Friday, December 23, 2011

On Christmas sweets

JAN BROGAN: This is a repost of my favorite of our Christmas Candy blogs: The years may pass, but the recipes stay the same.

JAN: Every Christmas, I make home-made candy and give it to friends and neighbors. I start with caramels. Do not do this. It's completely insane. Caramels TAKE FOREVER. You actually have to stand at the stove about an hour, slowly stirring hot sugary liquid, remembering not to use your finger to wipe the side of the pot or sneak a taste. You will burn. I've got scars.

Not only that, but if you screw up and let the caramel cook too long, your Christmas gift to the neigbors will break their teeth.

And do they really need all those extra holiday calories anyway? I always wonder.

But maybe because cookies and cakes seem like so much unnecessary flour -- when anyone really needs is the straight sugar and chocolate, I stick with candies. And holiday rituals in our house are set in stone. My daughter, who loves rituals, makes the caramel part less onerous by putting on the holiday CD and keeping me company while I embark on the marathon stir. She also buys the cute little candy boxes at A.C. Moore and handles all the necessary ribbon tying.

But forget about caramels. If you go in for making Christmas candies, you want my English toffee recipe.Actually, it's my Aunt Clare's Engish toffee recipe -- she's the one who got me started on this candy making business. (although even she was not insane enough to do caramels)

It takes about fifteen minutes, and its absolutely delicious. Just be careful about the pan

Aunt Clare's English Toffee recipe

24 unsalted saltines1 cup butter1 cup packed light brown sugar1/2 tsp. vanilla6 oz semi sweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease a 13 by 19 inch pan (or thereabouts) and arrange saltines right side up in a single layer. On stovetop, melt butter and brown sugar. Bring to boil, boil for three minutes, stir at least twice.Remove from heat, add vanilla and pour over the saltines. Spread evenly with a spatula. Bake five minutes. Remove from oven, add chocolate chips, spread as they melt.Let cool ten minutes on a rack. Remove and cut in triangles. BEWARE: If you let the toffee cool too long, it can stick to the pan and be difficult to remove. If that happens, put the pan in a larger pan filled 1/4 inch with hot water and it will loosen the candy on the bottom. Don't overfill.Enjoy!

HANK: Ah, you've been literally burned by candy? When the food fights back, you've gotta watch it. I battled our pop-up timer on this year's turkey (I won. Eventually). And I'm planning a ranting letter to a certain food editor about a fabulous recipe in the paper that was billed as "easy" which took me THREE HOURS on Thanksgiving eve and used every pan in my kitchen. It was, indeed, delicious. But regular sweet potatoes might have been just as good. And take only 15 minutes. (If you want the recipe, just ask. I'll post it. But I'd advise--run away run away.)

Still, family and friends. It makes going all out worth it. And Jan, you think of Aunt Clare every time you make the toffee. That's what its all about.

ROBERTA: I was thinking the same thing Hank. My mother was not much of a cook. She didn't like it and yet she didn't want anyone in the kitchen helping either. She cooked 50's style--everything overdone except for the chow mein out of a can. But when it came to Christmas cookies, she became a machine. We had one of those little screw top presses where you could change the disk so different shapes would be squeezed out--wreaths, candy canes, mini-Christmas trees, etc. And she dyed the dough different colors. Then we put on pounds and pounds of glitter and those teeth-cracking silver balls.

All that to say, it's neat that your daughter's into this ritual Jan--I'm sure she'll always remember it!

RO: All that unnecessary flour? I'm crushed. I'm more like Roberta's mom...a cookie machine. I didn't do it this year (some book thing keeps interrupting me..) but most years I start making my cookie dough in November. Then I pop something like I, Claudius or The Sopranos into the dvd player (for 10 hours of straight video)and make cookies from morning until nighttime - while reciting favorite lines. I've never used the little silver balls though, can you really eat them?

HALLIE: Here it's not a cookie Christmas -- it's dark chocolate covered orange rind. It's completely exhausting and completely worth the effort. I mean, the stuff costs a fortune and what you can make yourself tastes better...provided you've got a half day to kill. Step 1: go to that candy-making Zen place. It's the same as the pate-making and bread-making Zen place. Then, peel lots of oranges, boil the peels, scrap away the white part so it's just the 'zest,' cut in strips, simmer zest strips in sugar(enter candy thermoneter), cool, dip one end of each piece in melted dark chocolate and the other end in sugar (keeps them from all sticking together). Yum.

JAN: Yes, my mother, actually a good cook, made no Christmas candies or cookies, established no holiday rituals, and put up a fake tree. To compensate, I went with the insanity, I lovingly pass on to my daughter.


