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.
It turns out that returning from a sunny honeymoon to a rather rainy, dark stretch of Seattle fall hasn't been the easiest transition. Sam and I have been struggling a little to find our groove with work projects and even simple routines like cooking meals for one another and getting out of the easy daily ruts that can happen to us all. When we were traveling, we made some new vows to each other -- ways we can keep the fall and winter from feeling a bit gloomy, as tends to happen at a certain point living in the Pacific Northwest (for me, at least): from weekly wine tastings at our neighborhood wine shop to going on more lake walks. And I suppose that's one of the most energizing and invigorating parts about travel, isn't it? The opposite of the daily rut: the constant newness and discovery around every corner. One of my favorite small moments in Italy took place at a cafe in Naples when I accidentally ordered the wrong pastry and, instead, was brought this funny looking cousin of a croissant. We had a wonderfully sunny little table with strong cappuccino, and, disappointed by my lack of ordering prowess, I tried the ugly pastry only to discover my new favorite treat of all time (and the only one I can't pronounce): the sfogliatelle. I couldn't stop talking about this pastry, its thick flaky layers wrapped around a light, citrus-flecked sweet ricotta filling. It was like nothing I'd ever tried -- the perfect marriage of interesting textures and flavors. I became a woman obsessed. I began to see them displayed on every street corner; I researched their origin back at the hotel room, and started to look up recipes for how to recreate them at home. And the reason for the fascination was obviously that they were delicious. But even more: I'm so immersed in the food writing world that I rarely get a chance to discover a dish or a restaurant on my own without hearing tell of it first. And while a long way away from that Italian cafe, I had a similar feeling this week as I scanned the pages of Alice Medrich's new book, Flavor Flours, and baked up a loaf of her beautiful fall pumpkin loaf: Discovery, newness, delight!
I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
This time last week I was up in the Skagit River Valley sitting in the early fall sun eating wood-fired bagels and chatting with farmers, millers and bakers at the Kneading Conference West. I made homemade soba noodles, learned the ins and outs of sourdough starters, and sat in on a session where we tasted crackers baked with single varietal wheats. It was like wine tasting, but with wheat and the whole time I kept pinching myself, thinking: THESE ARE MY PEOPLE! I don't get the opportunity to be a student much these days -- usually on the other side of things teaching cooking classes or educating people at the farmers markets about whole grains and natural sugars. So to just sit and listen with a fresh (red!) notebook and a new pen was surprisingly refreshing. I miss it already. Thankfully, this cookie recipe has come back as a memorable souvenir, and one that is sure to be in high rotation in our house in the coming months.
Strolling New York City streets during the height of fall when all the leaves are changing and golden light glints off the brownstone windows. This is what I envisioned when I bought tickets to attend my cousin's September wedding earlier this month: Sam and I would extend the trip for a good day or two so we could experience a little bit of fall in the city. We'd finally eat at Prune and have scones and coffee at Buvette, as we always do. Sam wanted to take me to Russ and Daughters, and we'd try to sneak in a new bakery or ice cream shop for good measure. Well, as some of you likely know, my thinking on the weather was premature. New York City fall had yet to descend and, instead, we ambled around the city in a mix of humidity and rain. When we returned home I found myself excited about the crisp evening air, and the fact that the tree across the street had turned a rusty shade of amber. It was time to do a little baking.
I am writing this on Saturday afternoon on a day when we had big plans to conquer pre-baby chore lists, but Sam's not feeling great and my energy's a little low so it hasn't been quite what we'd envisioned. My goals for the morning were to repot a house plant and make some soup and I've done neither. I will say that the sweet potato and fennel are still sitting on the counter eagerly awaiting their Big Moment -- it just hasn't come about quite yet. Sam and I were both going to attempt to install the carseat, but it started to look really daunting so we abandoned ship; it's now sitting proudly in the basement, also eagerly awaiting its Big Moment. So it's been one of those weekends -- the kind you look back on and wonder what it is you actually accomplished. At the very least, I get the chance to tell you about this hearty cranberry cornbread. I know maybe it feels premature in the season for cranberry recipes, but hang with me here: slathered with a little soft butter and runny honey, there's nothing I'd rather eat right now on the cool, crisp Seattle mornings we've been having lately.