Making english toffee is (like my spiral quilts) an endeavor with results that seem really extravagant, though the actual process is quite simple.  (There, I knew I could find a way to relate this to quilting!)  So here, for your holiday pleasure is my family recipe for english toffee.  It’s a wonderful treat for yourself, and an impressive gift for family, friends, colleagues and clients.


1 pound salted butter (if you use unsalted, add 1 tsp. salt)
3 cups white sugar
2/3 cup water
1 6-oz. bar chocolate — milk or dark as you prefer
12 oz. nuts — whatever you like.  Use walnuts raw, but I prefer other nuts roasted.  (Roasted and salted is even better if you like the combination of salty and sweet.)
2 tsp coarse sea salt (fleur de sel), optional

Pay close attention to the cooking technique — it’s not difficult, but there are reasons for doing what you do.

Choose a clear day when the humidity is low.  Do not try to make candy on a rainy day.  If there is too much humidity in the atmosphere the toffee will not harden, and instead will turn to sugar crystals.

Prepare the pan and the nuts in advance.  Use a metal cookie sheet (it must have 4 sides, not a pan with one edge flat) or 3 foil mini-broiler pans.  (These 6″ x 9″ pans are the most practical if you are making gifts, because you can gift the english toffee right in the pan.)  Spread 8 oz. of the nuts over the bottom of the cookie sheet or foil pans.

Before starting to cook the toffee, fill a small bowl with ice water and set it next to the stove where you are going to cook.  Use a heavy 4 to 6 quart pan — I use my grandmother’s old pressure cooker without the lid.  Use a wooden spoon – preferably with a fairly long handle.  The candy and the stove are hot — you will soon find out why I recommend a long-handled wooden spoon.  You might want to hold it with your hand in an oven mitt too.  Don’t use a metal spoon — it conducts heat.  And don’t use a plastic spoon — it will melt.

The simple explanation of how to cook the toffee is this: Put the sugar (and salt), water and butter in the pan.  Using medium-to-high heat, melt and stir the ingredients until the sugar carmelizes.  This is what is going to happen and what to watch for: 

The butter will melt and the sugar will dissolve.  As soon as the butter has completely melted, the mixture will bubble up to about double the size it began.  It will stay at this height throughout the entire cooking process.

You must stir constantly, and stirring technique is actually important to the outcome of the toffee, so pay attention:  When you stir, scrape the bottom of the pan.  Make small circles from the edge of the pan through the center, like drawing petals on a flower.  This mixes the hotter liquid from the outside into the cooler liquid in the center and keeps the liquid an even temperature so the toffee cooks evenly.  Stir steadily at a medium speed, keeping the surface of the candy at the same level — don’t make “waves” of liquid against the side of the pan, and don’t scrape the sides of the pan.  Why?  Because the thin layer of sugar that will get left on the side of the pan is where sugar crystals can form, and if they do, they will make the entire batch of toffee turn into sugar crystals, rather than hard candy.  If this thin film of sugar does happen to form, use a pastry brush dipped in water to wash the film off the side of the pan, dissolving any sugar crystals that may have formed. 

After 8-10 minutes, you will start to notice that the candy pulls away from the side of the pan as you stir.  It will also begin to turn golden.  Keep stirring.  As it starts to darken, drop a bit of candy off the spoon into the ice water in the small bowl.  The first test will probably be partly soft, with a hard shell.  That’s called “soft crack” stage, and the toffee isn’t ready yet.  Keep stirring and cooking until the liquid is the color of, well, toffee (a rich golden brown).  When that happens, the drop of candy that you drop in the water will immediately become hard.  This is called “hard crack” stage and this means the toffee is done.*

Remove the pan of toffee from the stove and immediately pour it over the nuts in the prepared pans.  Do not scrape the cooking pan into the cooking sheets.  Why? For the same reason you did not scrape the sides of the pan while cooking.  You can, however, scrape the pan into a separate dish (use a flexible metal one, like another cookie sheet or foil pan so the toffee is easy to remove).  This “tail end” of the batch may or may not crystallize, but you don’t want to run the risk that if it does it will crystallize the whole batch.  I like to save this leftover to break up and put in my gourmet chocolate chip cookies.

Let the toffee cool until a film forms over the top but the toffee is still wam to the touch.  Break up the chocolate and lay pieces on top of the toffee.  Wait a few minutes to allow it to melt, then use the back of a spoon to spread it around.  Sprinkle the remaining nuts on top.  If you wish, sprinkle a small amount of sea salt over the surface of the chocolate as well.  (Don’t do this if you used salted nuts – they have enough salt already.)

Cool the toffee completely and break into chunks. 

Just a note of caution about candy making: Sugar syrup is extremely hot and does not cool quickly.  If you spill on flesh it will burn long and deep.  Do not make candy with young children around, and take care not to spill on yourself when handling hot sugar syrup.  If you do, immediately plunge the syrup-covered area into ice water to cool the syrup and stop the burning.

* Funny story: In my apartment the smoke detectors are extremely sensitive.  As it turns out, every time I make toffee, they start wailing right at the moment when the toffee is ready to remove from the stove.  I don’t even have to drop-test the syrup any more!