I love this time of year. Once I tear the November page off my calendar, Christmas is on. I can't wait to get out our decorations and unwrap the old friends that patiently wait for our return year after year. I even love our tattered artificial garland that was once proud and pert, but is now limp and wobbly and sheds all over our house like an old shorthaired terrier. Once my husband pulls the boxes out of the crawlspace, our family triage unit gets to work and carefully combs through the bags and boxes searching for casualties and sadly discarding the mortally wounded. Our dining room ER set-up is where the salvageable are taken and rehabilitated with an assortment of glues, silver polishing clothes, nail polish and glitter. We would never consider replacing these old friends by buying new just for a crack or paint scrape so they are lovingly repaired and put back into action. We look upon purchases such as garland and ornaments as an investment that you make but once and are only thrown away as a last resort. The only exception to this philosophy of generosity and kindness being those damned twinkle lights. I honestly think that somewhere in those 8’ wires is a miniscule brain that has two functions; shine beautifully and brightly to instill a false sense of security, and go black as soon as they have been firmly mounted on a tree or worse yet, the eves of a house. It never fails that it is usually lights out as we stand back to survey our finished handiwork.
A few years back I was forced to purchase a new artificial tree when the branches of our old one began to fall off out of sheer exhaustion. At an after Christmas clearance at a high end department store I was thrilled to be the lucky “winner” of a 75% off pre-lit simulated Norfolk pine that was no doubt made of quality material, or so I thought. The first year I pulled it out of the box; I easily assembled it and plugged it in with no less than magnificent results. Its twinkle lights were designed with magnified lenses on the end to give them an almost blinding shine. I couldn’t help but pat myself on the back every time I passed by it, congratulating myself on such a great bargain. The following year, the first section went out on us a couple of hours after firing it up leaving us to wonder what the hell goes on in that box when we aren’t looking? I mean it was working perfectly when we packed it away. By the end of that second season, no less than 1/3 of that tree was as dark as Broadway on a Monday night. We turned the dark side of the tree to the wall and carried on. The third year my awesome husband worked his magic on our tree using his special combination of profanity, ohm meters and electrical tape and got the lights working again. This year, when we plugged it in, things were different, only 1/4 of the tree would even light up. Feeling totally betrayed by “that big green piece of @*&!” in the corner, he turned his back on us both suggesting that I either buy new or get creative. Since it is so close to Christmas and I have been hemorrhaging more money than I care to admit to him, I chose the latter. I went and purchased a couple of new strings of lights (I believe that this is what my mom called “throwing good money after bad”) and wound them around the branches of my big bargain, problem solved . . . kind of. As I write I am now sitting here looking at my patient wondering if I now need to buy a few new ornaments to cover up the wires from all of those aftermarket lights. Oh shoot, I don’t know, I think I’ll just go with it this year and maybe look for another one of those fabulous pre-lit clearance bargains in a few weeks. Always an optimist, I can’t help but thinking that I’ll have better luck next time.
Life, like those crazy lights, is full of uncertainties, but thank goodness there are some things that we can all depend on year after year. One of my favorite constants is preparing the tons of Christmas goodies that my family loves so much. A few Christmases ago my friend Kim delivered the most delicious tin of fudge to us that I had ever eaten. Unlike my own gritty squares of chocolate that I had been making for years, hers was rich, smooth and creamy without a hint of grit. She was happy to share her recipe with me and I have been making it to the delight of my friends and family ever since. We sadly lost Kim almost a year ago but she is still very much alive in our hearts. In her memory I am happily passing her recipe on for you to enjoy too. I think she’d really like that, so here’s to you my dear friend! I am also including a recipe from another friend for her almond butter toffee. It comes highly recommended by my husband. He just can't stay out of this stuff hence the reason there are only a couple of pieces left in the candy bowl in my photo.
To all of you who are reading this, if you still have the ones you love and care about around you this Christmas let them know how much you love them, for their presence in your life is your greatest gift of all. I hope you all have a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year!
Creamy Chocolate Fudge
7 ounces (210g) mini marshmallows
1 – 1/2 cups granulated sugar
5 ounces (147ml) evaporated milk
4 tablespoons (56g) butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
12 ounces (340g) milk chocolate chips or chopped milk chocolate bar
8 ounces (240g) plain chocolate chips or chopped plain chocolate bar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 ounces (60g) nuts (optional)
Line an 8 x 8” pan with waxed paper or foil then spray with non-stick cooking spray; set aside.
In a large saucepan over medium high heat, combine the marshmallows, sugar, milk, butter and salt. Bring to a boil and cook, stirring constantly for 5 minutes.
