Caramel making looks simple enough. Cook sugar with water, or butter and/or cream and voila, mouth-caressing gooey goodness.
In the 90s I watched Sotheby’s chef Bernard Mignon effortlessly make innumerable crème caramels and Tart Tatins. But after too many of my own failed attempts at caramelizing sugar, I had stopped experimenting. All that butter and cream were too expensive to waste.
The courage to try again arose from conversations with my friend (cookbook author, candy and bread maker) Peggy Cullen. A few years ago she published a book, Caramel: Recipes for Deliciously Gooey Desserts, from Chronicle Press (now out of print but still available at Amazon), with techniques that simplify caramel making so that anyone (aside from children) can make these recipes with confidence. Even when I try out a recipe from another source, I use Peggy’s techniques and I have never failed again (which is not to say I haven’t made a few mistakes! I can’t help experimenting.)
For the past several years I’ve been making Peggy’s almond butter crunch as one of my Christmas staples. Along with biscotti and a small selection of cookies, toffee goes into everyone’s gift bags. The butter crunch is loaded with nuts, and covered in a thin layer of chocolate – a recipe I will post in the future.
This year I wanted to explore toffee with other nuts, and a simpler preparation. I had a large container of unhulled sesame seeds on hand, as well as plenty of roasted, salted pumpkin seeds, and big bag of salted cashews. I wanted to play with different densities, trying thinner toffees, with more complex combinations. Spiced Sesame Toffee is subtly flavored, almost curry, with a little heat. This recipe works equally well with pepita (pumpkin seeds). I like the delicacy of the small nuts but any nut would work.
Do not double
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 packed cup light brown sugar
1 cup tablespoons heavy cream
4 t spice blend (see below)
2/3- 3/4c sesame seeds (5 oz) or 2 c toasted salted pepitas
- Candy or instant read thermometer
- Heat resistant measuring glass
- Pastry brush
- Heat resistant spatula (or a wooden spoon)
Warning: Cooked sugars are very hot; care must be taken to avoid burns, especially when stirring and pouring toffee. This is not a recipe for children.
Line a baking sheet with parchment or waxed paper. Use an 11 x 17” sheet for a suitably thin toffee.
Combine the butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar and heavy cream in a medium heavy saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar dissolves. Wash down sides with a pastry brush to prevent crystallization.
Continue to cook, stirring constantly in a figure 8 pattern, until the mixture reaches 300 degrees F, or the hard crack stage a drop of boiling syrup immersed in cold water crackles). This takes 7 to 10 minutes on medium high heat. Adjust your flame to keep the toffee bubbling but not foaming up. I find that it takes longer if I have the heat a little too low.
[Note: You must work quickly when the toffee reaches temperature. This happens very fast once the temperature reach 285.]
Remove from the heat and stir in nuts or seeds. Working rapidly, pour onto the prepared sheet and let cool completely. To serve, crack the toffee into large shards by hand or with a rolling pin or chef’s knife. The best texture develops after 24 hours. Store in an airtight container until ready to use.
My Spice blend:
3t will give you a distinct but lightly spiced toffee. I recommend 4t to get the surprising burst.
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon dry mustard
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 3/4 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg