Toffee Troubles

What sorts of things can go wrong with toffee making? Will humidity doom a toffee to failure, or could there be something more sinister at work?

My Twitter friend Jennifer asks:

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Candy is a delicate creature, unfit to survive creation out of captivity. Only with constant attention, experience, care, and the proper environment will it make it from its early ingredients stage to the confection we all know and love. Candy made for the holidays is even worse, because chances are you only make it once per year. I mean, you may make hundreds of batches at that one time per year, but it'll still be twelve months until your next attempt, so the skills fade.

Okay, I exaggerate. Yes, candy making requires experience and knowledge, but it only seems mysterious because you're trying to make something that, candy lovers claim, tastes so much better than anything else. And toffee, being one of the tastiest of candies, requires a bit more knowledge to ensure it works.

The short answer is "yes," humidity will absolutely affect candy making. I don't believe, however, that humidity was the problem with your toffee. Humidity is more likely to affect the texture of the toffee, taking away the crunch and making it limp or saucy. Also, unless you're adding an acid or some fructose, you're not likely to absorb all that much water.

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The general goal with most candies is to create a sugar dissolved in a specific amount of water, with perhaps some other things thrown in for flavor or texture. Candy makers, being extremely clever, have come up with a couple of somewhat indirect ways of determining the ratio of sugar to water. The traditional way is to cause the candy to cool rapidly and see how it behaves, generally in water but I've also seen someone* just flick some at a plate and see what kind of strands it makes. The new fashioned way is to take its temperature.

As you've made this toffee before, it's not likely that temperature is the problem you're having, so I will not go into detail on the various stages of candy making. Yes, I know: it's brilliant how many things are probably not wrong with the toffee, but perhaps I could get to the point? Working on it.

When you have a high enough concentration of sugar in heated water, the sugar is going to want to get together and form crystals. Sometimes this is good, such as with rock candy or fudge. Sometimes this is bad, such as with hard candy or toffee. One method of preventing the crystals in toffee is to mix in a bunch of butter, which is great, but it presents potential problems that frustrate the toffee maker.

Problem one is that butter is a combination of water and oil, which means that you are increasing the water content of the mixture, and some butters will have different oil to water ratios. The water content shouldn't be a problem in and of itself, as you can't reach the right temperature of the solution without getting rid of the appropriate amount of water. On the other hand, if you use a butter with a different amount of water, then you are also using a butter with a different amount of oil, which will certainly throw things off. It's worth mentioning that if you usually use salted butter and used unsalted this time, or vice versa, that could cause the problem as well. So, if you might have changed brands of butter, this could be a cause of trouble.

Problem two is temperature. I know, I know, I wrote that I didn't think that the problem was temperature. I even put it in bold. More specifically, problem two is temperature measurement. Getting to the right temperature ensures that you have the appropriate amount of water in the solution, but it's possible that you might not be getting to the right temperature. If you are using a thermometer instead of the traditional methods, then you need to verify that the thermometer is accurate. To do this, put the thermometer into ice water and see if it reads 32°F / 0°C. Also, put it into boiling water and verify that it reads 212°F / 100°C. If it does, you're probably good. If not, you might not really be getting to the proper temperature, which could be trouble. Unless you're not at sea level, in which case verify what the proper temperature should be for your elevation.

Problem three is heat dissipation. It is vital that the sugar/butter/water solution be heated evenly. This means using a strong but temperature-neutral spoon. Wood is traditional, but I'm sure a serious silicone spoon will be fine. Also, it's recommended to use a burner that's larger than your cooking vessel, to ensure that the sides of the pan do not cool the mixture while the bottom is heating it. Heat imbalances kill candy.

Problem four is agitation. Yes, candy-making can really drive you nuts, but that's not what I mean. I'm talking about stirring. Stir slowly. Add ingredients slowly. If you dump a bunch of almonds into the mixture rather than pouring the toffee over the almonds just before the cooling stage, then be gentle with the mixing. Slowly. No, more slowly than that.

I've heard that adding a bit of salt will make life easier, and I've also heard that adding a bit more water may do the same. The success of these solutions (no pun intended) will depend on the particular toffee recipe you're trying, but are at best risk mitigation. If you have an otherwise good toffee recipe, which I believe you do, then they shouldn't be necessary.

Why is toffee such a pain, even more so than other candies? It's because toffee is a candy that is also a sauce. It's very similar to an article I wrote last month about the troubles with Alfredo Sauce. Not only do you have the whole "sugar likes to turn into a bunch of crystals" problem that plagues most candies, but you're suspending a bunch of oil in a solution of things that don't really play well with oil. You're expecting the sugar, which is temperamental at best, to keep oil from mixing with water, and we all know how well that's supposed to work out. But treat it with care, and everything should work out okay. If not, let me know and we can work on the other, less likely scenarios.

For those who don't have their own toffee recipe, or if you just want to try a new one, here is a toffee recipe that covers the advice that I mentioned plus a few other items that I didn't.