  1. We call that version of English toffee (using Club crackers) "Trailer Park Toffee," and it's incredibly popular with my friends and co-workers, including the executive chef where I work. I was embarrassed to give him the recipe. We started calling it "crack" but that was... problematic... when another (male) co-worker accidentally said to me "Your crack is delicious." Here's a quick tip - instead of buttering the pan, just line it with parchment paper. Less clean up, it lifts right out, and nothing sticks.

    Cookies, candy - I love making it all. My mom still makes date balls, pretzel turtles, microwave fudge and microwave peanut brittle every year. She's not into things that take a lot of time (except for the date balls, everything else is done in about 15 minutes), but they're still yummy. I also make caramels (try adding a couple of ounces of dark chocolate at the end - it adds an interesting depth of flavor), as well as salted truffles, world peace cookies, sables, and my new favorite, rugelach.

  2. PRETZEL TURTLES! Yum Yum Yum. Caramels with dark chocolates. Yum yum Yum.

    I'm pondering this now. I'm not a candy person at all--i can take it or leave it. I can even resist an Almond Joy, which is probably my fave.

    But suddenly, Jan, and piecemeal, you've got me thinking bout candy, and it suddenly sounds amazing. I think it was the dark chocolate in the caramels that triggered something in my brain.

    But come on, give us the crack recipe. (Hope the feds aren't reading this. well, on the other hand, I hope they are. Readers are good.)

  3. Hank, see Jan's recipe for Aunt Claire's English Toffee, substitute a stack of Club crackers for the saltines, and you have Crack (aka Trailer Park Toffee). I like to use Hershey's Milk Chocolate Chips because they're richer/darker than most milk chocolate, but still sweet enough for me. I also use the full size bag of chips - I think it's more than 6 oz. For an extra touch, we also sprinkle chopped pecans or slivered almonds on top.

  4. By the way, I'm Sandi over on TLC, I just use Open ID to sign in here, so it shows up as piecemealquilts.

  5. I'm going to try the toffee recipe even though the idea of using saltines seems weird. This year it's struffoli and cranberry walnut cake with cream cheese frosting for Christmas Eve. Home stretch on the baking as I've already had my "friends' holiday party.

  6. Hi Sandi...welcome! I've heard your crack is delicious..;-)

  7. Great.. More recipes for sweets I need to make. Hallie, I love candied orange peel, so I'll trust you and go to the effort... Yum to you all!

  8. When my first husband was alive and a supervisor with the post office, I used to make big platters of various kinds of homemade candy and cookies for him to take in for the office Christmas party. Every year or so, he would move up the ladder and have more and more people under him, so the platters also multiplied and multiplied. I finally had to start weeks before the day of the party. I just realized that might be another reason I divorced him after 18 years--I couldn't face the Christmas baking and candymaking binge one more time! ;-)

    Needless to say, I don't do candy or cookies for Christmas any longer. A pie or two and some fresh fruit salad is about the extent of my Christmas culinary escapades now. Though I still do homemade cinnamon rolls and kolache for Christmas morning.

  9. I used to make maple walnut fudge for Christmas, It's dinner, coffee, and a blindfold for me, now. I like losing weight and looking better. Never mind that healthy stuff. The kids can bring goodies, but I'll have to hide! What can I do? I love Christmas candy! Helllllp!!! Noooooooo!!! Oh Candy . . . please no . . . no candy . . . please?

  10. Sandi,
    I use the semi-sweet chips for the toffee, but that's because i'm not a big fan of any milk chocolate.

    Hank, my caramel recipe actually calls for dipping it in dark chocolate, but I figure that since all my other recipes center on chocolate, my caramels are the chocolate-free option (i know, who needs a chocolate-free option, but some people actually don't LIKE chocolate).

    Reine, say away from those candies, and if you do break down and have one eat it really, really slowly and savor it. I've been talking to weight loss coaches all week for a story I'm doing and that's what they all say!

  11. And I'm trying really hard to keep my mind off Rosemary's cranberry walknut cake with cream cheese frosting.

  12. Oh Jan . . . thank you!!! What is this story you are writing? And where will we be able to read it?


  13. REINE!!! Do not eat the candy. You've had millions of pieces of candy in your life. They are all the same.

    Come back here and chat if you want to...Think how happy you are!

    We now return you to our regular programming.

  14. Roberta! We ARE sisters! Or at least, we have the same mother in the kitchen!

    (My captcha is belyrm -- how perfect is that?!!)

