Friday, 12 December 2008

Oh, Sugar! A virtual candy exchange

Dedication: For dearest friend Lucy, of Box Elder, on her birthday.

Lucy was one of my first blogging friends, and the first person who “found me” rather than the other way around. (I left a comment on Jan’s Writing Journal – oh lucky day! - and Lucy followed it to Bee Drunken.) Lucy is the person who I would like to be when I grow up; unfortunately, though, Lucy is only a few years older than I am . . . and I just don’t think you can get that much seasoning in three or four years. She is a talented writer (prose and poetry), teacher, photographer and artist, and she knows all sorts of things about birds and plants – not to mention her practical knowledge about hedgerow fruits and pointing. I am always educated, charmed or emotionally moved by her postings . . . and usually all three at once.

I’ve been planning my virtual candy exchange for a while now – saving it until Friday with the hopes that busy Anne could join us – so when I read Lucy’s ghazal about sugar yesterday, the timing was just too delicious. Please do read Lucy’s poem . . . it adds some depth to my own tribute to sweet stuff.

Not long ago, Alyson and I were nattering in the comments and we realized that we both make toffee as part of our Christmas tradition. Of course, I immediately wanted to compare recipes. If someone says they have a good recipe of anything, I’m instantly desirous – one part curiosity, and one part greed. Who knows why, but domestic details intrigue me. I always like to know what other people are eating, and if they say it is good, then I want to eat it, too. So in that spirit of sharing and sugar-lust, I am calling for a virtual candy exchange! If you would like to participate, I will link you in.

Do Americans have more of a taste for sugar? Or are they just more industrious? When I was a child, the tins of homemade cookies and candies would line the sideboard. There would be toffee, peanut brittle, divinity, pecan tassies, sugar cookies, gingerbread, spritz butter cookies, and Oklahoma Brown candy – and that was just the standard assortment. We always tried new recipes, too. If you wanted something salty, there was Texas Trash (basically a nuttier, spicier version of Chex Mix), but Christmas was mostly about indulging your sweet tooth.

In England, you’ve got your holy trinity of dried fruit: Christmas pudding, cake and mince pies. I don’t recall ever being offered homemade candy. At best, (depending on how you look at it), a tin of Quality Street or Turkish Delight will get passed around. But let’s be frank: that “treat” will probably be reserved for family. I think that you have to grow up with these delicacies (in other words, never experience anything better) in order to really appreciate them.

Ironically, my family’s favorite Christmas candy is called English Toffee. Goodness knows why, as I have never tasted anything like it in England. But, then, Americans often get England wrong – erring on the side of thinking that everything about is postcard-esque. Anyway, the toffee may not be English in origin – but English people have been known to love it. Everyone else who tries it tends to love it, too.

English Toffee


8 oz butter
8 oz brown sugar
4 oz finely chopped pecans
4 oz chocolate chips (or dark chocolate, finely chopped)


You will need a nonstick pan of some sort. My mom always used a pizza pan, while I use a heavy nonstick cookie sheet. Sprinkle about half of the nuts evenly over the pan’s surface.

Melt the butter and sugar in a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat. Stir continuously until the temperature reaches 295F/146C. You will need a candy thermometer for this bit – (and I like to have something to read as well) – as it will take awhile. Just like childbirth, time will seem to move really slowly and nothing will seem to be happening . . . but be careful and attentive at the end, because it will suddenly shoot up to the required temperature.

Quickly pour the mixture over the nuts. Be extra careful – you do NOT want to get burned. You can smooth it out with a plastic spatula or wooden spoon, but do that straight away as it hardens up quickly.

Let cool for a few minutes, and then sprinkle the chocolate evenly over the candy’s surface. The heat of the candy will melt the chocolate, and then you can spread it evenly. Finally, sprinkle the rest of the nuts over the chocolate.

When the candy is completely cool, you can break it into small pieces. It will cool on its own, but it you are in a hurry (and sometimes I am) you can speed it up by putting it in the refrigerator for a few minutes.

Store in an air-tight can . . . and don’t make it on a humid day!

The only tricky thing about this candy is that a few degrees of temperature can change the consistency/texture. If you get it right, the toffee will be crisp, but have a giving bite to it. If you don’t cook it long enough, or if it’s really humid, it will be chewy. If you cook it too long, it will be glassy. All of the versions are highly edible, though – we are just talking about degrees of perfection.

Americans have always had a culture of recipe-sharing: whether recipe cards (From the kitchen of . . .), church or Junior League cookbooks, newspaper columns, or just word of mouth. In fact, at the bottom of my recipe for toffee there is a little note from my mom – “from Kathy Daniel Kimes.” Probably 35 or so years ago my mom ate this toffee at a Christmas lunch at Kathy’s house. She asked for the recipe; we started making it every year; and now I’m spreading it around the blogosphere.

