Yesterday, I wrote a post for Bay Area Bites about my recent experience learning how to make Denise’s Pieces, our family’s very favorite Christmas treat. If you’re interested in reading all about our afternoon, head on over and check it out. Otherwise, I wanted to share the recipe with you all here.
First it’s worth mentioning that Christmas wasn’t Christmas at my house without Denise’s Pieces. Denise used to work with my dad, and has since become a family friend. She is infamous for her English Toffee and sends out fifty pounds each holiday season. Her Aunt Betty taught her the recipe twenty-five years ago and she’s been perfecting and adapting it ever since. Each holiday, my sisters and I argue/gorge/hoard pieces from the tin to stretch out the supply–but this year, Denise agreed to drive up to our house the day after Thanksgiving and teach us the insider secrets (lots of stirring) and the recipe.
When Denise arrived, she set up the equipment and ingredients…and the caveat. I could tell something big was about to happen; the energy in the room changed quickly. That’s right about when Denise announced that once she teaches you the recipe, you own it and she no longer sends a yearly tin. I couldn’t believe my ears. I’d rather not know, I thought, having trouble imagining Christmas without toffee straight from Denise. But alas, my sister Rachael and I looked at each other and knew what we had to do: we had to learn how to perfect these Pieces. And we did. And now, you can too.
Now if you’ve never made toffee or candy before, it does take a bit of initial patience. You need a good candy thermometer and buy a few extra sticks of butter in case you have to heave the first batch…it does take a little practice to gauge what the “hard crack” stage looks like. But really, I promise, this recipe’s easy. You can do it. And once you do, you’ll never want to have another holiday without.
5 glass 9-inch Pyrex round pie pans
Candy Thermometer (stay away from the glass ones as they get quite hot)
2 Copper-bottom saucepans or (or similar quality)
Wooden Spoon, Spatula
Butter your Pyrex pans using one of the sticks of butter and set aside (don’t worry, you’ll have a little less than 4 sticks for the recipe after this step, but that’s o.k). Put the chocolate chips in one of your pans and heat on very low heat to get them melting. Once melted, turn heat off and allow them to hang out—you’ll use it to top the toffee later.
Place sticks of butter in saucepan with candy thermometer fitted on side. Heat slowly on low-medium heat and stir constantly until you reach 170 degrees. Slowly dribble the water into the butter, stirring as you go and then bring the temperature back up to 170.
Add the sugar very slowly, stirring in between each addition. Then, simply continue stirring until the mixture reaches a “hard crack” stage of 300 degrees. This should take roughly twenty minutes depending on your stove and cookware. When you reach about 275 degrees, the heat will stay right there for quite sometime. Don’t worry. Keep stirring. If things are going well the mixture should be increasing in volume, about 2x what it looked like originally. Look for the color to be changing to a nice, caramelly brown.
When you reach the “hard crack” stage, pull the pan off and pour into the Pyrex in a circular motion, hitting the center last (this will prevent you from pouring it all into the center of the pan and having it sit in a clump there—you’re going for a nice even layer). Wait about 5 minutes for toffee to cool (you don’t want to melt the wax paper) and then loosen the candy from the Pyrex gently with a knife using a circular motion. Set on wax paper and blot with a napkin to get rid of any extra butter (which would make it difficult for the chocolate layer to stick).
Check on your chocolate and make sure it hasn’t firmed back up (if it has, give it a quick heat on the stove). Spread melted chocolate on the surface with a spoon or spatula and sprinkle nuts generously. Gently press nuts into the chocolate so they’ll stick and flip toffee over. Repeat on other side. Then layer toffee onto a cookie sheet and put in fridge to cool and set completely—24 hrs is ideal.
After completely set, break up into pieces and arrange in tins or plates.