Remove from the heat and stir in chocolate, vanilla extract and nuts. Stir until the chocolate is melted. Pour into the prepared pan. Cool in pan for 2 hours or until firm before slicing and eating.
7 ounces (210g) miniature marshmallows
1 – 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2/3 cup (147ml) evaporated milk
4 tablespoons (56g) butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
12 ounces (340g) white chocolate chips or chopped white chocolate bar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons maple flavoring (optional)
2 ounces (60g) walnuts
Line an 8 x 8” baking dish with waxed paper or foil then spray with non-stick cooking spray; set aside.
In a large saucepan set over medium high heat, combine the sugar, milk, butter and salt. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly and cook for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, add the white chocolate and stir until it is melted. Stir in the vanilla and maple flavorings. Pour into the prepared pan. Cool for 2 hours or until it is firm before slicing.
Almond Butter Toffee and How to Salvage It When Things Go Wrong
I have to be honest this isn’t my friend’s recipe. Because I’ve asked her for it on several different occasions, I was embarrassed to admit that I had misplaced it once again, so I found this one on the internet. It went pretty well until the second five minute timing when it separated and got grainy, and despite the encouragement in the recipe, it didn’t come back. I have read different reasons as to why this happens: heat is too high, stirring it too vigorously or crystallized sugar from the side of the pan falls into the boiling toffee. Whatever the reason it is frustrating and disappointing.
Since I didn’t want to throw away $7.00 worth of butter, sugar and almonds, I turned the temperature down to medium and slowly stirred in some hot water a tablespoon at a time until it equaled about 1/4 cup and the butter slowly started to blend in again (please be careful if you have to do this as the hot mixture might spit out of the pan when the water is added). I got out my candy thermometer because the almonds didn’t pop like they were supposed to. I quit the constant stirring and let my mixture slowly boil until it reached 300 degrees (hard crack stage), only stirring very gently every now and then just to make sure it didn’t burn on the bottom. This took a good long time (probably 40 minutes) but what did I have to lose? The good news is that with a little patience and perseverance I managed to salvage my toffee and it is delicious. My toffee is a rich walnut brown and has a depth of flavor that may be the best I’ve ever had. So, if your toffee turns out the first time, good for you! If not, try my salvage method and you still might be alright.
As simple as it delicious, you’ll need about 15 uninterrupted minutes. Don't answer the phone; don't answer the door. And you need a good-sized (3-1/2 to 4-quart) heavy saucepan -- the heavier the better -- and a stout wooden spoon. Ideally, you should have an 11-inch by 17-inch jellyroll pan with a 1-inch lip on it. If you don't have that, then two flat cookie sheets will do. Line the pan or cookie sheets with aluminum foil, letting the excess hang over the edges, and set them on a heatproof surface. Sprinkle each cookie sheet with a tablespoon of finely chopped almonds. Have a candy thermometer handy just in case things go peared shaped on you.
2 cups (4 sticks or 454g) butter
2 cups (400g) sugar
3 cups (675g) coarsely chopped almonds (I reserve 1/2 cup and finely chopped them to sprinkle on the pans and chocolate)
1 - 12-ounce (340g) package milk or plain chocolate chips or chopped chocolate bars(optional)
Put the butter and sugar in the saucepan and, over medium high heat, stir while the butter melts. Stir constantly while sugar dissolves, and let mixture come to a boil. When a uniform boil is reached, set your timer for 5 minutes. Keep stirring.
At the 5-minute mark, the mixture will start to look light and creamy. Add the almonds all at once, and start stirring them in. The almonds will cause the mixture to cool, so it will immediately get thick and some of the butter will separate, and you may think you've made some terrible error, but persevere. Just keep stirring slowly with that stout wooden spoon.
When the mixture comes to a boil, again set your timer for 5 minutes. However, you don't really need the timer because -- and this is the best part -- the almonds will tell you when the toffee is ready. That's right.
As you continue to stir, the mixture will really start to come together. The butter that separated out will get stirred back in, and the mixture will begin to darken as the sugar caramelizes. At or around the 5-minute mark, you will begin to hear the almonds popping. The heat causes them to expand, which causes a low, dull popping sound. And then you know that your toffee is ready! (If graininess appears, refer to my salvage method above and say a little prayer).
Pour the toffee out evenly into the foil-lined pan or cookie sheets. Be very careful; it is extremely hot. If you are topping the toffee with a chocolate layer, wait 5 minutes and when the toffee has begun to set, and sprinkle the chocolate chips over the hot surface. They will quickly melt and become spreadable. Spread the chocolate in an even layer over the toffee. At this point sprinkle with the reserved almonds over the warm chocolate. When toffee has cooled completely, it can be broken apart. Store in layers separated by waxed paper in an airtight container.