Please join me for a virtual Christmas candy exchange! You know never know when or where you will find that recipe that becomes your family’s traditional, must-have, favorite.

It would be nice to add a dedication, too . . . when Southerners say “give me some sugar,” they are actually talking about love and kisses – not candy.

Virtual Candy Exchange:


david mcmahon said...

Like Ogden Nash said, candy is dandy. I really enjoyed your closing explanation of the phrase!!

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

I was in The Body Shop yesterday and they had two tins of sweets open for the customers--Quality Street and Cadbury Roses. It was actually kind of amazing they had anything really. I've been to stores here where they offer lollipops and other "boiled sweets". Can you remember the last time you were offered a small treat in America? There was a small mom and pop hardware store in the Heights who always had Dumdums for the kids. And come to think of it, I think my old pediatrician used to give out lollipops. Now they give out stickers.

But back to your recipe. Hurray! I think I have everything on hand to whip this up as a surprise for my family. Thanks for sharing this amazing looking recipe.

I am going to go visit Lucy now.

PG said...

Don't forget we had about ten years of food and especially sugar rationing in the second world war; sweets were only un-rationed sometime in the 1950's. That must have had a pretty big effect on household cooking habits, and is not so far back in the past (apart from the fact that half the nation can't even cook an egg anymore). I was taught to bake and cook at an early age by my mum (who was a war child) but we rarely made sweets.

Am looking forward to seeing you both in the New Year, as our meet up was dealt such a cruel blow by the evil lurgy.

Lucy said...

Oh you do say the nicest things! I am eating chocolate here and blushing! Thank you so much.

I think Nigel Slater wrote something recently about British confectionery culture, our nostalgia for often not very nice commercially made types of sweet and biscuits. (I read about it at Tori's wonderful foody blog 'Love Apples', she's in Montreal but I think of Hungarian extraction and very well travelled, I think you'd like her...)

But it's true we don't have the traditions of home-made sweet and cookie baking that you do, apart from fudge perhaps, and something I've never tried called snapdragon, which sounds like a rationalisation for a culinary mishap.

But I really like the sound of this toffee, and will reciprocate very soon with a version of flapjacks which I make every year with variations. I'll get onto it at the weekend.

Bee said...

David - Imagine said phrase in a sweet, syrupy drawl. :)

JAPRA - You got free candy! Well, I take it all back. Do you think that hard-pressed retailers are trying to "sweeten the deal?"

Yes, one of the many virtues of this recipe is that it only has four ingredients -- and most Texans will have them on hand.

PG - Oh, that's such a good point. I didn't consider that sugar-eating in England had been delivered double blows. Do you think that there was a tradition of candy-making in England before the wars?

Yes, it WAS sad to have our felting day sidelined by illness. Little daughter really is very poorly.

Lucy - Is that birthday chocolate you are eating? Many happy returns.

I've read Nigel Slater's book -- it's called Eating for England, and it is an excellent description of the nation's eating habits (both the good and the bad). I've just had a look at it, and there are several descriptions of toffee -- but they are different from the kind that I make.

I look forward to your flapjack recipe . . . and especially your embellishments on this classic.

Brave Sir Robin said...

Store in an air-tight can . . . and don’t make it on a humid day!

And that is the trick around here.

JaneyV said...

My mother baked a lot when I was a child but mostly, tarts, pies, cakes and scones. We did go through a bit of toffee-making in the seventies but I think my mother put the kibosh on it when my brother burnt one of her pots!!

The Christmas confection I most remember growing up was Scots Clan Toffees. They hurt your teeth they were initially so hard but then they yielded and released all their sugary loveliness so that when one was gone you were left longing for more.

I'm sorry that I have no candy recipes to exchange but this might be the year to start making toffee.

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

Dearest Bee, you inspired me today. I made your toffee!

And it surprised me by reminding me of home.

Thank you!! XO

texasbb said...


willow said...

Happy Birthday, Lucy! The English toffee sounds devine.

Anne said...

If someone says they have a good recipe of anything, I’m instantly desirous – one part curiosity, and one part greed. Who knows why, but domestic details intrigue me. I always like to know what other people are eating, and if they say it is good, then I want to eat it, too.

This is so me. Come to think of it, it's probably the main reason I have a food blog!

I love, love, love English toffee--it's probably my favorite sweet, and I have very fond memories of getting a small piece at the mom and pop candy store (Buckhart's) every few times we went to visit my grandparents in Santa Cruz. I can't wait to try your recipe.

I would be delighted to join your virtual candy exchange! How sweet of you to delay your post so that I could join in. I already know which recipe I'd like to contribute. I don't think I've blogged it yet, and I suspect that you'll enjoy it. I'll drop a link when I've posted it!

