When I was a kid, somewhere between the ages of six and eleven, I used to ask for candy for Christmas. Only candy. Not dolls or toys or games, just candy. It’s not that I didn’t like those other things, it’s just that candy was my most favorite thing. (Those who know me well may be snickering at the word “was” in that last sentence.) It never really worked, I pretty much got the same amount of candy in my stocking as Santa gave my five siblings, but there were some years when one of my older brothers would come through with a Lifesaver storybook or a giant Hershey’s kiss. Those were really good years.
The moment I realized I had succeeded in making my own batch of almond toffee was one of pure elation. I was standing in the upstairs kitchen of my family’s restaurant, the one I used for baking, and I remember I just kept breaking off pieces to try, making sure it really was good. I was probably around twenty at the time and I was making it for our family’s annual Christmas Eve party. It was my first attempt at “real” candy making. I’d been making truffles
for a while but never had been brave enough to try something that required a thermometer so it was kind of a big deal.
In retrospect, I was lucky that first batch turned out so well because there were plenty of things that could have gone wrong! For example, it’s best to do your candy making on clear, dry days and I lived in Eugene, Oregon where clear, dry days in December (or most other months for that matter) are few and far between. The reason for avoiding humidity when making candy is that the candy tends to reabsorb moisture from the air making it softer when what you really want is for it to dry completely for a hard, crunchy texture. If you live in a particularly rainy climate, you could try using a dehumidifier. Another major thing that could have gone wrong is I could have turned my head, just for a minute, and burned the toffee. I didn’t have the experience (or pictures on the internet in the late 1980s) to know the dark amber color it should have and how quickly it could turn very dark brown. I would learn that later, the hard way.
So, before we begin, if this is your first attempt at “real” candy, you need not be intimidated, only prepared. It is very important to have adequate equipment and tools.
I must add, if something goes wrong, please realize, it’s only candy, the ingredients are relatively cheap (you will know it’s a lost cause before you use your chocolate) and that hard mess that looks like it will never come off the pan or the candy thermometer needs only a good soak in hot water to dissolve.
All that said, I promise it’s worth the effort. Your family and friends will be totally impressed that you made it yourself, you will be totally impressed with yourself and it makes a perfect holiday gift!
Peanut Butter Crunch with Milk Chocolate
(makes about 2 1/2 pounds)
2 cups white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup butter (6 oz)
1/4 cup water
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
pinch of salt (if you are using unsalted peanuts)
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups peanuts (1 cup whole, 1 1/2 cup chopped)
12 ounces milk chocolate chips (use dark if you want, I like the milk with peanuts)
Get your surface ready; marble slab, heat-proof stone countertop, or metal sheet pan. Place about a 16-inch sheet of parchment paper on top.
Measure 1 cup whole peanuts and chop 1 1/2 cup. Set aside. (I used roasted, salted “extra fancy” peanuts I got from Costco. You could use unsalted, just make sure you add that pinch of salt.)
Place sugars, butter, and water in a saucepan and allow to melt on low-medium heat while you gather the baking soda, salt (if needed), peanut butter, vanilla and the cup of whole peanuts.
Turn heat up to medium-high. Stir until smooth, brushing down sugar that creeps up the side of the pan with a wet pastry brush, and bring to a boil.
When it begins to boil, turn heat down to medium and insert candy thermometer. It should have an attachment that clips to the top of the pan. Try to position it so it’s midway, not touching the bottom and not too close to the top.
Cook until mixture is a deep amber color and the candy thermometer registers 185 – 190 degrees, almost hard crack stage. Yes, I used two thermometers. No, you don’t need to. I have issues. This could take up to 10 minutes depending on your stove, altitude level, etc. Be patient and stay close because it can burn quickly once it reaches that dark amber color you want. Remove from heat and place on a heat-proof surface.
Now, working quickly but carefully (it’s HOT!!!), add baking soda, salt, peanut butter, vanilla, and whole peanuts. Stir until completely combined then immediately turn mixture on to the prepared surface/parchment paper and spread as evenly as possible. It will harden quickly at this point so you don’t have a lot of time! Allow it to cool at room temp while you melt your chocolate.
Using a heatproof glass bowl and microwave OR a double boiler on the stove, melt 8 ounces of milk chocolate, stirring frequently, making sure not to overheat. Check often if using the microwave!
Add the remaining 4 oz of chocolate and stir until completely melted, but not too hot. The chocolate should be about body temperature (no more than 100 degrees F) and have a glossy sheen. You may notice I added some dark chocolate in place of the remaining milk chocolate. This is not necessary. I just felt it need more depth. Again, I have issues.
When the toffee has cooled to about body temp also (just feel it, it shouldn’t feel too hot) spread the chocolate evenly over the top. Sprinkle on chopped peanuts, pressing down lightly into the chocolate. If you are not already using a sheet pan, transfer the toffee, paper and all, onto a flat cookie sheet and refrigerate for about an hour or until it is completely cooled.
Once cooled, break into small pieces. I break off a large chunk first, then smaller pieces from there, mostly with my fingers but sometimes using a sharp knife.
Store the toffee in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a few weeks. The texture will actually improve after being in the fridge for a few days. It can be frozen as well for longer keeping. It will be fine at room temp for shorter periods of time so don’t worry that it’s not refrigerated for gift giving.
Enjoy it! My family sure is. I may have to make another batch before Christmas.
I adored Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when I was a kid, both the book and the movie. Grandpa Joe was my favorite character because he reminded me of my own Grandpa Martin, my mom’s dad. And yes, I dreamed of having a chocolate river in my backyard! Still might…
“I’ve heard that what you imagine sometimes comes true” ~ Grandpa Joe, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory