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.

Instructable Wednesday: The Lozenge

I love learning how to do things it just never occurred to me to do before. In this case, it's making my own cough drop. The thing about cough drops is that they are just specially flavored candy. Some may be vaguely medicinal, but there's something to be said for having your favorite herb, spice, or tea inside the lozenge that's soothing your throat. Normal candy making rules apply, so you can follow the normal rules for ingredient substitutions and dealing with changes in the environment (or not) as necessary.

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Instructable Wednesday: Sugar Glass

This week's Instructable is on making sugar glass, which is a technique you've most likely seen on those cooking competitions where they're making a sculpture and everything has to be made from an edible material. Sugar glass is also used in the movies and probably on stage when someone needs hitting over the head with a bottle. The author of the Instructable posted a video of this technique… …which, as you can see, has a million and one uses around the home. This particular Instructable, while full of information, admits that it glosses over the process of making a mould for shaping the glass. However, on step 5 he links to another instructable on Two Part Silicone Casting which will give you the information you need for that.

Fine Cooking Thursday: Like syrup for candy

My question this week involves the substitution of rice syrup for corn syrup in candy making. Is it a good idea? Will it all go horribly wrong? There's only one way to know for sure. As a special feature for The Food Geek readers, I'm going to include some alternate text that didn't go into the original article. It's like a bonus feature on a DVD. Woo! I had a metaphor that just wasn't really working for me nor a select group of test readers, so I cut it. I could have made it work, but it didn't seem necessary, so I figured there was no reason to force the issue.
Corn syrup, on the other hand, is mostly glucose. The reason it's so, well, syrupy is because it's not just single molecules of glucose all hanging out by themselves, but chains of glucose. Sometimes they're short chains, sometimes they're long chains. It kind of like, and I want to stress that this is only a metaphor and should in no way put you off candy making, it's kind of like a big can of worms. Some of the worms are little ones, some are big long ones, but they all flow around each other and keep things moving slowly. The reason why you put the corn syrup into the candy is because, when you just have single sugar molecules by themselves, then the sugar molecules want to bunch together to make crystals. It's really keen and useful for certain kinds of candies, but not as useful for others. What the corn syrup does is get in-between the sucrose molecules so, while they would normally join hands together, they instead try to keep from touching anything in case, for example, it might be a big worm.
4B72FB8B-4DFB-40BB-9238-C19AAC38756D.jpg Anyways, it's no room full of kittens, nor is it a thoroughly extended metaphor about a party, but for those who like knowing some of the (shhh!) secrets of the writing process, there ya go.

Valentine's Treat: Sweetharts

For me, the Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories folks hit a sweet spot, as it were. Pure geekery, and they even do food projects. I have one of their Peggy 2.0 boards on my wall at work, and it's fantastic. For today, they've shown us how to make a larger, tastier version of the hearts with the messages on them. Instead of being a barely-edible candy, it's a tasty cookie. You can customize your own messages and generally bring a little more excitement to a controversial holiday. sweetharts.jpg

Powder-Filled Gel "Pac" Mints Mistaken for Drugs by Narcos

Powder-Filled Gel "Pac" Mints Mistaken for Drugs by Narcos: "icebreakerspac.jpg The new 'Ice Breakers Pacs' candy from Hershey have freaked out narcotics officers in Philadelphia because of their resemblance to bags of powered drugs. The candy, which is a gritty sugar sealed inside a gel bag that dissolves in your mouth, looks an awful lot like a little baggie of cocaine or heroin."

(Via Boing Boing Gadgets.)

