My parents taught me to be frugal. I remember a meal in Germany, eating at a cafe in Rotenburg, and for some reason I wanted to be daring and try eel. My father explained that if he was going to allow me to order it, I would have to eat it, even if I didn’t like it. There was no sense to waste food, so think carefully, he admonished. I thought about it and still wanted to be brave.
In hindsight, I probably expected the meal to have a slab of meat on a plate with some accoutrements. The reality was a whole eel, head leering at me off the plate, swimming in a post-mortem sea of dill sauce. I couldn’t eat it. I couldn’t even cut into it. I was fascinated and disgusted at the same time.
Worse yet was the tongue lashing I would receive, and deserve. I hung my head, always a good move when humility and abject apologetics go a long way toward strengthening your petition. “Dad, I’m sorry. I know I said I would eat it, but I can’t. Just can’t. I’ll go hungry this afternoon because of my own stupidity [or at least that’s what I should have said], but please eat it yourself if you’re hungry so it won’t go to waste.” Dad may have other memories, but in my mind, that eel went back to the kitchen untouched.
I would like to pause here and say if you ever want to go eat spider rolls [sushi with eel], I’m your gal. The meat is delicious and as long as the head isn’t eyeballing me, it is a very tasty morsel.
The same frugality means when someone recommends a cookbook to me, I check it out from the library first. Sometimes I “click” with the author, sometimes not. The not saves me from imprudent purchases which later become “truck in your area” fodder. Occasionally I check a book out, swoon over it and use it extensively till it’s time to return. I’ll know it’s a serious girl meets cookbook relationship when I renew the checkout. It reaches “till death do us part” status when I walk it in to return it, ask the librarian to check it in and then check it out again immediately. Those cookbooks get added to my acquisitions list.
Rose’s Christmas Cookies, one of the products of my library process, is top of the charts of favorite cookie/holiday/special occasion cookbooks, and my over-the-top favorite recipe is her Mahogany Buttercrunch Toffee. Previously I had written about my grandmother who sent a coffee can with Chicago Kisses in the bottom and toffee in the top. To be honest, I wasn’t all that fond of the toffee, but in my youth I thought it more interesting than the boring white cookies. When I discovered Rose’s Toffee, I knew that all the great explorers of history could have saved themselves a lot of travel time by staying home and discovering Nirvana in sugar.
What makes the toffee different than others? The inclusion of baking soda at the end creates a buttery, almost crumbly candy. The nuts and chocolate are almost late-comers to the party, but don’t leave them off because they play so nicely on the palate.
Mahogany Buttercrunch Toffee
- 2 cups blanched almonds
- 1 1/4 cups light brown sugar
- 2 T water
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter (no substitutes)
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 1/4 tsp baking soda
- 6 ounces finely chopped semi-sweet chocolate or chocolate chips
Toast almonds in 350º oven for 10 to 12 minutes, stirring occasionally until golden. Cool completely.
Prepare a cookie sheet by lightly buttering, or use a nonstick cookie sheet or silicone mat.
In a food processor, pulse the almonds until they are chopped very finely, but not powder fine. Sprinkle half the nuts over a 7″ X 10″ area on the prepared cookie sheet. Place it near the range. Also have the vanilla extract and baking soda near the range.
In a heavy, medium size saucepan, combine the brown sugar, water and butter and, stirring constantly, bring to a boil. Stir often to prevent burning until the mixture reaches 285º (softcrack stage). Immediately remove from heat and add the vanilla extract and baking soda. Pour the toffee mixture evenly on the almonds.
Immediately scatter the chocolate over the hot toffee. Press lightly with your fingers so they start melting. After about 5 minutes, the chocolate will be soft enough to spread with a spatucla in an even layer over the surface of the toffee. Dust the chocolate with the remaining chopped almonds. Cool completely and break into irregular pieces.
Store in an airtight container at room temperature. Keeps about 1 month, after which it is still delicious, but the sugar starts to crystallize.