Sunday, January 15, 2017

This is NOT what it's all about!





OK, so I just wrote about Canadian chocolate bars, and one of my favourites is Cadbury Crunchy. This has a very nice, thick layer of milk chocolate enrobing a crispy sponge toffee centre. Oh my! As a kid, I used to be able to buy the stuff in great cellophane-wrapped chunks in a candy store called May's in Chatham. I remember the atmosphere in there, sugary, fudgy, heavenly.

But over the years, sponge toffee became increasingly hard to find. Now the ONLY place that has it is the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, and it's about $9.00 a bag. And it isn't even that good, too spongey, not crisp enough.

I had a dim memory of making this as a child (boiling up hot syrup. . . oh yeah, a great recipe for a kid!), but I don't know how it turned out. I swear I have this memory of running out into the back yard at night and sticking the pot into a snow drift so it would harden quickly, but now I think this must be wrong.





So I got this idea. Surely there would be a good recipe for sponge toffee (hokey pokey, cinder toffee, sea foam, yellow man, and about seven other names, unusual for a candy with three or four ingredients). There were DOZENS of them, but the one that interested me most was this effusive rendering by Nigella Lawson. She could make coffee grounds sound rhapsodic, I think, and her description of what she calls hokey pokey builds it up as some sort of heavenly concoction that practically makes itself.

Light. Crisp. Golden. So airy it almost disappears in your mouth. She even makes it for formal dinner parties, which to ME seems about as logical as bringing marshmallow Krispie squares. 

But in my case, hokey pokey/sponge toffee turned out to be a heavenly concoction that ended up in the garbage. THREE times.





It seemed easy, like all the recipes said, or at least simple. I was to find out, once again, that those two things are not the same at all.  All the recipes were similar - almost identical, in fact - white sugar, water, corn syrup, a little vanilla, then - at the end - "bicarb", as Nigella says in the video. Sounds like dumping bismuth in it, but what it is, is plain-ordinary baking soda. 

So I did that. It required an alarming amount, a whole tablespoonful, but I did it, I followed the recipe exactly.

I must've undercooked the syrup or something, because the first time it just didn't look like anything. It didn't foam way up as it was supposed to. It just lay there inert, and it never hardened. It was like a vast melted piece of toffee, a sugary glacier slowly making its way across the counter. Into the garbage it went.

Try #2 seemed more hopeful, it really did. I cooked it a little longer, just a little, mind. It turned the colour of all the sponge toffee syrup in all the recipes (in fact, quite a bit lighter than what is pictured above), and foamed way up when I added the bicarb, exactly the way it was supposed to. But there was this disturbing smell. Quite awful, really. Then I tasted it, and it was HORRIBLE. Scorched and inedible. Cinder toffee, indeed! It tasted like it had been scraped out of the fireplace, or something worse.

Once more, into the garbage.





The third time was going to be the charm. (This was all in one evening, by the way. I hate to lose.) And it did indeed seem perfect, with the syrup boiling up perfectly. It didn't foam up as much, but none of the recipes showed that anyway. It looked like the melted marshmallow you use for Rice Krispie squares. But I was afraid to stir it much and deflate it. I poured it out, it went sort of flat, but every other recipe showed it going flat.

Then - 

Finally it cooled and set. It was rock-hard, but that was the way it was supposed to be. I broke it up into pieces, and it had that honeycomb centre. I was truly anticipating a good result. But I got that sinking feeling once again. 

It tasted just awful, bitter and metallic, like a mouthful of baking soda. No one would want to eat this stuff! It's true that I do not own a candy thermometer, but that's for amateurs. Since the age of ten I have been making fudge from scratch, not that horrible condensed milk non-version, but the boiled-syrup kind that you beat with a spoon until it sets. I've had virtually no failures, so it's not as if I can't make candy. 






Every video I've seen - and it looks like there are a hundred of them - uses the same steps I used, same ingredients and method. Was the "bicarb" bad, somehow? CAN it go bad? Sugar can't go bad, can it? I'd had the syrup for a while. I don't know. 

Nigella, come to my house and make this heavenly stuff and wrap it up in cellophane and tie it with a ribbon. And DON'T charge $9.00 for it. My hankering for a candy from my past is still unsatisfied. And I'm tired of throwing out all those ingredients.

POST-TRAUMA. I feel bad. Just - chintzy bad. Not end-of-the-word bad, just - shabby. I feel as if I am a failure at something I thought I was good at, and I do NOT need one of those few, scant things taken away from me, thank you very much. I have scoured the internet, and I don't think anyone anywhere has had the same problems with this, a task I should be able to ace since I've made candy for I-don't-want-to-say-how-many years. Certainly no one has failed at it three times. 





And I still don't really know what the problem is. My impression is that there is about a five-second window for the syrup to be ready, and if you go over or under, you're screwed.

Either that, or other people enjoy a candy that has a bitter, metallic taste. A taste of cinders.

Please, someone tell me this is NOT "what it's all about".

POST-POST: I kept looking until I found something that made me feel better. It is my personal method for warding off depression.

There weren't that many, but I found a few tweets on the Nigella Twitter page, plus something that might be a partial explanation.

how do you judge when hokey pokey right. Too chewy too burnt prob

I tried making this quite a few times years ago from your recipe but never succeeded

thank you for tweeting this! I have had nothing but disaster trying to make it. Will buy new bicarb... :)

what's the best way to tackle it if the weather is damp?!

aha! The only recipe of yours that I have not managed to make work yet.

i have hokey pokey video on my pc and i watched this video more than 3oo hundred times does not taste good as it looks

I’ve missed something important here





The kitchen goddess speaks: "Generally if Hokey Pokey not working, it's because bicarbonate too old or weather is too damp!"

