ok, here are the of the step-by-step instructions:
Step One: Preheat your oven to 350 (I have also used a toaster oven for this process). I like to line my baking tray with foil and then pour all the almonds onto the baking tray, making sure that they are in a single layer so that they bake evenly. You will want to toast them lightly (about 10 minutes) until they are golden and you can smell them. You really want to keep an eye on these. They can really burn quickly.
O.K, here they are nice and golden and smelling amazing!!! Wish you could scratch your computer monitor and get a whiff of this! If you use the slivered almonds, all you need to do is set aside about 3/4 of a cup of these and finely chop them to be sprinkled on the top at the end. I just take these and dump the whole thing in the blender or a food processor (I have even used a magic bullet). Make sure you allow them a little time to cool before chopping (or be like me and burn yourself because your enthusiasm wins over logic, yet again!). Set aside your pan after you have removed the almonds to use later for the toffee.
I like mine a bit chunky but you can get them as fine as you like. The bowl of almonds will get mixed in with the toffee but the 3/4 cup you set aside is what will get sprinkled on top of the toffee so you you may want that to be a little more fine (as you can see I only set aside 1/2 cup as my family likes a little less sprinkled on top but I would say 3/4 cup will be more than enough.
Grab a nice heavy saucepan and add the two sticks of butter cut up into small chunks.
Now you will want to add your six tablespoons of corn syrup. I like to spray my measuring spoon with non-stick spray so the syrup just slides right out. This little trick also works well for peanut butter, molasses and honey or anything viscous.
Add the rest of the Ingredients (one cup of sugar and two tablespoons of water). Turn your heat to medium high and bring to a boil. Now get your candy thermometer and clip it onto the side of the pot. Bring the toffee to 290 degrees on your thermometer. I find that this generally takes 15-20 minutes. The temperature really rises slowly and then it spikes really quickly at the end so keep an eye on it.
When you see the mixture become a golden brown color and the temperature reaches 290 degrees, quickly mix in the bowl of chopped (or slivered) almonds and pour it onto the cookie sheet you used to bake the almonds on (it should still have some of the almond oils on it which will keep the toffee from sticking.) If it does not appear to be oiled or you are using a new tray, just apply some non-stick spray. This stuff is SUPER hot so be careful when handling it and use a spoon or spatula that will not melt. The spatula below is one of those silicone ones but wooden implements work fine as well.
Now quickly spread the toffee in as thin of a layer as possible while it is still soft (It hardens pretty quickly.)
Now add the chocolate (and pop a few in your mouth for being such a thoughtful gift maker). This is my favorite part! Let the chips sit there for a minute and because the toffee is so hot it just melts the chocolate for you. Just swipe your spatula over it a few times to smooth it out.
See, the toffee does the work for you.
Remember those 3/4 cup almonds you put aside? Now sprinkle those right onto the warm melted chocolate.
Ta-Da!!! All done. I try to make room to keep this in the freezer to cool it down. I store it in there until I'm ready to use it. When I am ready to use it, I take it out and let it sit for about 10-20 minutes. You will notice some moisture on the top which evaporates and then you can keep it at room temperature. Break it off into chunks. I like to wrap it in parchment paper and put it in a box or a tin to give as a present. My family loves it cold and crunchy right out of the freezer. There are different spins you can put on this classic recipe (try a different kind of nut or a different variety of chocolate, like white chocolate with crushed peppermint on top, YUM!)
Tins are really nice too because they are airtight so the toffee will stay fresh for a long time. Not that they will need to since they will, most likely, vanish in minutes! The great news is that much like pizza, even the 'bad' batches are still good. Now time to turn on the holiday tunes and get to work:)