On Monday our little family of three is headed to the airport at 6 am to board our first with-baby cross-country trip. We'll be visiting Sam's family in New Jersey for a few days, then renting a car and driving over to meet up with my family at my mom's lake house in the Adirondacks. Sam's younger sister and her kids have yet to meet Oliver; my grandpa has yet to meet him, and Oliver has yet to take a dunk in a lake, see a firefly, or spend quality time with energetic dogs -- of which there will be three. A lot of firsts. This week my family has been madly texting, volunteering to make certain meals or sweets on assigned days while we're at the cabin and it got me thinking about really simple, effortless summer desserts -- in particular, ones that you can make while staying in a house with an unfamiliar kitchen and unfamiliar equipment and still do a pretty bang-up job. I think fruit crisp is just that thing.
In a few short weeks, we're headed to New York, Vermont and New Jersey to visit family and see my sister Zoe get married. In starting to think through the trip and do a little planning, I found Oliver the cutest tiny-person dress shoes I've ever seen (and he's quite smitten with them), sussed out childcare options for the night of the wedding, and found what feels like the most expensive (and last) rental car in the state of New Jersey. I try very hard not to be one of Those People that begins lamenting the loss of a season before it's remotely appropriate to do so, but this year, as we'll be gone much of September, I've felt a bit of a 'hurry, make all the summery things!' feeling set in. So we've been managing increasingly busy days punctuated with zucchini noodle salads, gazpacho, corn on the cob and homemade popsicles (preferably eaten shirtless outside followed by a good, solid sprinkler run for one small person in particular. Not naming any names).
Somehow, in what seems to have been a blink of an eye, we have a six month old baby. In some ways I can't remember a time we didn't have an Oliver, and in other ways it's all a blur broken up by a few holidays (a Thanksgiving thanks to grocery store takeout, and our very first Christmas in Seattle), a few family visits, a one-day road trip to Portland, a birthday dinner out, a birthday cake, weekend drives to nowhere in particular, swimming at the pool with Oliver, weekly get-togethers with our parent's group, doctor's visits, hundreds of walks around the neighborhood, hundreds of cups of coffee, dozens (or more?) of scoops of ice cream. Most of the worrying about keeping a baby alive has made way for other concerns, and Oliver's need for constant stimulation or soothing walks and car rides has been traded for stretches of time playing with a new toy or checking out his surroundings. In truth, it's thanks to that tiny bit of baby independence that this humble, summery cake came to be in the first place. So we've all got an Oliver to thank for that. Or, really, we have a Yossi Arefi to thank, as it's from her beautiful new cookbook that I've bookmarked heavily and am eager to continue exploring.
A triple berry summer crisp made with oats, quinoa flakes and hazelnuts. Summer in a skillet.
I had a weak moment on our honeymoon in Italy when I decided that I should be making gelato for a living. My enthusiasm for Italian gelato wasn't surprising to anyone. I'd done extensive research, made lists, had Sam map out cities in terms of where the best gelaterias were. I took notes and photos and hemmed and hawed over flavor choices: Sicilian Pistachio! Chestnut Honey! Sweet Cheese, Almond and Fig! In truth, on that particular trip, I cared far more about treats, sunshine, and cobblestone walks than I cared about famous landmarks or tourist attractions, often leaving the camera back at the hotel in favor of my small black notebook which housed detailed jottings on dessert discoveries in each city we visited. Our friends Matteo and Jessica happened to be in Naples on the one night we were there, and we all went out for pizza together followed by a long stroll around the city. At some point the conversation turned to gelato (as it's bound to) and Matteo brought up the famous school in Bologna where many renowned gelato artisans study. My wheels were spinning. Maybe we should visit Bologna. I should see this school! I should talk to these students! I could make Sicilian Pistachio; Chestnut Honey; and Sweet Cheese, Almond and Fig each and every day of our lives. Or at the very least, travel to Bologna to learn how and then come back to Seattle to take our Northwest city by storm. Well here we are six months later, back to reality, and the impetus to pack up my bags and head for Bologna has subsided for the time being ... but not the unwavering gusto to sample. That part will always be with me. It's been awhile since I mixed up a batch of ice cream at home, but the other day a beautiful new cookbook landed on my doorstep and I flipped right to a recipe for dark chocolate sorbet with toasty, salty almonds. I didn't need much convincing.