*- Sue Ashburn, creator of the greatest toffee in existence.

This post was originally hosted at FineCooking.com on Januray 8, 2009. This content is not available under a Creative Commons License.

How the Cookie Crumbles

It's always good to get to see presentations about cookie techniques, because either it will help to solidify something in my mind or, even better, will teach me something new. A problem I never really considered before was a crumbling cookie. If you make a cookie that has to travel some distance, you'll find that your average cookie recipe will leave you with something that cannot survive bumps and jolts without turning from a round confection to a pile of crumbs and bits.

Cookie crumbs

I was watching an IACP presentation by Shirley Corriher, author of BakeWise and CookWise , and also Food Scientist Extraordinaire on Good Eats. During her presentation, she talked about how to keep cookies from crumbling. The problem comes in because all of the sugar in the cookies absorbs all of the water, keeping the water from combining with the flour to make gluten. Exacerbating that lack of water due to sugar is a literal lack of water, as most cookie recipes have very little water-type liquid added to them. To make matters worse, all of the butter in the cookies will coat the flour, thus preventing whatever water may have been added which had not already joined up with the sugar unable to get to the flour. It makes for a crumbly cookie, because there are no long chains of gluten to ensure a structure that can hold up under pressure.

The solution is devilishly simple: take a cup of the flour that is in your cookie recipe and, before anything else, mix it with a few tablespoons of water until it forms a dough (exact amount of water depends on the type of flour and so on, but just add as much as you need and no more). Make your cookies as normal, but add this dough in at the end. Depending on how much you kneaded the dough, you will give extra strength and body to your cookies, and you will be able to control the texture by kneading it more if you want more chewiness to the cookie.

One of the added benefits of this method is that, because the water is all tied up making gluten in the flour, it's not going to throw off your cookie recipe's balance. The water isn't going to be released into the cookie, so you only have to worry about how much extra body you are giving your cookie and not wether the cookies will become a soggy mess.

Of course, you don't want to do this with a shortbread cookie, because the very definition of a shortbread cookie is that you don't have long gluten chains. I mean, you can make what would be a shortbread cookie with this recipe, but it won't be shortbread any more.

Double-Strawberry Open-Faced Pie

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Adapted from The Pie and Pastry Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum.

Ingredients

The Crust


  • 200g Cold unsalted Butter, cut into 1/4" cubes

  • 320g All-Purpose Flour

  • 3/4 tsp Salt

  • 126g Heavy Cream

  • 1 Egg White, lightly beaten

The Base Layer


  • 85g Lindt White Chocolate (all but one column of a 3.5oz bar)

  • 4oz Cream Cheese

  • 2 Tbl sour cream

The Cooked Layer


  • 1 cup fresh strawberries (after rinsing, drying, hulling, and halving)

  • 2 Tbl Cornstarch

  • 118g Water

  • 67g Sugar

  • 1 Tsp Fresh Lemon Juice

  • 1 pinch Salt

The Fresh Layer


  • Enough whole strawberries, to cover a 9" circle when stood point up, hulled, dried, and rinsed.

  • 72g Currant Jelly (1/4 cup)

  • 1 Tbl St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur

Directions

The Crust

Put 1/3 of the butter into the freezer in a medium-sized mixing bowl.

Whisk the flour and salt together. Mix in 2/3 of the butter with a pastry cutter until it looks like course meal. Once the butter is mixed with the flour, minimize exposure of the dough to your warm, warm hands, or you will melt the butter.

Place the butter/salt/flour mixture into a gallon-sized zip-top bag. Add in the last 1/3 of the butter and put the bowl back into the freezer. Get rid of all the air you can and seal the bag. Take your trustiest rolling pin and roll the contents of the bag until the butter turns into flatten flakes. Place the bag into the freezer for 10 minutes or thereabouts. The goal is to reverse any melting from the butter and make it reasonably solid again.

Take out the bag and the bowl, and transfer all of the dough to the bowl. You will need to scrape the sides of the bag, as the butter will have stuck to it during the rolling. Sprinkle the heavy cream into the mixture and mix. I use a silicone spatula to mix, as it won't melt the butter and it'll resist some of the sticking.

Put the mixture back into the bag and seal, removing most of the air as before. Knead the dough inside the bag with your fingertips until it sticks together. When you pull it, it should stretch a bit.

Divide the dough into two 6" discs and refrigerate for anywhere from 1 to 24 hours. 8 hours is ideal. Although you'll only need one of these discs for this pie, as it was a competition, I baked two in case something went horribly, horribly wrong.

Preheat the oven to 450° and let sit at that temperature for another 20-30 minutes.

Roll out the pie dough into a 13" circle and place into the pie pan. Shape the top as you like. Freeze for at least 20 minutes.

