It's mid-December and we've made it through Chanukah and still have the solstice and Christmas to go. So far my most memorable holiday moment involves a teenage girl, several pounds of butter and sugar, huge blocks of chocolate, and a bunch of walnuts.
The Woman's Holiday Art Sale has become a tradition in my small town in southern Maine. It started in a friend's barn several years ago when several talented women decided to create a showcase for their art and make some extra money during the holidays. The barn show grew and eventually it was determined that it should move to Town Hall. Now the whole community gets involved. Local businesses stay open late, serving hot cocoa and candy canes. Santa greets children. Groups of carolers meander through our downtown. Festive, wonderful small town stuff.
But for me the joy happens at home. I have been involved with the fair for the past three years, selling my cookbooks. Last year I decided to make homemade buttercrunch, a prized - and, until now - a completely private recipe that my sister-in-law generously shared with me many years ago.
How to explain this buttery concoction? Imagine something sweet and crunchy: bite through the toffee base, lightly coated in chocolate and crushed walnuts, and the bar melts in your mouth. It's one of those sugary moments that makes you forget your age. There you are, a child again, smiling with the sheer pleasure that comes from butter, sugar, chocolate and nuts. It's that simple.
But I'm getting carried away. This year my seventeen year old daughter asked: "If I help you make the buttercrunch and help sell it at the fair can I earn some money?" An innocent enough question for a girl who is always looking for ways to earn cash without actually working too hard.
"Why don't we make it together and you sell it and just pay me back for the ingredients," I proposed.
A deal was struck.
There aren't many things this particular seventeen year old likes to do with her mother. But together we shopped for the ingredients and chose the wrapping paper and small china ramekins we would use to wrap the buttercrunch. We cooked for three straight days. First the butter and sugar were simmered together until the mixture reached 290 degrees. We made sure the sugar caramelized without burning. We spread the caramel on greased cookie sheets and waited for it to harden. And while it hardened we talked. Yes, we talked. What did we talk about? Even if I wanted to tell you I can't really remember. And, the truth is, it doesn't much matter. The point is that we talked and we laughed. When the candy was smooth and hardened we "painted" a thin layer of chocolate on top and sprinkled on the chopped nuts. While we waited for the nuts and chocolate to cool, before we could chop the stuff up into bite-size pieces, we talked some more. And I remember thinking: so this is what the holidays are about. Spending time together doing things we don't ordinarily do. We weren't in a mall, something she loves and I hate, we weren't on the Internet ordering gifts - we were in the kitchen making something we knew everyone would love.
The fair went well, the buttercrunch sold out quickly and we made a good amount of money. She sat with me through a long, crowded Friday night, filled with neighbors and friends, who all said "Oh my God! Is that your youngest? I haven't seen her since she was a little girl. She's so tall, so beautiful, so grown up!" Why is it we adults all say the same thing? She smiled and was polite and didn't roll her eyes once. I remember thinking: so this is what the holidays are about.
We made another batch of buttercrunch last night. This time it will go to family and friends. We know the recipe by heart by now and can tell when the caramel is almost ready - the color of pale butterscotch or the coat of our friend's new yellow lab - and when it looks like it might burn - the color of gold streaked with a menacing brown. We hung out in the kitchen and ate the scraps, begging each other: "Make me stop eating!"
I'm not sure if making buttercrunch is going to be one of my daughter's top holiday moments for 2007 and I'm not sure if I care. What matters is that we had the time together and for me, it's more important than anything she may give me in a box.
Andrea's Mind Blowing Buttercrunch
Here's to finding a moment with someone you love. The previously unpublished recipe for Andrea's Buttercrunch is my gift to you. She finally gave me permission to publish it.
You can double the recipe if you like but if you want to make more than that you shouldn't try to multiply the recipe by three or four - simply keep doubling the recipe.
1 cup unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon light Karo syrup
2 tablespoons water
2 large (about 7 or 8 ounce) chocolate bars*
About 1 cup very finely chopped walnuts**
*You can use any type of chocolate you like. I've made it successfully with low-end grocery store milk chocolate and chocolate chips, and I've splurged and used really fabulous 60% cocoa chocolate. The choice is yours.
**You can use walnuts, almonds, pecans, pistachio, or any type of nut but it must be finely chopped to adhere properly to the chocolate.
Line a cookie sheet with a piece of well greased aluminum foil.
In a medium saucepan, heat the butter, sugar, Karo syrup and water over a low heat, stirring. The mixture will caramelize and is ready when it hits 290 degrees on a candy thermometer. Watch it carefully, particularly toward the end of the cooking process. It will take at least 15 minutes to reach 290 on low heat. The mixture can burn easily; reduce the heat to very low if it seems to be cooking too quickly or turning darker than pale golden brown.
When the candy hits 290 remove from the heat and carefully spread it out on the sheet of greased foil. Spread with a spatula to make it fairly thin. Let cool and harden. (If you are really impatient you can place the cookie sheet outside in the cold in a protected place so it will harden more quickly.)
While the buttercrunch is hardening melt the chocolate in a saucepan over very low heat, stirring until smooth.
If you choose to let the buttercrunch harden outside or in a very cold spot you must bring it back to room temperature before spreading with the chocolate. If the buttercrunch is too cold the chocolate won't adhere properly.
When the buttercrunch is hard to the touch (you shouldn't feel any soft spots), use a soft spatula and spread a thin layer of chocolate over the entire thing. Sprinkle with half the nuts, pressing down lightly so they adhere. Again, if you are the impatient type, you can let the chocolate harden in a cold spot. The chocolate should be fully dry-no wet spots to the touch. Carefully remove the foil with the candy from the cookie sheet; place the cookie sheet on top of the foil and candy. Gently flip the candy over onto the cookie sheet and peel away the foil. Spread the remaining chocolate on top of the other side of the buttercrunch. Sprinkle with the remaining nuts, pressing down lightly. Let the chocolate harden and set in a cool spot.
When the buttercrunch is dry and hard break it into small pieces. You can keep it in a cool, dry spot for up to two or three weeks.