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.
Winter Comfort Food
I intended on baking holiday cookies to share with you today, but when I sat down to brainstorm all I could think about, truly, was the morning porridge I've been making and how that's really what I wanted to send you away with. The holiday season always seems to zoom on by at its own clip with little regard for how most of us wish it would just slow down, and this year feels like no exception. We got our tree last week and I've been making a point to sit in the living room and admire the twinkle as much as possible. I have lofty goals of snowflakes and gingerbread men and stringing cranberries and popcorn, but I'm also trying to get comfortable with the fact that everything may not get done, and that sitting amongst the twinkle is really the most important. That and a warm breakfast before the day spins into gear. This multi-grain porridge has proved to be a saving grace on busy weekday mornings, and it reheats beautifully so I've been making a big pot and bringing it to work with some extra chopped almonds and fresh pomegranate seeds. While cookies are certainly on the horizon, I think I'll have this recipe to thank for getting us through the busy days ahead.
We returned home from San Francisco on New Years Eve just in time for dinner, and craving greens -- or anything other than baked goods and pizza (ohhhh San Francisco, how I love your bakeries. And citrus. And winter sunshine). Instead of driving straight home, we stopped at our co-op where I ran in for some arugula, an avocado, a bottle of Prosecco, and for the checkout guys to not-so-subtly mock the outlook of our New Years Eve: rousing party, eh? They looked to be in their mid-twenties and I figured I probably looked ancient to them, sad even. But really, there wasn't much sad (or rousing, to be fair) about our evening: putting Oliver to bed, opening up holiday cards and hanging them in the kitchen, and toasting the New Year with arugula, half a quesadilla and sparkling wine. It wasn't lavish. But it's what we both needed. (Or at least what we had to work with.) Since then, I've been more inspired to cook lots of "real" food versus all of the treats and appetizers and snacks the holidays always bring on. I made Julia Turshen's curried red lentils for the millionth time, a wintry whole grain salad with tuna and fennel, roasted potatoes, and this simple green minestrone that I've taken for lunch this week. Determined to fit as many seasonal vegetables into a bowl as humanly possible, I spooned a colorful pesto on top, as much for the reminder of warmer days to come as for the accent in the soup (and for the enjoyment later of slathering the leftover pesto on crusty bread).
If I asked you about what you like to cook at home when the week gets busy, I'm willing to bet it might be something simple. While there are countless websites and blogs and innumerable resources to find any kind of recipe we may crave, it's often the simple, repetitive dishes that we've either grown up with or come to love that call to us when cooking (or life in general) seems overwhelming or when we're feeling depleted. While my go-to is typically breakfast burritos or whole grain bowls, this Curried Cauliflower Couscous with Chickpeas and Chard would make one very fine, very doable house meal on rotation. The adaptations are endless, and its made from largely pantry ingredients. I never thought I'd hop on the cauliflower "rice" bandwagon, but I have to say after making it a few times, I get the hype.
People describe raising young kids as a particular season in life. I hadn't heard this until we had a baby, but it brought me a lot of comfort when I'd start to let my mind wander, late at night between feedings, to fears that we'd never travel internationally again or have a sit-down meal in our dining room. Would I ever eat a cardamom bun in Sweden? Soak in Iceland? I loved the heck out of our tiny Oliver, but man what had we done?! Friends would swoop in and reassure us that this was just a season, a blip in the big picture of it all. They promised we'd likely not even remember walking around the house in circles singing made-up songs while eating freezer burritos at odd hours of the day (or night). And it's true.
Oliver is turning two next month, and those all-encompassing baby days feel like a different time, a different Us. In many ways, dare I say it, Toddlerhood actually feels a bit harder. Lately Oliver has become extremely opinionated about what he will and will not wear -- and he enforces these opinions with fervor. Don't get near the kid with a button-down shirt. This week at least. He's obsessed with his rain boots and if it were up to him, he'd keep them on at all times, especially during meals. He insists on ketchup with everything (I created a damn monster), has learned the word "trash" and insists on throwing found items away on his own that really, truly are not trash. I came to pick him up from daycare the other day and he was randomly wearing a bike helmet -- his teacher mentioned he'd had it on most of the day and really, really didn't want to take it off. The kid has FEELINGS. I love that about him, and wouldn't want it any other way. But, man it's also exhausting.
It's been a uniformly gray and rainy week in Seattle, and I'd planned on making a big pot of salmon chowder to have for the weekend, but then the new issue of Bon Appetit landed on my doorstep with that inviting "Pies for Dinner" cover, and I started to think about how long it's been since I made my very favorite recipe from my cookbook, Whole Grain Mornings. I'm often asked at book events which recipe I love most, and it's a tough one to answer because I have favorites for different moods or occasions, but I'd say that this savory tart is right up there. The cornmeal millet crust is one of my party tricks; when we need a quick brunch recipe, this is what I pull out of my back pocket because it's so simple and delicious. This is a no-roll, no fuss crust with a slightly sandy, crumbly texture thanks to the cornmeal, and a delightful crunch from the millet. In the past, I've used the crust and custard recipe as the base for any number of fillings: on The Kitchn last year, I did a version with greens and gruyere, and I teach cooking classes that often include a version heavy on local mushrooms and shallot. So if you are not keen on salmon or have some vegetables you're looking to use up this week, feel free to fold in whatever is inspiring you right now. Sometimes at this point in winter that can be hard, so hopefully this recipe may help a little.