Dock the sides and bottom of the dough. Crumple a piece of parchment paper, unroll it, and place over the pie, fitting it down close to the dough. Put in your dried beans, rice, or pie weights. Bake for 20 minutes. Carefully remove the weighted parchment paper, cover the top edge of the crust with aluminum foil, and bake for another 5-10 minutes, until the inside of the crust has a light golden tinge and feels more like crust than dough. Let cool for 3 minutes, then brush on the egg white to the sides and bottom. Let cool completely.


The Bottom Layer

Put the white chocolate into a microwave safe dish and microwave on high for 20 seconds at a time. At the end of each, stir. Repeat until there's more melted bits than solid bits, then keep stirring until all of the solid bits turn into melted bits. Let cool to room temperature.

In a small mixing bowl, mix the cream cheese with an electric mixer until it's somewhat fluffy and whipped. Add in the cooled white chocolate and mix. Add in the sour cream and mix until combined. Cover the bottom of the pie with this mixture.

The Cooked Layer

Lightly crush the strawberries with a fork in a small saucepan. Add the sugar, water, salt, lemon juice, and cornstarch. Bring to a boil. Simmer for 1 minute. Pour into a bowl and let cool to room temperature. Stir occasionally during the cooling process. Once cooled, pour over the bottom later of the pie.

The Fresh Layer

Your strawberries should have the tops cut off so that they could stand up on the a flat surface. Place these point side up on top of the pie.

In the small saucepan which has been washed and dried, melt the currant jelly until it is melted. It will bubble. Strain into a glass, which will involve a lot of pressing with a spatula. Stir in the St. Germain. Brush this mixture onto the fresh strawberries.

The Pie

Cool in a refrigerator for an hour or two or overnight. Slice and eat, or slice and serve to judges. If the latter, try to save yourself a slice.

The Buttercream Nemesis on FineCooking.com

On Thursday I posted a new article on FineCooking.com about making Italian and Swiss buttercream. If you have trouble making traditional, egg-white based buttercreams, this will be helpful. If you need another metaphor for how emulsions work, that's a good place to go as well. Naturally, if the article is useful for you, please click the Thumbs Up button. If you have some troubles with it or further questions, a comment is always appreciated.

Hot Buttered Rum

I made my first Hot Buttered Rum this evening. How could I not try it out, especially after locating the recipe for the world's best hot buttered rum? It sounded like everything a winter drink should be: warm, booze-filled (sorry… infused with distilled spirits), sweet, and buttery. It sounded fantastic. You know what? It is fantastic. The making is terribly simple. Take a stick of softened butter, 3/4 cup brown sugar (I used dark), 1/4 cup agave nectar (a sweetener. You could probably use honey in a pinch, though that will throw off the flavor. Some sort of syrup, even a simple syrup, would work just as well), about half a tsp of cinnamon, 1/8 tsp each of nutmeg, allspice, and clove, a shot of rum, and a pinch of salt. Stir to combine (I used a fork). Take a spoonful or two of the batter, put it in a coffee cup, add a shot or so of rum, and fill the rest with hot water. Drink. Enjoy. Mmmm. I used Cruzan Light rum for my rum, as it was a good quality rum, and Lance J. Mayhew, who published the recipe that I found, suggests Bacardi 8. The important thing is to use a good rum. (Remember: cold reduces molecular motion, and that includes activating taste receptors. Hot increases molecular motion, so a bad rum will taste worse when heated.)

How to cut baking prep time

Or:

How to make your baking turn out better.

Or:

Nothing to see; move along.

WarmingEggs.jpgThe title of the article is different depending on what kind of baker you are. When I bake, I rarely either have time to or remember to set the ingredients out to come to room temperature first. It's a really good idea to do so, unless what you're making specifies otherwise (pie crust, for example). I'm not going to go into the why right now, we'll discuss that another day. Let's assume for the moment that you want to and you don't at the moment. The big culprits for room temperature neediness are generally eggs and butter. Everything else is easy. Butter melts like a wicked witch on a water slide, and eggs cook when anything remotely warm is applied to them. So, what to do? Here water is your friend. Many of you may know that, in order to thaw meat in a short amount of time, the best way is to put it in circulating water that's right around room temperature or a bit warmer. The same works for eggs and butter, but it's easier. The eggs you can just put into water straight and they'll be warm in moments. For the butter, you might want to wrap it in plastic wrap first to keep the butter from touching the water. I will admit, though, that I happen to know that a fridge-temp stick of butter in my current, tiny microwave will behave properly if I put it in for 15 seconds, but that will be a trial-and-error procedure with you if you want to try it yourself. More powerful microwaves might require lowering the power setting, or lowering the time, or both. If you're willing to sacrifice the structural integrity of a couple of sticks of butter to keep from having to handle plastic wrap, it'll save you time down the road. Now, for all of you who put their ingredients out well ahead of time because you're with it and actually prepare for your baking, well, I hope you enjoyed the bit about the wicked witch. The rest of us will go about our extemporaneous ways.