Hmmm. My "bicarbonate" (baking soda) is upwards of ten years old, but why should it matter? Why should that affect how cooked/uncooked the syrup is, or why it turns brown and tastes scorched? It has nothing to do with it. And the weather? Fair and cold. I really don't understand.

Post-script. Looking at Nigella without the sound on (as in the four-second gif, above) is a revelation. She constantly tosses and shakes her head (with its chestnut mane), her facial expressions are intense, even extreme, and she eyeballs and flirts incessantly with the camera, generally behaving in a way that wouldn't go over well at a dinner party, at all. I am sure she is not that effusive when she actually goes out - such exaggerated head motions and rolling-eyes glances are simply too much. She also does this I'm-an-attractive-woman-and-I-know-it thing that I find a little offputting. On the other side, my husband is in love with her.




POST-POST! This is one of those things that goes on forever. I did make a fourth attempt, which I was SURE was the charm. I bought new ingredients, new baking soda, even new SUGAR. I slavishly followed Nigella's stylish, effortless method. It went really well, actually! It looked good, boiled up nicely. Foamed up fairly violently when I added the reduced amount of "bicarb", but I whacked it out on the silicone platter and waited. Eating around the edges, it actually tasted good, crunchy, sweet. . . though there was that little aftertaste, bitter and metallic, that I tried to ignore. . .  

Then as it cooled and I broke it apart, my heart sank. It had that industrial smell to it, the scorched-earth quality that told me it had been ruined. And it had.

The above video - well, I don't want to laugh at it, but it makes me feel somewhat better, and I am VERY glad she posted it. I don't suppose anyone will take this as a warning about how dangerous this could be for children to try to make. The way it surges over the sides of the springform pan like a living thing, spurting jets of steam, an actual molten substance that could give you third-degree burns in less than a second - why does no one else warn you about this? It wouldn't even be like boiling water, as the liquid sugar lava would glue itself to your skin as it hardened.

I've made a couple of gifs of her result. And this is WITH a candy thermometer, set to the correct number of degrees:







In the second one, she's warning everyone to keep away from this thing, which does look like a science experiment gone wrong. I think the oozing and spurts of steam went on for several hours.

Nigella. Has this ever happened to you?

Post-POST-post: Now that I'm looking around on the topic, I am finding more and more admissions that this stuff is fiendishly hard to make. I suspect that at least one of my four attempts turned out the way it was supposed to: it just tasted like shit. Cinder toffee, indeed! They got the scorched, gritty part right. The husband of the poor woman who created the terrifying volcano in the above gifs said, "Get this out of the house. It smells like burnt carbon." 

I found this quote on a site called Life is a Party. She tried this recipe over and over again, but kept getting that horrible taste of scorched sugar. Finally she came out with a non-burnt batch, but it was flat and nearly devoid of bubbles. The result looked more like peanut brittle than sponge toffee, but her friends (no doubt not wanting to hurt her feelings) effused over it anyway: 

"After attempt number four I was starting to doubt myself. In fact I was thinking that after one full bottle of corn syrup and a bag of sugar that I should really be writing to you to save your time, and effort and invest the money for my four batches into a few Crunchie chocolate bars from the store -and if necessary rough them up a little, break them into pieces, tuck them into a cello bag with some ribbon and try to pass them off as your own to your friends and family."




ave tried to make this recipe twice. The first time it did not harden. Instead, it solidified into more of a "taffy" consistency. However, at least it tasted okay the first time. I was so determined to get it right that I bought a candy thermometer to ensure I reached the correct temperature. Then when I added the baking soda, the entire mixture nearly exploded into an unruly foam that almost burnt my hand!!! Luckily I was wearing The 'Ove' Glove (c) and I had my parchment paper right next to the stove ready-to-go. I didn't even get a chance to mix most of the baking soda in before it exploded. It smelled and tasted like a burnt marshmallow. Even worse, the baking soda had an aftertaste that made my mouth tingle for the next 20 min. It was disgusting and tasted like PURE CARBON! Believe me, I am very forgiving with new recipes but this was really, really bad. Btw, if anyone has children that like to help out in the kitchen, DO NOT COOK THIS RECIPE WITH THEM. IT COULD BE DANGEROUS!!! But don't worry, Food Network, I still love to watch Nigella Express.
But my favorite comment of all came from Nigella's page on the Food Network:

"I have tried to make this recipe twice. The first time it did not harden. Instead, it solidified into more of a "taffy" consistency. However, at least it tasted okay the first time. I was so determined to get it right that I bought a candy thermometer to ensure I reached the correct temperature. Then when I added the baking soda, the entire mixture nearly exploded into an unruly foam that almost burnt my hand!!! Luckily I was wearing The 'Ove' Glove (c) and I had my parchment paper right next to the stove ready-to-go. I didn't even get a chance to mix most of the baking soda in before it exploded. It smelled and tasted like a burnt marshmallow. Even worse, the baking soda had an aftertaste that made my mouth tingle for the next 20 min. It was disgusting and tasted like PURE CARBON! Believe me, I am very forgiving with new recipes but this was really, really bad. Btw, if anyone has children that like to help out in the kitchen, DO NOT COOK THIS RECIPE WITH THEM. IT COULD BE DANGEROUS!!! But don't worry, Food Network, I still love to watch Nigella Express."

Final Curtain:

Oh how I wish you could just go down to your corner store and buy a chunk of this, perfectly-made in big industrial batches, wrapped in cellophane and tied with a ribbon. I think it cost ten cents.

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