The Chocolate Life

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It's sort of hard to know where to begin when talking about Terry's Toffee, so I guess I will start at my beginning.

I grew up in Southern California, and my first and lasting childhood memories of toffee are all about black and white boxes of See's Victoria English Toffee. We bought one box a year for my Mother at Christmas. That's it - just one box a year. So it was a big deal, realllly special. Large slabs of toffee with a thin layer of chocolate generously covered with crushed almonds. I haven't eaten any in something like 30 years, mostly because until recently it hasn't been generally available outside of California or I mistakenly thought that See's was too down-market for me; but also because I know in my head, heart, and mouth that it can never, never, ever taste as good as my romanticized memory of it.

For me, now, toffee is first and foremost about texture. The texture I like is grainy/crunchy, almost sandy. There's a nice tooth to it (resistance to the initial bite) but once you start chewing on the toffee it starts to disintegrate quickly. The word I use to describe the texture is sandy even though toffee is a very different beast from actual, real, sand. The other part of the textural experience is the balance between the sandy-ness of the toffee and the creaminess of the chocolate. Oh, and toffee like this never, never, ever (I don't think I've ever used that phrase twice in the same article before) sticks to your teeth.

After the texture of the toffee, toffee for me is all about the balance of the cooked sugar flavor of the toffee with the chocolate with the chocolate and whatever other ingredients get added. Almonds are the most common nuts but I've also seen walnuts and pistachios used. Toasted shredded coconut, too. Proper balance of flavor and texture in toffee, as in all confections, is difficult to achieve. Sometimes the toffee is too sticky or tastes burnt or there is too much/not enough chocolate. One of my biggest peeves is people who insist on using raw nuts. Blecccccchh. I do not like raw nuts in confections. Roasting takes away the bitterness and more importantly generates roasted flavor compounds (via something called the Maillard Reaction). Cocoa beans are roasted, so roasting the nuts means that they have flavor components that complement the roasted cocoa beans.

If you're looking for toe-curling toffee experiences, one of the best ones you can have in public is made by Andrew Shotts of Garrison Confections. (I've given it a Superior on the Discover Chocolate rating system.) Other popular brands include Stephany's out of Colorado and a lot of people I know swear by Enstrom's, also out of Colorado.

One of the best things I like about my job is that people offer to send me their chocolates and confections. Recently, Terry Opalek, eponymous founder of Terry's Toffee in Chicago, sent me samples of three flavors to taste and write about. I've been meaning to post this for a while now, and Terry's e-mail today reminded me that I hadn't.

Like many people in the business, chocolate is not Terry's first career. Late last century, Terry rediscovered his grandmother McCall's toffee recipe and in consultation with his Aunt Jenne Louise, learned the secrets to making Mrs McCall's toffee to her (and everyone else's!) satisfaction. But it wasn't until 2005 that Terry and his partner Michael opened up their first retail shop on Chicago.

Terry's Toffee Packaging

By that time, inspired by the tastes and textures of other cultures, Terry's Toffee had begun to explore culinary territory not normally explored by toffee. They still make the original (milk) Mc Call's Classic, and it has been joined by a dark chocolate brother and family members with flavors and textures that include Lemon with Mac nuts; Lavendar and Vanilla; Cranberry and Orange; Chai spices; and an intriguing mixture of Australian ginger, dark chocolate, and garnished with crushed wasabi peas. (Now it just so happens that I personally know the combination of chocolate and wasabi peas works. When I do tasting events that are preceded by a cocktail hour I routinely prepare cocoa powder dusted wasabi peas and put them in bowl to be eaten as bar snacks.)

The McCall's Classic, toffee with slivered almonds cooked right in covered with milk chocolate and dusted with crushed pecans is just about perfect. It's just a little too sweet for my palate so I probably would have preferred the McCall's dark even though it appears to be made without the almonds. I happen to think that pecans are an underused nut in American confectionery so I am especially pleased with I find someone that uses them. The texture of the toffee is just as I like it. (I am obsessive enough that I suck the chocolate off so I can experience the toffee all by itself.) The almond crunch adds a buttery-soft complement to the sandy texture of the toffee, the chocolate that's used has no flavors that take away from the toffee, and the balance of the toffee and chocolate is quite good. And on top of all that - pecans that add an exotic earthiness that takes it someplace special.


McCall's Classic


Terry also sent me a box of the Lavenilla toffee. This is a plain (no nuts) toffee flavored with French lavender and Madagascan vanilla covered with white chocolate. When I first read the hang tag on the box I thought that this would be cloyingly sweet given the combination of the toffee and the white chocolate. Thankfully this turned out not to be the case as the intense floral nature of the lavender in combination with the vanilla melded with the white chocolate to tone it down. Now overall it was still too sweet to become something I would want to eat often, but I really do see this toffee as a fine accompaniment to a wide variety of teas. I am also impressed by the adventurous palate and a willingness to look at new combinations of flavors for toffee that is exemplified in this one. Most toffee makers are very traditional in their approach to taste and it's nice to see something that expands the boundaries of the flavors that toffee can deliver.


Lavenilla


The last sample Terry sent me was the Cran-Orange Passion. This combines a plain (no nuts) toffee with dried cranberries and orange oil. This is also one that I thought would be a little weird in the abstract as I had trouble imagining what the chewy texture of the cranberries would do to my perception of the texture of the toffee. I was disappointed in one aspect and that is that the toffee pieces are irregularly sized and shaped (and completely enrobed). When you get (as I did) a comparatively small piece of toffee with a comparatively large quantity of cranberry in it, the cranberries far outlasted the toffee in the mouth. In other cases, by the time I had finished the toffee I had finished the cranberries (or is it the other way around?) and to the texture was a new sensation I liked. I also forgot to mention that these pieces are sprinkled with sea salt, so I recommend that you pop them into your mouth salt-side down. The salt "opens up" the taste buds making the other flavors more intense.


Cran-Orange Passion


Overall I give Terry's Toffee a Very Good to Superior on the Discover Chocolate rating scale.

One thing I like about what Terry has done on the retail side is that he has taken the flavor combinations from the toffee and applied them to both biscotti and ice cream. Terry's products are also available wholesale, for special events (like at the Academy Awards 2005-2007), and in custom packaging.

Terry's Toffee
1117 W Grand Ave (and dozens of other locations around the country)
Chicago, IL 60622
312.733.2700 /ph
www.terrystoffee.com
orders@terrystoffee.com

McCall's Classic, McCall's Dark, Lavenilla, and Cran-Orange Passion are trademarks of Terry's Toffee. Photos are copyright Terry's Toffee.

Tags: biscotti, chicago, ice cream, toffee

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Being a major choc covered toffee fan, I visited Terry's website and was delighted by the flavor offerings (espec. Chai and Pistachio, as well as biscotti and more....) They did not appear to have a mix/ variety box offering so I emailed and they got right back to me and said Yes they will put any mix together that I would like and take special orders via phone or email. So thats my plan, in preparation for a Toffee Showdown im planning to taste test many diff brands of toffee and see who really knocks my socks off!
Anyone else tried Terry's or have toffee recommendations?

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