Making toffee at the holidays with the woman I never knew

old recipe card for English toffee

By Samantha Shanley

When I was a girl, just before the song of December lay her opening lines, my mother would scurry around making holiday preparations like a hearth mouse. She tacked and trimmed, draping doorways in feathery white pine and fixing tartan bowties around old teddy bears lined up along the mantlepiece.

My mother’s Christmas confections were my main squeeze. I’d wrap my arms around one of her tins, a painted tole replica decked with a single poinsettia, and quietly lift the top to peer inside. Between circles of wax paper, stacked and filled like levels in a parking garage, there were layers of sugar cookies speckled with nonpareils, circles of shortbread with cherry dot centers, bohemian crescents, and strips of candied orange peel. As the daylight softened and the winter solstice twinkled ahead, I nipped from these holiday tins with glee.

Of all the Christmas treats on hand, the most luscious and decadent was the English toffee. Making it was no simple feat. I’d watch my mother’s able hands at play, working the butter and sugar together in the pan—a holiday masterstroke.

When she lit the flame, the mixture would soften and yield as she paddled through it for nearly an hour. Then, she would pour it out, wait for it to harden, slather it with melted chocolate, and shake out a dusting of ground almonds. When it was dry, she’d flip it over and repeat on the other side. Finally, she’d use a hammer and a flat head to chisel the whole slab into bite-sized chunks. It was my mother’s grandmother, Ila, who wrote the original toffee instructions on a recipe card. I never knew her, but I recognized the fine script letters of her hand. 

Ila Lavera was raised in Union, Mississippi, but she didn’t stay there long. In 1918, in the deep south, the jobs were up north. Ila followed her older sister Katie Magnolia to Washington, DC. In time, her younger sister Georgia Dora came too.

The toffee was difficult to master. It wasn’t the sort of thing that could turn out just okay—either it caramelized or it didn’t. My mother, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother Ila had all failed on occasion, given up, thrown out the ingredients, and started all over again before getting it right. 

The same was true of their first marriages.

I’d have done anything to be sure that when it was my turn, I wouldn’t fail at either. I didn’t want to be a woman unattached, dangling in time.

When I was newly married, I lived near my mother outside Washington, DC in the same town where Ila had raised my grandmother. During that first Christmas in my new home, marriage was easy. But mastering the toffee was something I had to earn. Caramelization, for one thing, was hard to capture.

“Once it starts to turn, it’ll go fast, Simi Sue,” my mother warned, using the nickname my grandmother had given me.

But my toffee never turned to caramel, or anything other than sand.

Later, when my husband and I moved to Germany with our daughter, Ila Claire, I tried the recipe again. I made batches that clumped together in castles while the butter seemed to evaporate. Over and over, I tossed the ingredients into the trash and walked back to the market in shame. I Skyped with my mother and set her on the counter next to me, hoping for a better outcome. But I already had the instructions. Making toffee was a matter of feeling.

Maybe there was an easier way than standing there, growing anxious over a molten pan of sweetened milkfat, trying to land in that narrow space between a slow melt and a fast burn. Sure, there are tried and true methods of candy making. Thermometers help streamline the process into an exact science. But in my family, we surrendered to our faith in magic. And when it came down to it, I didn’t want an easier way. I wanted making the toffee to become part of me—not because it was simple but precisely because it wasn’t.

Eventually, I adopted the same confidence I’d seen in my mother, which I imagined she’d seen in hers, and so on. I set the heat to the pan once and did not fiddle with it again. I used a straight-sided wooden spatula and pulled each thickening swell in one direction like an outbreath. I added the slivered almonds, knowing they would clump together like a logjam of woodland garbage. I dragged them downstream until they dispersed. I watched the bubbling, spongy pap evolve into a living thing, some vital family organ. And then, a single whorl of caramel rippled up from the riverbed—a treacle eddy, followed by more, until the whole pan had turned, exactly the way my mother had said it would.

I wanted to taste that toffee, yes, but more than that, I wanted to fold myself into my matriarchal line, knowing that’s where I belonged.

Perhaps it goes without saying that my marriage didn’t last. The women in my family are known for embracing a good challenge. At first, I looked upon my own divorce as a colossal failure, an inability to master the basics of being human in a world built to honor tradition. But setting aside an arrangement that held me back was just another manifestation of my will to succeed.

Now, I stand in my kitchen in Boston, forming batches of my great-grandmother’s toffee, hundreds of miles from where either of us was born. And I talk to her out loud. In the midst of a pandemic, the last one of which she survived, forging a relationship I never had with a woman who is not here hardly seems all that wild.

Both my mother and grandmother remarried, but after Ila’s divorce, she lived alone, like me. She raised her two children, mowed her own lawn, worked full time, used her rich, mezzo-soprano voice to seed a culture of music in our family, and refused one suitor after another. She died in her 79th year. I like thinking about how resolved she must have been to keep her freedom stocked and ready, always on hand.

As I open my fifth holiday season as a single woman and a mother of three, I watch the butter and sugar vanish into one another again. I know how this goes. Still, I gaze at the sprawling desert of time ahead of me in outright wonder. Sometimes it is tempting to question whether I have mastered anything at all. But my great-grandmother was a marvel, a woman ahead of her time who reigned over the art of living alone. She is exactly the kind of woman to whom I want to belong. And I know for certain that I do.

Samantha Shanley is a writer in Boston. Her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother were all divorced, and as such, she was raised in a complex stepfamily. She teaches nonfiction at GrubStreet writer’s center and leads her own family of three children, along with her ex-husband and co-parent. In addition to making the toffee this year, she has filled her mother’s old cookie tins with candied orange peel, sugar cookies, and bohemian crescents.

English Toffee Recipe

2 6-ounce packages whole almonds
1 pound sweet milk chocolate
3/4 pound butter, plus 3 Tablespoons
3 1/2 cups sugar

Chop 1 1/3 cup nuts and grind 2/3 cup fine. Work butter and sugar together before heating in heavy skillet. Cook slowly, moving spoon in a one-way motion through mixture constantly. Cook 30-45 minutes to 1 hour, adding chopped (or slivered) nuts after first 10 minutes, until dark brown. Pour out and spread on large, flat surface (cookie sheet or bread board) to cool. Melt chocolate over hot water (using double boiler) and spread half over candy slab. Sprinkle half the ground nuts before chocolate cools. When hardened, repeat on opposite side of slab. Break by hand (or chisel) into pieces and store in tins. Yummy and worth the effort for Christmas!

Like what you are reading at Motherwell? Please consider supporting us here

Keep up with Motherwell on FacebookTwitterInstagram and via our newsletter