My sister, brother-in-law, niece and nephew, and my mom and dad were here yesterday for our annual baking day. All 10 of us in 800 square feet with nuts toasting, sugar on the floor, and dress-up clothes carpeting the living room. It was one of those days where I intensely wished for a bigger house, but my kitchen was up to it. What a hardworking, accommodating bit of space it is. It's where our life happens. The kitchen table is the only work surface in the house, so the afternoon found my dad working at Wyatt's little desk, knees up to his ears.
We made English toffee, bittersweet chocolate fudge, Russian teacakes, cranberry pinwheels, thumbprints, shortbread cut-outs, spritz cookies, chocolate peppermint cookies, and pecan butter cookies. No way am I going to feature all those recipes here and induce diabetic comas across the region. Just being around all that sugar makes me want to go on a week-long celery diet.
After everyone had left, Wyatt said, "I liked today because I could always come into the kitchen and help with something." Thank God for grandparents and aunts who seem to be infinitely more patient with supervising children "helping" than I am. While I hovered over my candy thermometer and did dishes, my sister helped the kids decorate Santa sleighs and my Dad made a "Dr. Seuss" Christmas tree with them. On days when I let my kids watch cartoons all day, remind me they had this day, too.
Here is one of my offerings--butter toffee with toasted hazelnuts and bittersweet chocolate. As I was prying it off the baking sheet and cracking it into sweet shards, all of the sudden I was surrounded by hands, big and small, sneaking bits. It keeps perfectly, and looks beautiful in a cellophane bag with a bow. As of today, it still doesn't tempt me at all, but I aim to give it away soon. Otherwise, I'll be up in the middle of the night, the crackling cellophane giving me away.
Hazelnut Butter Toffee
Makes one cookie sheet-full, or about 1/2 lb and enough for 3 gifts. Adapted from the Seattle PI, back when it was around and I blessedly got it on my doorstep every morning. I didn't own a candy thermometer until last year when I bought one for $8.00 at Safeway to make this toffee. You really need one to make this, but it won't break the bank, and it sure is cheaper than buying your Christmas gifts at the mall. I made one batch with almonds and one with hazelnuts. Both were delicious, but I liked the hazelnut better. Oh--one more thing. I buy my bittersweet chocolate at Trader Joe's--those giant "pound plus" Belgian bars for under $4. Best deal anywhere.
1 cup (two sticks) butter, plus a little extra for buttering the saucepan and baking sheet
1 c. sugar
3 Tb. water
1 Tb. light corn syrup
1 c. chopped almonds or hazelnuts, toasted
3/4 c. finely chopped bittersweet chocolate (or semisweet chocolate chips)
Butter the sides of a heavy 2-qt. saucepan, then melt 1 c. butter in it. Butter a baking sheet with sides (jellyroll pan).
To toast hazelnuts or almonds, spread out on a baking sheet and toast at 350--about 8 minutes for hazelnuts, 10 for almonds. To skin hazelnuts, spread warm nuts in a clean dishtowel and rub them. Many (not all) of the papery skins will come off. Don't worry about the stubborn ones.
Add sugar, water, and corn syrup, cooking and stirring over medium heat until the sugar dissolves and the mixture boils. Continue cooking and stirring until the mixture reaches 290 degrees, watching carefully after 280 degrees. (Note: The temperature will hover close to boiling, 212 degrees, for awhile as the water boils off. Don't be fooled into thinking you can leave the pan unattended or stop watching the temperature. One the excess water is gone, the temperature will shoot up fast.)
From from heat and quickly and carefully stir in 1/2 c. of almonds.
Carefully pour the hot mixture onto the buttered baking sheet. After 3 minutes (and not a second less, as I discovered), sprinkle the surface with chocolate. When the chocolate begins to melt, spread it evenly over the candy. Sprinkle the remaining nuts over the top.
Chill until firm (at least 15 minutes), then break into pieces. (Note: Slip a spatula under a corner of the toffee and lift to easily remove chunks from the pan.)