It used to drive me crazy when my husband stopped to fix something. We’d be in the middle of a conversation, and he’d spot, say, a proud nail in the wood floor, and before I could so much as utter another syllable, he’d be down on his hands and knees with a hammer, pounding away.
It only bothered me until I realized that in my own realm, I do the same thing. If there’s something I don’t like about a recipe, I tinker. I play. I fiddle. I fix. So while it’s not in my nature to hang a photo back up immediately after it falls off the wall, I’ll sauté chard three nights in a row, if it means getting the garlic flavor just right. And admittedly, it’s more or less the same thing.
Sometimes, though, there’s just nothing to fix. If there’s a better buttercrunch recipe than the one I use most frequently, I haven’t found it. I’ve tried. Many are fancier, or more complicated. Some are more unique. But my basic version, a quick toffee slathered with dark chocolate and walnuts, has be come a holiday stand-by. Some years I go a little crazy, sprinkling it with toasted almonds, or even Altoids, but I always come back to basics.
After recommending it as a DIY gift idea to a friend, I got to thinking: I don’t want to change the technique behind it, but could I ramp up the flavor? I turned on the stove.
Instead of the usual sugar, I made the caramel with brown sugar, infused with an entire vanilla bean’s seeds. I smoothed a 60% cacao chocolate over the cooled toffee—I’ve found using too dark a chocolate prevents it from sticking properly as it dries—and sprinkled it with toasted walnuts, instead of untoasted.
It was crunchy and sticky and chocolaty and nutty, as usual. But more delicious? Honestly, I’m not sure. It might be slightly more flavorful, what with all that vanilla, and since I was out of plain sugar, it was certainly more convenient for me to make with brown sugar. I still loved wrapping it up in little jars and giving it away, but for once, the tinkering didn’t really make a difference. I can’t decide if that’s a good or a bad thing. Maybe it’s just a thing. In any case, I need another batch, to temper the let-down.
Brown Sugar-Vanilla Buttercrunch (PDF)
This crunchy candy, based on a top-secret family recipe from someone else’s family, is my answer for the cookie-averse recipients on my holiday baking list. For another gift, cut the used vanilla bean in to 3 or 4 pieces and snuggle them into jars of sugar, for vanilla sugar.
TIME: 30 minutes active time
MAKES: about 3 dozen pieces
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon Karo syrup
2 tablespoons water
Seeds from 1 soft vanilla bean
1 pound high-quality dark chocolate (I prefer 60%, or dark chips), finely chopped
2 cups toasted walnuts, very finely chopped
Line a baking sheet with a silicon baking mat (or greased foil) and set aside.
Combine the butter, brown sugar, Karo syrup, water, and vanilla bean seeds in a medium non-reactive (not aluminum) saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the temperature reaches 290 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. (It will take 10 to 15 minutes, but this is not the time to wander around the kitchen, as overcooking the caramel will cause it to separate. Be patient.)
At 290 degrees, carefully pour the toffee mixture onto the lined baking sheet, tipping the sheet and/or spreading the mixture with a small offset spatula until the mixture makes a roughly 12” by 15” rectangle. Let cool completely, about 30 minutes.
When cool, melt the chocolate: Place it in a saucepan over very low heat, and stir constantly until almost all the chunks are melted. Remove from heat and stir until smooth. Set aside.
Spread half the chocolate mixture in an even layer over the cooled toffee, and sprinkle evenly with half the walnuts. Cool until the chocolate is dry and completely firm (this may take a few hours), then carefully flip the toffee. Rewarm the chocolate over low heat, if necessary, then repeat the spreading process with the remaining chocolate and sprinkle the remaining walnuts on top. Let cool completely, then break into bite-sized chunks. Store in a tightly sealed container up to 3 weeks.