Announcing the results of the 2012 International Chocolate Salon Toffee Competition. In which Marion and I judge four pounds of toffee.
Last year about this time, we were invited to help judge the 2011 Chicago Luxury Chocolate Salon. We were soon almost as stuffed as the seven-pound FedEx package of chocolate that showed up when we said yes. This year, the competition hosts, International Chocolate Salon and Taste TV, wisely broke up the competition into four categories. I chose toffee, and the package we received clocked in at just under four pounds.
The category and I go way back. My first exposure to toffee, though, was inauspicious, to say the least. When I was seven or eight, my friend Susie’s mom took us to a Saturday matinee at a neighborhood movie theater. Rather than pay movie prices for treats, she smuggled in a candy bar for each of us in her purse. As the previews began, she slipped them to us. They were Heath Bars. In the darkened theater, I misread it as Health Bar; I’m sure I scrunched my nose at the idea of some weird, good-for-you “treat” being pawned off on us as candy.
My first bite did nothing to dispel my misreading of the name. It was hard and slightly bitter to my untrained palate and covered with only a thin coating of chocolate, my gold standard for sweets back then (and to a large extent, even now). And even though there were two bars in the package, they were, to quote Woody Allen in Annie Hall, “such small portions.”
At some point in my teenhood, my palate began to mature. I was, after all, a mature, sophisticated teenager (as opposed to the other predominant version of the species, sullen and angry). Suddenly, I couldn’t get enough of Heath Bars—and only partly because the portions remained small.
In its most basic form, toffee is sugar and butter melted together and heated to what is called (somehow appropriately, given its addictive nature) the hard crack stage, about 300ºF. It is then cooled either in molds or in sheets. Toffee is often topped with chocolate; it frequently also has nuts and sometimes, bits of dried fruit. The resulting candy is hard, but slightly chewy as it warms, and—when done right—unmistakably buttery and rich.
The artisan toffees we were judging came from all over the country. Confectioners from Maryland, Illinois, Arkansas, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, California and even Hawaii were represented. Ingredient combinations were all over the map too. Milk chocolate, dark chocolate, white chocolate (which I’ve never quite forgiven for not really being chocolate), almonds, pecans, macadamia nuts and even dried Michigan cherries. Some combinations were intriguing, some jarring.
Ultimately, the winner for us was the candy maker who understood that all the other ingredients were bit players and let the toffee take the lead. Toffee Talk in San Francisco topped our choices in four of seven categories. All of the judges seemed to like it; in the overall competition, Toffee Talk took three gold medals, one silver and two bronzes. You can see all the winners at the International Chocolate Salon website.