JAPRA--Quality Street!! Those candies are forever associated with my grandmother (really my dad's family, but mostly with her). Thanks for the warm and fuzzy memory jog on this stressful day. :)

Nimble said...

What fun. I love to hear what other people are excited about making, and eating. Toffee makes me think of Beth R. -- she made it in the Thomas dorm kitchen sometimes.

I've just made candied orange peel for the first time. So I'll get an entry ready about that and send you the link. It's too bitter for my kids but my husband and I love it. I'm going to do another batch to give to the relations in Austin.

I ran out of cinnamon last night making pumpkin bars. I couldn't believe I'd used it up so fast. It was a good sized container too. My girls like lots of it on oatmeal and applesauce.

Alyson (New England Living) said...

Happy birthday to your friend, Lucy!

I'm going to have to pull out my toffee recipe and see how close the two are.

I like this idea of recipe exchange, especially when it has to do with Christmas candy! I'll post something next week!

Cindy said...

I love this idea! Especially since I don't have co-workers to do the traditional cookie exchange with this year. Or last for that matter. I will be posting something in the next couple of days and will let you know when it is there.

As for recipe sharing, it seems more prevalent today. My husband's grandmother would never share a recipe. If you liked something she would say, come over, I'll make it for you. My husband pines for her Chop Suey and that's one we will never have :(

Bee said...

BSR - We left some peanut brittle out on a plate the other day and I couldn't believe how quickly it got sweaty! Thank goodness I didn't delay candy-making until today . . . because it has been raining all day long.

Janey - You put your finger on something that puzzles me. The Brits and Irish do such good tea-time treats, but why not candy? I still long for my grandmother's divinity and Oklahoma Brown candy (kind of like fudge, but not really). They were once-a-year treats. (Speaking of burnt pans, I did a number on one of them tonight . . . trying to burn sugar for my black cake. I've been trying to dissolve the burnt mess for hours now.)

JAPRA - Your toffee looks beautiful. I am really impressed that you didn't even use a thermometer!!

Hi Texasbb!

Willow - It really is; I slightly overdid my second batch, but it is mellowing nicely.

Anne - I'm so looking forward to seeing what you post. I promise that I will make it, too. (But did you doubt that?)

How funny that you know about Quality Street! They now make large versions of the most popular ones (ie, "the big purple one") and sell them separately. They definitely have the nostalgia factor, but as for taste - meh.

Nimble - Funny you should mention candied orange peel because I was reading about it a few weeks ago and wondering if I should give it a go. I know exactly what you mean about the cinnamon! I'm constantly running out of cinnamon and ginger.

I don't think I ever got any of Beth R's toffee. Boo hoo.

Alyson - Are you feeling better today? My youngest daughter was SO ill with some nasty virus. (I'm praying that I don't get it as I have to deliver the big Xmas dinner tomorrow for my husband's family.)

I'm looking forward to comparing recipes! What if I like yours better than mine? When it comes to food, I'm not sure how far my loyalty will stretch.

Cindy - I'm so happy that you want to join in! You are from such a different part of the country than the bit I grew up in, and the different food traditions interest me.

Isn't it funny people used to "prize" their recipes and treat them like something top-secret? So many good recipes died out that way. Personally, I like to share the love. :)

Braja said...

Oh wonderful. OK, so I like my candy packaged in chocolate colored tins, with big gold ribbons. Should I email you my address or .... I see I have double the chance of this happening because Alyson totally rocks too...

Susanna (A Modern Mother) said...

I've got a great divinity recipe, and fudge that I can share...

Also, Bee, have you converted to British measurements (by weight) or do you still use cups?

I have a running debate with another American friend of mine here...

I still feel more comfortable with cups and she thinks the British measuring system is more practical...

Bee said...

Braja - I think that toffee might be a bit delicate to survive the trip to India! But if you come to England anytime I will lay one a candy feast for you!

Susanna - Divinity! Fudge! How close do you live to Newbury? :)
BTW, I woke up this morning and the first words that popped into my head were, "The weather outside is frightful . . ."

Actually, I mostly still use cups when baking . . . but I put the recipe into ounces for the people who use scales. As you know, not so many Brits have the little plastic cup set!

Dave King said...

Could anything be more mouth-watering? A most enjoyable post.

Laurie said...

My Cajun grandparents always said "give me some sugar." Needless to say, we all say it now...cousins, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters. It's a wonderful thing. Sugar, that is. :)

bonbon said...