Yeah, right, kid. "Mints," huh? Next you're going to say that t-shirt isn't a bomb. You're going to spend a long time in jail. Was it this difficult for previous generations of law enforcement to keep up with changes in technology. I suppose it was. Anyways, for the conclusion - Ice Breackers Pacs: They may not be great mints, but you'll be cool like a heroin user. Alternately - Ice Breakers Pacs: Stickin' it to the man.

chadzilla: making vodka pills in 24 hours

chadzilla: making vodka pills in 24 hours: "Recently, Chef Fabian was experimenting further with the Adria/Torreblanca technique of making 'vodka pills.' I use this word to describe the process of making liquid-filled candies by pouring flavored alcohol syrups into cornstarch and letting it set until a hard outer shell forms. The process is simple, but requires great attention to certain details and a clean approach."

The general idea is to make a soft, syrup-filled candy that is primarily based on a distilled spirit. The process takes a full day, and the end product doesn't have much shelf life, so it would be keen for a party, for example. I would probably lean towards a more flavorful spirit such as bourbon, but that might be a bit strong for some guests. If you read through to the comments, there is a, um, energetic discussion (mustn't say 'spirited') about different spirits to use, possible ways to increase durability and shelf life, and how to measure.

(Via Make.)

Keacher.com » Blog Archive » Chocolate Zen

Keacher.com » Blog Archive » Chocolate Zen: "The legends preceded it: chocolate so dark it ceased to taste like chocolate. Chocolate so intense it required cautionary statements. Chocolate so fine it cost $32 per pound. One of my coworkers is a fan of dark chocolate, and he was the one who first told me about the 99%-cocoa Lindt chocolate bar."

(Via reddit.)

Make your own chewing gum

One of the things I like doing best when I cook is making something that normally people buy. Sure, making the greatest Macaroni and Cheese is really cool, but making my own Chili Powder is being one step closer to godhood. Along those lines, I love the idea of the make your own gum kit. You get the basic materials, heat, mix, add some flavor, and Bob's your uncle. What would be better, though, is finding a good source for chicle gum base (or, for that matter, any gum base). Then I could just make my own gum, without all that messy working with a kit thing. But where can I find chicle gum base? TIC gums seems a good source for some serious gum bases, but no chicle gums, and these seem to be the sorts of additives that are great for mass production of food, but aren't so useful for the home cook. And that's where you get into the need for a kit. Play around with the pre-packaged, ready-to-assemble stuff, then work hard to find the basic ingredients if it seems at all worthwhile. I just like being able to go to my local market and grab the necessary ingredients and supplement it with what I already have. It works for a lot of foods, but I'm not sure if it'll work well with gum. However, if anyone knows anything worth knowing on the subject of gum and gum making, please post here.

Dark Chocolate Dipped Altoids

Chocolate AltoidsI believe I've mentioned my affinity for mints in the Metromint story, so it should come as no surprise that I'd mention this. Make Magazine's blog reports that Altoids are releasing a new set of ginger, cinnamon, and (of course) peppermint flavored candies, but this time dipped in dark chocolate. Curiously Strong Chocolates. Unfortunately, they won't be available for a few months, unless you win an eBay auction to benefit the American Red Cross. Were it not for the charitable component, I think that even Dark Chocolate Covered Altoids would not be worth the (as of posting) $172.51 highest bid, even for the three tins. Still, if you enjoy helping people, chocolate, peppermint, and the knowledge that you would be one of the few people in the world who knows the tastiness of this treat, then it's likely worthwhile to start bidding.

Roulette Chocolate

I've mentioned before that the spicy/sweet connection is getting stronger in Popular Culture. It's not quite there yet, but one of my local coffee houses has a Maya Mocha which, so you know, thoroughly sucks. Mind you, that's more because of their poor coffee than the concept of the mocha, but I can think of a good version of that, so I'll work on that at some point. Anyways, most of the products that mix spicy and sweet are niche products, and this is no exception. It's called Roulette Chocolate, and it's a series of twelve chocolate "bullets" that are mostly pure chocolate, with one that has what would appear to be a Thai chile hiding within. It's meant to be scary, but I suspect it would be mostly tasty. Perhaps not as good as my Chocolate Lava Fudge, but interesting nevertheless.