undercooking, so it doesn't set up; scorching; or the dreaded "separation," where the butter and sugar separate during cooking.
If this occurs, you'll see an oily layer on the surface of your candy mixture, "and it looks sooooo ugly, like an oil slick," is how Kendrick describes it.
A psychologist might just chalk it up to "separation anxiety." Some candy experts theorize that it's due to an abrupt temperature shift, or from not stirring the mixture enough during cooking, or from using a too-thin saucepan that doesn't conduct heat evenly, or too much humidity in your kitchen.
Kendrick says the trick is to mix the sugar and butter together over low heat to make sure there are no sugar crystals in the mixture, then turning it up to medium-high to finish cooking.
"I think the secret is starting out slowly and getting all the sugar dissolved," she said. "Then turn up the heat, stir it constantly and get it done fast. It works for me this way, so I'm going to keep doing it this way."
And Kendrick should know. She won the Utah Chocolate Show's toffee competition and was named the Utah Chocolate Champion for winning the most categories of chocolate confections. She also recently completed 2,000 pounds of toffee for a client, "and we didn't have a single failure," she said.
• She uses salted butter (instead of unsalted) so she doesn't have to add salt to the recipe. "Some people say to start with butter at room temperature or frozen," she said. "I've done it with both, and it all works. I've had trouble with certain butters, but this year I used Costco's Kirkland brand, and I'm as happy as can be with it." But be sure it's real butter, not margarine or a "spread" with extra water and fillers.
• Rub the cube of butter around the sides of the pan before adding sugar. This will help keep sugar crystals from clinging to the sides.
• When adding the sugar, place it in the center of the pan to keep sugar crystals off the pan sides.
• During cooking, occasionally wash the sides of the pan with a brush dipped in water.
• Keep stirring the mixture as it cooks. This is especially critical toward the end, to make sure it doesn't scorch on the bottom.
• When the sugar is fully dissolved, which may take about 10 minutes, you can turn up the heat to medium-high.
• During cooking, the mixture will darken to a golden brown. This is the point where it could separate. If it does, try adding a tablespoon or two of water and keep stirring, Kendrick advised. Sometimes you can get the mixture back together.
• Kendrick said she cooks her toffee a little darker than most. Generally, it should be around 285-290 degrees for Utah altitudes. Keep in mind that this is about 8 degrees lower than what most cookbooks specify, because they are written for sea level. This would be hard-crack stage for those doing the cold water test. However, by the time you've put a few drops of the syrup in cold water to see if they crack, the temperature has likely increased by several degrees.
• Another visual clue for doneness: A puff of smoke will come off the candy.
• You don't need to butter the pan before pouring the toffee into it. Just cover the pan with a thick bed of nuts, and pour the toffee over the nuts. The nuts will allow it to release from the pan when it's cool. Any nuts left in the pan can be re-used for the next batch of toffee.
• She recommends topping the candy with wafers or chunks of good-quality dipping chocolate, not chocolate chips. "Chocolate chips are made to hold their shape and withstand baking in the oven, so they are likely to lift off the top of the candy when it's cooled," Kendrick said. "Use chocolate chips if you want, but you won't win for best toffee at the Chocolate Show."
• She prefers using dark chocolate, "because I think the toffee is so sweet that it needs to have the dark to balance it out."
• When the dipping chocolate melts and you smear it across the candy, it goes out of "temper." That's a good thing, so the chocolate won't contract and lift off the candy when you break it into pieces. But it also means the chocolate might have white streaks when it cools. "That's why you sprinkle on nuts over the top, to cover up the streaks," Kendrick said.
• Wait about 10 minutes after pouring out the candy to allow it to cool slightly before sprinkling on the wafers of chocolate; or just smear a block of chocolate across the candy. Then use a spatula to spread it evenly. Sprinkle more nuts on top. If by chance the toffee has cooled before you're able to top it with the chocolate, use a blow-dryer to melt it and spread it across the candy.
And one last tip: "There are no mistakes in candymaking; you just rename it," Kendrick said.
4 cups dry-roasted chopped almonds (more if necessary)
2 cups butter (salted)
2 cups sugar
1/4 cup water
About 1 cup dark dipping chocolate, or to taste
Spread about 3 cups of the almonds across an 11-by-17-inch sheet pan, reserving the rest. Rub the sides of a large, heavy-duty pan with butter. Then add the butter, water and sugar to the center of the pan, avoiding getting sugar crystals on the pan sides. Stir mixture over low heat until sugar is completely dissolved; this may take about 10 minutes. Turn the heat to medium-high and keep stirring. Cook until candy is deep golden brown or the color of dark honey, or to hard-crack stage (when a few drops in a cup of cold water cracks into brittle threads), or thermometer registers 285-290 degrees at Utah altitudes, or until a puff of smoke comes off the candy.
Pour mixture over the nuts. Allow it to cool for 5-10 minutes, then top with chocolate. Evenly spread the melting chocolate with a spatula or gloved hand. Then sprinkle on the reserved chopped nuts.
After toffee is cooled, break into pieces. It should release easily from the pan. Store in airtight containers to prevent it from getting sticky.