I can't believe it's been over 20 years since high school. Where did the time go? It seems like yesterday that I was sitting in Mrs. Goldstein's class taking a test about the structure of cells. I will let you in on a little secret. I never really enjoyed science. In fact, other than human biology (and I'm sure you get my drift), science was really boring to me. The truth is that I had very little interest in mitochondria, osmosis, and other such important topics. That daily hour of science easily won the dubious honor of the worst hour of my day. For those who know me well, I'm sure you would have guessed math. You would be wrong, very very wrong. Math was a close second, a very close second, but science won the prize.
I'm sure you're wondering what this confession has to do with baking. Well, I won't keep you in suspense any longer. So, picture this scene. Bellied up to my stove, I was lulled into deep thought by the rhythmic stirring. As I was slowly stirring the very hot and fragrant mixture of butter and sugar in my saucepan, I was struck by the oddest thought, "Cooking is like science." I would have violently shuddered, but the sugar and butter smelled so good that it quelled the urge. Baking and Science in the same thought? In my thoughts? What is the matter with me!?! How could my yin and yang collide in such glorious fashion?
Well it did. With all teasing aside, if you heat up sugar, you are not going to get hot sugar. With a little love and patience, you will have some form of caramel. If you add water, you will get a caramel syrup. If you add butter, you can coerce it into a warm toffee. Add a little cream and you are on your way to chewy caramels. Depending on the temperature and the length of time, your confection will either be chewy, crunchy, blond, dark blond, or - hopefully not - burnt.
The beauty with cooking and baking is the mere fact that you take simple foods and change their physical properties by adding heat and other ingredients. I sometimes ponder...if chemistry would have been this interesting, I may not have dropped it for accounting.
14 tablespoons (1 stick, plus 6 tablespoons) butter
1 1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons cold water
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Dash salt, fleur de sel if you have it
Semi-sweet chocolate chips
Silpat on a baking sheet
Put butter, sugar, and water in a heavy pan on medium-high heat. Bring to a bubbling boil, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon for about 10 minutes. Remove spoon from pan, and cook until the toffee reaches a toffee color. A little trick is to match the color to peanut butter. I know it is done when the color is the same as good ole' peanut butter. Some recipes will call for a candy thermometer, but I really found that once you achieve that toffee color, it is ready. Remove from heat and add vanilla and salt. Pour it directly onto the silpat and spread to a 1/4" thickness. Let it cool slightly. Sprinkle the top with chocolate chips. After about a minute, the chocolate chips will be soft. Take the back of a spoon and spread the chocolate. Immediately sprinkle the top with chopped pecans. Cool completely and break into pieces. Store in an airtight container.