December 10, 2009
Yesterday we were surrounded by a howling storm that brought rapidly falling snow, pouring rain, slush and lots of wind. Luckily, I once again found myself inside working on projects. I am working on making small gifts that will soon be sent and delivered to friends and family.
I love giving gifts and I especially love the excitement of making gifts instead of the obligation to buy something for everyone. Although I also enjoy purchasing carefully chosen gifts for some of the people I give to, I often find myself saddened by the incredibly commercial aspect of the holiday season and the obligation to buy buy buy. I know that so many of these purchases are made in the spirit of caring and wanting to give to those you love so I won't go any farther on that tangent. I just love focusing on home made gifts because, usually, they are as much fun to make as they are to give and (hopefully) to receive. When I think back on the gifts I have given over the years, its the ones that I have made that I remember most clearly. When I was young it meant lots of glitter, string, and random objects, then there were mix tapes, paintings, pillows and sewing projects, knitting and a huge undertaking of a sweater for Ray at our very first Christmas among other things.
In the past couple of years, I've been keeping it a bit simpler. I've started incorporating different treats of food and sweets and packing them in simple reusable bags. I think all handmade gifts contain that extra something special that comes from putting time and energy into it. Sometimes you just don't have the time or energy to knit everyone a scarf or pull off several big projects. I find that when I start making things for Christmas, I get three or four of five more ideas that I want to work on, but time doesn't always allow for this. I think small treats are a great way for me to share my love and enthusiasm for making things and for the people I am giving to. I like to give everyone a jar or two of things I can in the summer and then a few homemade sweets. In the past, I have included homemade truffles, peppermint bark, and this year I am making espresso walnut toffee and caramelized cashews.
The espresso walnut toffee came into my life on my wedding day. We had a pot luck dessert which resulted in tables heavily laden with all sorts of delicious baked goods. I sampled several, but after I came across the espresso walnut toffee, that was it. I nibbled on it for the next two days. We had our guests make cards saying what each dessert was, with their name on them so we would know who made each thing, but they got lost in the clean up which meant that the origin of the espresso walnut toffee remained a mystery. Well, it turns out that my friend Brita made the toffee from Molly Wizenburg's A Homemade Life, which just so happens to be on my books shelf as well. The book itself is a wonderful collection of beautiful stories and recipes, I highly recommend it. I also highly recommend you make this toffee as soon as possible.
Espresso Walnut Toffee
I had never made "candy" before, but it was really simple, just stirring patiently and waiting for the candy thermometer to reach 290 degrees. As soon as the toffee was fully cooled, I broke it into small-ish pieces and put it into little bags, tied tightly with ribbon. That will keep it fresh and keep me from eating it all! Also note: It really does help to have the chocolate very finely chopped (smaller than chips, if that's what you use) and Molly notes that this recipe does not double well.
2 cups walnuts
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
2 teaspoons instant espresso powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup water
1 tablespoon unsulphered molasses
4 1/2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, very finely chopped
4 1/2 ounces white chocolate, very finely chopped
2 1/2 sticks unsalted butter
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees
Spread the walnuts on a baking sheet and toast until they are fragrant, 5 to 10 minutes. Set them aside to cool. When they are cool, coarsely chop them. Set aside 1 1/2 cups of the chopped nuts. Finely chop the remaining 1/2 cup.
Meanwhile, in a medium bowl whisk together sugars, espresso powder, cinnamon and salt. In a measuring cup whisk together the water and molasses. Put each type of chopped chocolate in its own bowl. Grease a rimmed baking sheet with butter or cooking spray.
In a heavy 2-3 quart saucepan, melt the butter over low heat. Add the sugar mixture as well as the water and molasses. Stir until the sugar has dissolved. Attach a candy thermometer to the side of the pan. Over medium heat, cook the mixture until it reaches 290 degrees. Stir frequently at first, then stir and constantly scrape the bottom an sides of the pan. This will take about 20 minutes.
When the mixture reaches 290 degrees, remove from heat and stir in the 1 1/2 cups of coarsely chopped walnuts. Then pour the mixture onto the prepared baking sheet -- do not scrape the saucepan. Spread the toffee, by tilting and shaking the baking sheet or using a spatula, until it reaches 1/4 inch thickness. Sprinkle the chocolates onto the toffee alternating rows of bittersweet and white. Allow the chocolates to melt for one minute. Using the back of a spoon, spread the melted chocolates, taking care not to mix them. Then carefully swirl the chocolates to create a marbled look. Sprinkle the remaining finely chopped walnuts on top of the chocolate. Chill in the refrigerator until the toffee is firm, about one hour. Break into whatever size pieces you like.