Deborah Chan is unafraid to bare her soul.
As a former columnist for The Spokesman-Review, she’s shared her views on Spokane Valley libraries, The Beatles, and childhood trauma of eating lima beans, liver and Brussels sprouts. She’s documented tougher subjects, too, like her struggles with celiac disease, vertigo, breast cancer.
Despite her candor and humor – not hubris – she’s kept a carefully guarded secret: her recipe for English toffee.
This holiday season, she’s had a change of heart. She’s got something oh-so-good and finally wants, as she put it, “to set it free.
“This was my special thing,” Chan said. “I made it, and everybody went crazy for it. The toffee was beloved by whoever got it.”
Chan received the original, one-paragraph recipe from her late Great Aunt Mildred “and who knows where she got it? Obviously, this was not from a cookbook.”
This is the stuff of a different era. Great Aunt Mildred was Chan’s mother’s aunt. And Chan’s mother was born in 1926.
The old recipe didn’t give Chan much to go on. The typewriter lettering offered no tips other than using a greased cookie sheet. It didn’t even specify what kind of nuts to sprinkle. It simply called for ground nuts.
Through many years, trials and errors, Chan has since discovered an ungreased, foil-lined baking sheet works best. So does slivered and crushed almonds.
She has other tricks, too.
“Salted butter is key for flavor,” she said.
And, “Precision is the word. This really is a kind of science. The measurements really have to be exact. The sugar has to be leveled.”
Chan first made the recipe with her mother in the late 1970s, but it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that she began making it regularly. It became her holiday tradition. Chan made her highly coveted, chocolate-covered candy nearly every December, giving it as gifts to friends and her husband’s co-workers.
Sometimes, the treat would be consumed before the recipients returned home. Just one more piece turned into the entire portion, and then they would want the recipe. The answer was always firm: No.
She made an exception once for a bride, the daughter of one of her husband’s bosses, “on the strictest provision that she not give it to anybody.”
Chan held the recipe back because she thought she might someday enter her English toffee in a cooking contest. Plus, it was her holiday trademark.
Her outlook’s different now.
“I could’ve had cancer and died without sharing it,” the two-year survivor said. “I’m a sharer. If you’ve got something good, share it. This is the only thing I didn’t share.”
Throughout the years, Chan’s expanded the recipe, adding her own notes and tips, particularly with regard to the method.
“The temptation is to stop stirring. But don’t. That’s when it will burn,” she said. “You want to do a really gentle stir so you don’t slop it up on the sides. Once it’s on the sides, you can’t scrape it down; you’ve lost it.”
Even though she’s made the recipe dozens of times, Chan still tapes her expanded version to the microwave above her stovetop “so it’s right in front of my eyes.”
She doesn’t want to risk messing up a batch.
“This is the best stuff,” she said. “It’s so beautiful. It smells wonderful. It just gives me such great pleasure.”
From Deborah Chan
1 cup granulated sugar, leveled
1/4 cup water (use glass measure)
1 1/2 stick salted butter (do not use margarine)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (good quality)
1/2 pound milk or dark chocolate
1 to 1 1/4 cup sliced almonds, crushed
Read before beginning: This is a simple recipe, but you must follow the directions exactly and use exact ingredients.
For one recipe use a 2-quart pan, narrow rather than wide. Do not use a nonstick pan (toffee won’t caramelize). You can double the recipe with a 2 ½- to 3-quart pan. I use a Belgique 2 ½-quart copper-bottom pan.
After adding butter, the cooking process takes about ½ hour. If it takes much longer, you may need to carefully increase the heat. Once you begin adding butter do not scrape down the sides of the pan or scrape along the sides as you stir – the toffee will separate. Use a wood, melamine or metal (not nylon) spoon to stir and a candy thermometer that clips on the side of the pan (not too near the pan bottom or up too high; you should be able to pass the tip of the spoon underneath). Measure the vanilla out in advance and cover – time is of the essence. Wear gloves for protection.
Stir smoothly, gently and slowly, at about 5 seconds per rotation around the pan.
Instructions: Line a cookie sheet with heavy foil (1 sheet per recipe); don’t grease it or the chocolate won’t stick. Cut butter into tablespoon-sized chunks in a small bowl and set aside, along with pre-measured vanilla.
Over medium heat, stirring constantly, bring sugar and water to a boil to completely dissolve the granules. The liquid must be clear, although there will be bubbles and some foam.
Add the butter chunks one by one, stirring constantly to keep mixed and prevent scorching. Cook until hard crack (300 degrees) on candy thermometer.
Remove pan from heat and quickly stir in the vanilla. Again, do not scrape sides.
Pour toffee onto the prepared cookie sheet, spreading evenly, using a back and forth motion (it will be thin and delicate, easier to break and bite). Cool to harden completely, about an hour. When it’s completely hardened, carefully peel it from and place it back on the foil. It must be room temperature to coat with chocolate. (You can also tightly wrap the toffee, store it in a cool place and frost it with chocolate and almonds within a few days.)
Crush almonds in a zip-top bag (Chan uses an unopened soup can). Melt half of the chocolate in a double boiler or heavy 1-quart pan on low heat, and spread over one side of the toffee. Wearing disposable gloves, sprinkle with half of the crushed almonds. If doubling the recipe, you can do this for two sides at once. When the chocolate is fully hardened, turn the toffee over and repeat.
Once both sides are completely hardened, wearing disposable gloves or plastic baggies, break toffee into pieces. Store the toffee in airtight container in a cool place. It freezes beautifully and I suggest that for more than a few days storage.
Yield: 1 ¼ pounds
Note: Use the best chocolate you can. You can substitute dark for milk chocolate. If you’re spreading the toffee more thinly, you should add a couple extra ounces of chocolate to get good coverage; Trader Joe’s Pound Plus Belgian chocolate bar is perfect for this. When making a double batch, simply use twice as much of all ingredients. Chan usually makes a double batch. “It actually cuts down on labor,” she said.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Spokane7 email newsletter
Get the day’s top entertainment headlines delivered to your inbox every morning.