Quality Street at Xmas is so terribly English.
I can't do a virtual candy exchange but I do recall "sweeties " being the first things I ever made as a child. I have memories of Coconut Ice/Peppermint creams/Fudge and Tablet:) The scottish version of fudge with a more grainy texture and way too much sugar. I will dig out my recipe. I still recall the scratch of the sugary squares on my teeth.
Tablet I made at home with Granny but the other sweets were done at school and my introduction to the culinary world. These eatable treatables were probably the easiest things to prepare in a class of 30 odd, 7 yr olds with runny noses as no baking is required. These recipes require only a few ingredients and strong right arm to do all the mixing. This was without doubt the start of a slippery slope for me towards sugar cravings and the demise of my molars. If I ate those confections now I would probably balk at the abundance of sugar and calories.

Anne said...

Okay, my recipe is up!

You're right about Quality Street. I think that for my dad's family, it's less about the taste than nostalgia for their time in England, and that's been passed on to my generation as an association with family gatherings with my grandmother.

Brave Sir Robin said...

Bee -
The more I think about it, I imagine you probably have the same humidity issues that I have.

Maybe that's why the Brits and the Irish don't do candy?

Divinity is devilishly hard in humid weather.

Bee said...

Dave - Thank you! You are a sweetie. :)

Laurie - My grandparents used to say it, too. I guess it's a Southerism.

Bon Bon - Yes, I don't think that homemade candy is the dentist's favorite. I wonder if sweet-making is still on the UK Curriculum?

I've made Scotch Tablet before and it does make your teeth ache a bit! As for the calorie issue, I prefer to think that a little goes a long way . . . at least that's true for me. Speaking of calories, or Xmas, or your family -- we had the "Massacre in the Snowstorm" last night. (Remember the Eton Mess with pomegranites from last year?)

Anne - I'm going to check it out right now! (And then I will link you in.)

BSR - My mom and I tried divinity in England on Xmas two years ago, but we didn't get a good "scald" on it. The toffee seems to do pretty well, though -- as does the peanut brittle, which was a big hit with my in-laws this weekend. (I made another batch this morning for them to take home.)

Richie's 2ts Inspires said...

Hmmm...sounds yummy! Am a sugar addicted. Love it...

Guess, I will try to make myself. Hope i handle making as yummy as yours.

Cheers for a good Sunday!

Bee said...

Richie - I guarantee this will satisfy the sugar addiction! Thanks for visiting.

Susanna (A Modern Mother) said...

Hi, I included you in the best of the British Mummy bloggers list ... you may want to put your two pence into the debate...

Bee said...

Thanks, Susanna! I've just added my two pence (and maybe a bit more).

Minx said...

I think Merkans do have a sweeter tooth. My pre-Christmas (Yule) bake usually consists of chutneys, rhubarb and courgette pies (yes, really) and the meanest cheese straws this side of England.

Bee said...

Minx - I know you are Cornish, but I cannot look at the word "Merkan" without hearing George Bush's voice! (BTW, my English husband set my new Tom Tom to the hickiest Southern voice you can imagine. He thinks that is hilarious.) I think you are right: Americans probably do have more of a taste for sugar. It is probably because they put corn syrup in darn near all food products in the US of A. On the other hand, no one can beat the Brits for biscuit-eating. :)

I made some chutney, too, this Christmas. It seemed an appropriate gift in light of the economic downturn. Let them eat chutney! I'll take your word on the courgette pie.

k said...

i looooove this idea bee! will join in soon!

your recipe came at the perfect time, too, because someone sent me of those chain letter type email things for recipes. so, i just copied & pasted yours and it's off. i know it will bring a lot of christmas cheer!

i ADORE toffee, it's probably my favorite candy and i'm not a candy type of gal. unless it's lindor truffles or anything with nutella... so i'm excited to try this. i've only ever bought toffee, i don't even own a candy thermometer, but i've added one to my errand list for this afternoon.

i'm american, but not a huge sugar eater. when i'm having a craving it's usually for something salty. i grew up with hippie (well, as hippie as they could get away with in the suburbs) parents who didn't believe in having anything in the house with added sugar. i'd never eaten a candy bar until i met my husband at 19. my closest friend in the town where i live now is a huge candy freak so she has opened my eyes to lots of things sugar-wise. she's also a great cook and baker and this year spent an afternoon with me making spritzer cookies, sugar cutout cookies, and fudge. i want a day of sugary treat making to be my new holiday tradition.

Bee said...

K - You are a sweet little honey, even if you were deprived of sugar for 20 years! I hope that the recipe works for you; I've never known it to fail.

Let me know if you make it, okay?

herhimnbryn said...


Cindy said...

Hi Bee - It took me a while but I posted my contribution to your candy exchange. Enjoy!

Bee said...

Hi Cindy - Thanks for this! I'm always happy to learn about new candy.

Nimble said...

Last minute Minnie, that's me! Here's my candied orange peels

Thank you all for the holiday hospitality! A sweet 2009 to everybody.

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