  15. Must have been drinking too much eggnog when I put in that recipe. Here's the real deal:
    1. Remove peel from 4 oranges in lengthwise sections; put in pan covered w/water and simmer until the peel is soft
    2. Drain and scrape off the white part of the peel (I use the serrated end of a grapefruit spoon)
    3. Cut peel into strips (I use a scissor)
    4. Place peel in sauce pan with
    - 1 c sugar
    - 1/2 c water
    - 2 T light corn syrup
    AND cook slowly until candy thermometer reads 230 degrees
    5. Drain in a coarse sieve
    6. Cool on spread out on a plate
    7. Dip each strip into melted dipping chocolate (I use callebaut callets melting chocolate - it's properly tempered and fabulous tasting)
    8. Dry on wax paper until the chocolate solidifies

  16. Reine,

    It's a Boston Globe story on wellness coaching/health goals. Jan. 2. or

  17. HANK!!! Hank! Hank! Hank! Hank! Thank you! You are such a cheerleader! xxxxxxx It all tastes the same! You are right! And then it is gone. You put it in your mouth. Then it is gone. And you want more!

  18. Well, I don't have a candy thermometer, so I guess I'm safe from the orange peel. I'd love it, although I'm not much of a candy person. I can remember my grandmother making divinity when I was little. I hated it. My m-in-l still makes it, and fudge, but I don't like fudge much either. For years we ordered Almond Toffee from Enstrom Candies in Colorado, some for us and some for Christmas presents. It's incredibly good, but we'd usually end up not eating it all, so have passed on it the last couple of years.

    My Christmas tradition is not candy but my Cranberry Relish. if anyone wants the recipe. And I haven't even managed that this year, although I have my cute little mason jars and all the ingredients in the fridge...

  19. Thanks for the recipe for Spicy Cranberry Relish, Deb. I think I'll try this tomorrow.

    I wonder what our daughters and granddaughters will do without the cookbooks with faded handwritten recipes and the little green recipe boxes. Sure, you can find more great recipes online than you could ever make, but they're not necessarily your own family's dishes.

  20. Reine, you have a new photo!

    The easiest recipe I know was given to me by a friend a few years ago. Although it calls for semi-sweet chocolate chips, I tend to look for the darkest chocolate that I can find:

    Really Really Really Easy Fudge

    12 oz pkg semi sweet chocolate chips
    12 oz. jar of peanut butter
    1 can Eagle Brand sweetened condensed milk

    Put chips and peanut butter into a microwaveable dish and melt them (takes about 3 minutes). Take out of microwave and stir well and then add condensed milk and stir well again.

    Pour into greased or waxed paper lined 9x9 or 8x8 pan. Refrigerate one hour.

    When you add the condensed milk it starts to thicken really fast, so have your greased/papered pan ready first.

    Deb (transferee from TLC!)

  21. Or, Deb R, just dump the milk down the drain and eat the other stuff!
    Easy Peasy!

  22. Ah, Hank, is a jar of peanut butter safe in your house? It is definitely a Food Group for me, along with Chocolate!(But try this fudge - it really is yummy!)

    Deb (from TLC)

  23. Deb, I'm so glad you made the transfer! This is a wonderful place!

  24. And oh, Deb--for months this year I had an apple and peanut butter for breakfast EVERY DAY. I used to wake up thinking about it.

  25. Reine, I was here a couple of times earlier this week. I keep having to fight off that "abandoned in the woods" feeling (too many fairy tales as a child),even though people here are quite nice! I WILL get over this! I WILL!

    Hank,I used to love slices of apple with peanut butter as a snack. Unfortunately,I have developed a sensitivity to apples in all forms: cooked or raw or in juice form or cider,etc. There will be apple pie at Christmas dinner on Sunday. Fortunately, the pie baker is also making chocolate cream pie. (And I'm making Mexican chocolate chip cookies,chocolate pecan pie bars,and a low fat/low cholesterol chocolate cookie recipe.)

    Deb from TLC

  26. My husband has taken to buying me these little snack packs with apple slices and peanut butter. The best thing about them is that it's about a shot glass of peanut butter and once it's gone it's gone - as opposed to the entire jar which, once opened, is also gone...

  27. Btw...making that toffee now..right now it just looks like chocolate covered crackers although that may not be so bad.

    Okay...too weird - my word verification is Hand Ro. Hand Ro what?

  28. I can't begin my day without peanut butter. It's my morning protein.
    What I bake for my brother every Christmas is Dates Squares.
    As I can't eat chocolate anymore, it solves a lot of temptations regarding candies and desserts.