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  • Mary Kay

Gram's Christmas Butternut Toffee from the 1940's


Gram made hers with Butternuts from the lower end of the farm.

I'm not really sure when Gram started making her butternut toffee recipe, but it was way before I was born. What I witnessed as a youngster was my Gram who really knew how to make toffee. Even with the old wood cookstove she knew just when it had cooked enough to spread on the metal pan and add the chocolate and nuts on top. She had no candy thermometer.


As kids we used to help Mom and Gram pick up butternuts from the lower part of the farm. It was a rich dark soil created by the Chippewa River eons ago. On the flat land near the river Gramps raised many crops successfully year after year. A plus was the grove of butternut trees that stood there every early fall, waiting to be picked of its fruit. So, on a sunny fall day we would drive down there in Mom's old '52 Ford to gather up the bounty for winter cracking.


Gram would follow us around with her long cobbler apron gathered up into a sack like vessel for us to toss the butternuts into. When she could no longer carry the heavy load, we would traipse back to the bushel basket in the trunk and dump them off. Then we'd repeat our mission over and over until we had enough to last a winter's worth of Gram's baking.


She never had to worry about us eating up these tree fruits like we kids would do when we picked berries during the summer. The nuts were way too hard to crack with our little fingers. Anyway, they first had to be dried in the attic all fall, so the greenish brown husks could fall off to reveal dark brown nut shells. In the winter we would sit around the newspaper covered kitchen table and crack them with hammers and dig out the nutmeats as Gram called them. We would bag them up in old plastic bread bags and Gramps would store them in large wooden boxes lined with smaller metal boxes in the attic so any hungry rodents couldn't get into them.


A couple of months later the real magic would begin. A few days before Christmas Gram would pull out her big jar of white sugar and fresh from the creamery butter (from their own milk cows, of course). She would stoke the fire in the old kitchen wood stove and get the heat going, pull out her big sauce pan and pour in the sugar, add the butter and get it boiling. She would let me stand on a kitchen chair (but never stir the hot golden liquid!) a little way from the hot stove while she stirred and stirred and stirred. It seemed to boil forever while Gram stirred. Then, magically it would turn a golden brown. She always knew when it was just right to add the molasses. she had a fun way to check if it was at the hard crack stage, with cups of very cold water I had pumped for her out of the outdoor water pump. There was no candy thermometer in her kitchen as I have today. I know it's ready to take off the heat when it reaches 285F degrees on my thermometer. She could tell by the heavy feel of the stirring, the height it was boiling in the pan and the beautiful golden amber color of the boiling syrup. Then she would stir in a little molasses. She claimed it gave the toffee the magical flavor that Gramps liked.


Gram would immediately pour the red-hot golden syrup out on a huge metal sheet that we had buttered earlier. She quickly sprinkled chocolate shavings on top, waited a few minutes and spread them out with a long huge table knife. Then she would sprinkle on the hard work of the butternuts on top. After it cooled on top of the freezer in the cold back porch for about 4 hours, she would give us a little treat. But, she would pack it away between waxed paper in metal tins to store. We would all be able to savor the treat later, on Christmas Eve with everyone enjoying the rewards of the work we did together on the lower end of the farm, gathering up the butternuts, later cracking them and then chopping the nutmeats for the toffee.


Prepare the pan:

- One large sauce pan required to cook the golden toffee in.


Prepare the cookie sheets:

- Two large cookie sheets are needed, brushed with butter.


Toffee Ingredients:

Butter to spread on two large cookie sheets

2 C Butter

2 C Sugar, white

1/4 t Salt

2 C Chocolate shavings (I use semi-sweet chocolate chips)

1 C Butternuts, finely chopped (I use almonds or pecans, rough chopped)


Make the toffee:

- Finely chop the butternuts, or other nuts. Since I do not have any Butternut Trees, I use rough chopped almonds, pecans or walnuts, or even mixed nuts.

- Melt the butter in the large saucepan over medium head on the stove.

- Add the sugar and salt, boiling and stirring constantly until it reaches the hard crack stage or 285-290F degrees, as noted on a candy thermometer. This could take 15-20 minutes. Be sure to stir constantly or it can burn on the sides or bottom of the saucepan.

- Carefully pour the toffee onto the two buttered cookie sheets. I actually use parchment paper lined cookie sheets (12"x15") with short sides. Some people call them jelly roll pans.

- Immediately sprinkle the chocolate over the hot toffee. Let it set 3-5 minutes, then spread with a large knife. I use an offset knife to make it easier to spread.

- While the chocolate is still very warm, sprinkle the nuts over the top. Sometimes I spread only half of the toffee with nuts, since some people in my family prefer no nuts on it.


NOTE: I don't' remember Gram using chocolate chips like we find in our stores today until I was in my late teens. It seems she was always making her own sweet chocolate mixture for cookies and this toffee. She usually had a large bar of chocolate she would create shavings from by scraping a sharp paring knife across the edge. When decorating a cake, she would create the most beautifully curled shavings from those bars of sweet chocolate. (The day I discovered there was actually a difference in chocolates, I was very young, it was the day I shaved some curls for her for a dessert. I tasted them, and discovered that I had grabbed the wrong chocolate bar. It was a baker's bar of UN-sweetened chocolate. What an eye-opener!)


Alternative toppings:

- Sprinkle the hot toffee in the pan with dark chocolate and white chocolate chips. Wait a few minutes and swirl the chips together with a knife point to give it a marbled effect.

- Choose some holiday jimmies or other colorful sprinkles over the warm chocolate topping to give the toffee a festive look.

- Sprinkle diced dried fruit on top of the warm chocolate topping for a fun and tasty result.

- Toffee isn't just for Christmas! Make this delicious toffee for other Holidays, like Valentine's Day, using red and white candy melts with red, pink, lavender and white jimmies or other colorful sprinkles.

- Give it a hot flavor. Try a couple of drops of cinnamon oil in the toffee, stirring it in just before you spread the liquid in the large sheet pans. Or, spread and swirl the top of the warm toffee with red and white melted candy melts. Bake your own Memories!




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