Friday, October 21, 2011

Toffee Love

Candy lovers are people I can really relate to, ahem, because I'm one myself. One thing about candy lovers—besides their need for dental work—is as much as they get excited by all kinds of candy, there’s usually one sweet in particular that rocks their world. For instance, my sister is drawn to caramels. Another friend of mine loves sour candies. Others love licorice. Candy lovers usually have at least one must-have item in a candy store, and for me that has always been toffee.

No, not taffy or that kind of thing; I’m talking about traditional English-style toffee, with its sunburnt golden hues, slicks of chocolate on one or both sides, and some kind of nut sparingly integrated throughout. Toffee should be lightly crunchy and even a little gritty when chewed, not sticky or gluey as can be the case with peanut brittle. A good toffee is dental-work safe! It will crunch and then soon dissolve once bitten. Overcooked toffee is a sad thing, stuck in a candy purgatory between what toffee should be and peanut brittle, and that's no good.

The simple matter is that brittle is called brittle because… it is brittle. It gets that way because it’s cooked slightly longer and/or to a higher temperature than is needed to achieve toffee—although some recipes use the same cooking temperature for both toffee and brittle, and this fact probably confuses both of us. All I know is the butter/sugar combo of brittle has simply caramelized more than the kind of toffee I like. Great toffee lives in a place between caramel's softness and brittle’s brittleness. I can't eat brittle anymore. It’s not worth the risk and my dental hygienist would not be happy. Toffee, however, is still fair game.

My first toffee memory is from the college years during the "chocolate overdose period," recounted in the "Overdose" post. After the initial order from Nestle's International arrived, other chocolate companies sent catalogs to my address, and eventually I sent a check to Nancy’s Candies—a local candy shop in Georgia—to try what they were apparently best known for: chocolate pecan crunch.

If a perfect toffee exists in this world, one that sets the bar and palate at a high level of expectation forever, it's Nancy’s. Why? One reason is it only has five ingredients (butter, sugar, chocolate, pecans, salt), it's DELICIOUS, it’s perishable-fresh and it’s cooked perfectly every time.

How gratifying to know that 20 years later, even after Nancy merged her kitchen with Linda and then both were bought out by Katy, the candy shipped out today from the small city of LaGrange, Georgia (pop: 25,000) tastes exactly as amazing, exactly as toffee-perfect as it did the first time.

I’ve tried to recreate Nancy's chocolate pecan crunch many times at home and many times succeeded. It doesn't always work. In Santa Fe I thought my friend would love it, yet the elevation was apparently too high to produce a toffee batch that didn’t curdle (this realization occurred to us after the 3rd attempt).

Los Angeles isn’t a great place to make toffee either, or maybe just not in my kitchen. The sugar and butter never quite merge in the pot, and I wonder if this has anything to do with the dry LA air or the opposite: my apartment sits directly over the laundry room. Who knows. All this means is I stopped trying to make toffee at home—better for my waistline, better for my teeth!

If you like toffee, here is a short list of personal faves:
  • Nancy's Candies (per above) - Their website was (as I don't think Nancy's exists as of a 2016 update) pretty sparse, but you used to be able call to order or just ask them to send a catalog. Either way, they would ship out a silver tin of chocolate pecan crunch (or pralines, etc.), and the fact that this place is seemingly no longer around is very sad news for this toffee lover. 
  • See's Candies – Classic California old-fashioned candy maker that offers several toffee options: the Victoria toffee, milk or dark California brittle, and white chocolate cashew brittle are all thick, crunchy toffee goodness. If you buy online, buying a 1 lb. “nuts and chews” box will net you some of the brittles (they chew closer to toffee than brittle to me), or you can buy the Victoria toffee on its own or create a custom box.
  • Littlejohn's Candies – Right before moving to LA, a Burbank friend shipped me a box from this homey sweets shop located at the Los Angeles Farmer's Market. Littlejohn’s makes fantastic toffee, and their fudge is really good too.
  • The Toffee Box – Just tried this California-made toffee at a chocolate show and fell in love. Their delicious “classic dark chocolate” toffee is very close to Nancy's, just with almonds and walnuts instead of pecans. Their white chocolate macadamia nut version gives the classic kind a run for its money.
  • Valerie's Confections – While the toothsome toffees of this charming LA candy/bake shop are a bit more costly than others (except you Roger's of Victoria), it's for good reason. Each piece is a purposeful and exceptional square of the perfect height, flavor and crunch; all come with a flavor flourish of some sort and the chocolate dip couldn't be finer. They offered me a few free samples to review for this blog, so I tried their signature almond fleur de sel and it was fab. However it was their seasonal pumpkin seed toffee that truly blew my toffee mind. Gotta go back & get me a 6-pack of those ASAP.
There are other well-known chocolate companies that make tasty toffee, I just happen to prefer the places above for that. And if you don't feel like buying toffee, you can always try to make some yourself! My old college roommate Nanci (I know what you're thinking, but she is not related to Nancy of Nancy's Candies) once sent me an easy toffee recipe torn from the pages of Southern Living magazine (this version looks close), and here's a recipe from Sunset magazine that looks good too.

Now this post isn't suggesting I only eat toffee or my sister only eats caramels (she plans to try "ghost pepper bacon toffee" at a NJ shop soon). My candy adrenaline simply shoots up higher when this favorite is in sight, in the same way my blood pressure shoots up momentarily after a dental X-ray is taken to see if there's any damage. It's a yin and yang relationship and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Until we eat again,

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