During my childhood, my parents always gave homemade gifts to their friends, co-workers, and employees during the holiday season. My dad would stir up industrial-sized batches of his super-secret pancake mix, package it in zip top bags, and pair it with jars of my mom’s blueberry jam.
In exchange, we’d receive plates of chewy homemade toffees, tins of dense, sugar-dusted pfeffernusse and giant bags of long-roasted Chex Mix. (I loved the nearly burnt bits most of all.)
Since becoming an adult, I’ve spent years searching out my signature holiday treat, so that I could have a thing that my friends and neighbors would look forward to each December. I’ve tried tiny frosted sugar cookies (too much work), dark chocolate toffees (delicious, but I could not abide the endless wrapping), and pumpkin seed brittle (good, but not everyone likes grassy flavor of pumpkin seeds).
After much experimentation, I’ve settled on three treats that can be made in large batches, don’t require any special wrapping, and seem to hold universal appeal. The first is a crunchy toffee that is topped with a thin layer of chocolate and toasted almonds. I like to cook the toffee until it tastes like the sugar crust on the top of crème brulee.
Next up are maple-glazed pecans with fresh rosemary and a hint of cayenne. They’re good on salads and work perfectly as a quick nibble with a glass of wine. I package them in small jars and tie on paper luggage tags.
Finally, I make huge batches of caramel popcorn drizzled with melted down chocolate chips. The recipe is based on one that Molly Wizenberg posted on her blog, Orangette, several years ago and I’ve been making ever since. Crunchy, sweet, and salty, it is dangerous stuff to have around the house if you’re trying to fit into a holiday outfit.
What’s your traditional sweet treat to make and share during the holiday season?
Crunchy Toffee with Chocolate and Toasted Almonds
- 1 pound unsalted butter
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 8 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips
- 1 cup toasted and chopped almonds
Line a rimmed half-sheet pan with parchment paper.
Melt butter in a wide pot over medium-high heat. Stir in sugar and salt as the butter melts.
Stir constantly with a silicone spatula, regularly scraping down the sides. It will bubble and hiss as you stir.
Cook until the toffee mixture has achieved a copper color, about that of a new penny. It will darken a bit more once you take it off the heat, so stop a shade lighter than you want the end product to be. For a traditional toffee flavor, cooking it to 300°F is just right. To walk the edge between sweet and slightly burnt, take it to 325°F. If you like
Once you’ve reached your desired level of doneness, remove pot from the heat and stir in the vanilla. It will sputter and spit when you add the vanilla, so be careful.
Pour the toffee into your prepared baking sheet and use a silicone spatula to spread it evenly. Let cool for approximately 10 minutes before sprinkling the chocolate across the top. When the chocolate begins to melt, use an offset spatula to spread it out into an even layer.
Sprinkle nuts across the warm chocolate and pat gently with your palms to embed the nuts into the chocolate.
Let the toffee cool for 4-6 hours, until it becomes stiff and brittle. Break into pieces. Store in an airtight container. This candy will keep well at room temperature for weeks (if it lasts that long).
Makes approximately 2 pounds
Rosemary Maple Pecans
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/4 cup maple syrup
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons finely minced fresh rosemary
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne
- 2 teaspoons sea salt
- 1 pound pecan halves
Preheat an oven to 375ºF. Line a rimmed half sheet pan with parchment paper.
Melt the butter, maple syrup and brown sugar together in a small saucepan. Once they’re fully melted, remove from the heat and stir in the herbs, spices and 1 teaspoon sea salt.
Place pecans in a large, heat-proof bowl. Pour the syrup over the nuts and toss until they are well coated. Spread the nuts out in a single layer on the prepared pan.
Bake in the preheated oven, stirring occasionally, until the nuts are glazed and shiny with a deep golden color (this should take 10-15 minutes). Immediately upon removing the nuts from the oven, sprinkle them with the remaining sea salt and stir to combine.
Let the glazed nuts cool completely before packaging.
Makes approximately 1 pound
Caramel Popcorn with Chocolate Drizzle
- 1 tablespoon neutral oil
- 3/4 cup unpopped popping corn
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 cup packed dark brown sugar
- 1/4 cup golden syrup or corn syrup
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 4 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips
- 2 tablespoons heavy whipping cream
Preheat the oven to 250°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper and lightly spray with cooking spray.
Heat oil in a large pot with a fitted lid (or a Whirley Pop). When it shimmers, add popping corn and cook, shaking pot constantly, until all the corn is popped.
In a medium saucepan, stir together the brown sugar, corn syrup, butter, salt, and 2 tablespoons of water. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat.
Continue to simmer, whisking often, until the mixture reads 250°F on a candy thermometer. Remove the pan from the heat, and whisk in the baking soda and vanilla (take care, the caramel will sputter and sizzle when you make those additions).
Quickly pour the hot caramel over the popcorn. Use a silicone spatula to fold the caramel into the popcorn, doing your best to distribute it as evenly as possible.
Transfer the coated popcorn to the parchment lined baking sheet. Bake for 1 hour. Remove from the oven and let cool for 15-20 minutes.
Once the popcorn is no longer steaming hot, measure the chocolate and whipping cream into a heatproof bowl and heat in the microwave or on top of a double boiler until it’s just melted. Using a spoon, drizzle chocolate over the popcorn.
When chocolate is set, gently break up the popcorn, and serve.
Store in an airtight container for up to a week.
Makes approximately 12 cups