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Sweeten Your Holidays with Buttercrunch Toffee

Sweeten Your Holidays with Buttercrunch Toffee

In the kitchen with baking guru Rose Levy Beranbaum.

Rose Levy Beranbaum toasting almonds to a pale gold for her buttercrunch. All photos by Sheila Phalon.
Brown sugar, butter, and water go into a heavy pan.
The sugar mix must be stirred as it cooks to 285 degrees, exactly.
As more chocolate melts into the hardening toffee, Rose adds almonds.
Once set, the confection easily peels off Silpat.
Rose and Betty Fussell taste the double-chocolate buttercrunch. Happy!

Rose Levy Beranbaum, who might just be the greatest baker alive, has invited me to her Greenwich Village high-rise for a thrilling event. She’s testing a tweaked version of her legendary confection, Mahogany Buttercrunch Toffee. The weather is crisp and clear, as if she’d special-ordered it. Slender, caramel-haired Rose, 65, fey in affect but a true scientist, is always mindful of the variables. Make toffee on a warm rainy day? “Don’t,” she says.

Her revised recipe will appear in her tenth book, The Baking Bible. Her first book, The Cake Bible, was published in 1988 and is about to go into its forty-ninth printing. It was a breakthrough book, offering all measurements in ounces and grams as well as volume, with sidebars explaining the reasons behind her thinking at every step.

A lifelong New Yorker, Rose has degrees in culinary arts and food science from NYU, but she learned how to bake on her own. She always has a book in process, has just launched a product line of baking and cooking tools, and still has time to keep a conversation going online in her popular blog, Real Baking with Rose Levy Beranbaum, which carries comments, recipes, videos, and links to her many books. 

Rose’s personal life is built around food and science—lunch at a new restaurant, where she analyzes every ingredient; dinner at home so friends can sample her sweet potato hamburger bun. Years ago, on her first date with NYU radiologist Elliott Beranbaum, Rose broke the ice by saying she suspected that whisking was a better way than sifting to combine flour with baking powder and salt. Elliott agreed and soon they married.

Her original Buttercrunch Mahogany Toffee (see page 97 of Rose’s Christmas Cookies), is one of her best-loved recipes. (A reader posted that after serving the toffee to prospective suitors, she received several marriage proposals.)

Why is she still fiddling with perfection? What’s the all-important tweak she’s testing today?

More chocolate. Toffee sandwiched between chocolate and almonds, not just topped with chocolate.

“Buttercrunch is my favorite candy and so I think it deserves to be coated in chocolate and nuts on both sides,” Rose sums up.

Betty Fussell, 85, an exalted colleague, is there to taste; she’s writing a new book, How to Cook a Coyote, a guide to being very old in New York. These two granddames of the New York food-writing world, deep in brown sugar and chocolate, look as energized and mischievous as Girl Scouts pulling taffy. It’s a privileged moment to witness, all around.

Cooking Toffee with Rose

Like every other New York City woman, Rose long ago ran out of counter space. Rather than give up a perfect location with a dreamy view, she removed the radiator from the second bedroom to create a temperate storage space for staples and created a wall for precision implements in the living-dining room.

On her worktop, two bowls of coarsely chopped chocolate sit ready. Rose toasts sliced blanched almonds until they are barely golden; she frequently opens the oven to stir them and pulls them out at the first hint of fragrance. “If they brown, they’re bitter, and I don’t like that.” She pulses them in a processor and divides them between two bowls.

Light brown sugar (she prizes the taste of Muscavado), butter, and water go into a heavy pan and begin to heat on a free-standing burner. She rests the all-important candy thermometer in a spot where she won’t disturb it while stirring. Take note: She doesn’t clamp the thermometer to the side of the pan because that can cause distortion.

Her hands are as deft as those of a Vegas blackjack dealer, all grace, no waste, as she tips out one bowl of crushed almonds to form a neat 7" x 10" rectangle on a Silpat-lined cookie sheet. Now—this is the radical step, the deviation from the original—she distributes one bowl of chopped chocolate over the almonds. She shoots us the fey look; are we paying attention?

“Aha!” Betty Fussell says, tossing her magnificent pioneer-woman gray hair and giving the second syllable strong emphasis. (Her book The Story of Corn is my absolutely favorite single-subject food book, learned and layered, a tome with great heart. And her musical, freighted “aha” is almost as richly packed, defining the sweet moment.)

Then Rose is back in scientist mode, eyes fixed on the thermometer. Of course she’s sniffing the caramelized air, feeling the mixture thicken. Her senses are as finely tuned as her instruments, but since she won’t be in the kitchen when you’re making your candy, she’s cooking by the book so the book will work for you.

Thermometer exactly 285 degrees. No less (too chewy), no more (too hard). Rose lifts the pan from the heat and quickly stirs in vanilla and baking soda. Then she pours the bubbly, satin mass over the chocolate and almonds.

Next she distributes the second layer of chocolate and pats it with her fingertips, pressing the chocolate into the toffee, pausing five-minutes so the heat can melt and fuse the chocolate; then her spatula glides across. She sprinkles on the remaining almonds. Done.

She puts the confection into the refrigerator to hasten hardening and makes espresso to get us through the agony of waiting.

And here it is, and I aver: More chocolate is even better.

The recipe for the “ultimate, no compromise buttercrunch,” as only Rose can write it, is under wraps until 2015 or so, when John Wiley and Sons publishes The Baking Bible. But because she is so dedicated to your happiness, she has graciously allowed me to reprint her original ingredients (see sidebar) to accompany Sheila Phalon’s photos and my sneak preview of her method. You can do this at home and see for yourself.

When I concocted a batch in my own kitchen (using Sharffen Berger’s 70% Cacao Bittersweet Chocolate Chunks, which need no chopping, and Reynold’s Release foil because Silpat scares me, and slightly overcooked almonds because I stupidly answered the phone), it was so good that my Beloved proposed. That is—proposed that I bring some of my toffee to Rose. Not to show her how talented I am; to show her how talented she is, the consummate teacher. Aha!

Nancy Weber is writing her 23d book—a thriller set in Greenwich Village about swinging senior chefs who arouse the wrath of a puritanical food blogger.