The Timeless Appeal of Toffee: A Sweet Holiday Treat with a Rich History

Buttery, sweet, and with an undeniably spectacular crunch, toffee is a tantalizing indulgence that’s been enjoyed since the early 1800s. That’s the period when food scholars note the word “toffee” appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary, specifically in 1825. Scholars appear divided on whether the British or Welsh are responsible for this mouth-watering classic. If it originated in Wales, the treat became popular across Britain and Europe as supplies of butter and eventually imported sugar were plentiful.

Delicious homemade toffee. Photo by Anastasia Murphy
Delicious homemade toffee. Photo by Anastasia Murphy

Dark History and Origins

A darker history details the use of slave labor in Britain’s Caribbean colonies as having allowed sugarcane to be cultivated and harvested at an impressive and inexpensive rate. The word “toffee” may be derived from the word “tafia,” a type of rum from West India. At the time, rum was being used to flavor toffee sweets. Others connect the term to Creole culture, in which a syrup made from molasses and sugar is called “toffee.”

Toffee Variations and Making Process

English toffee is among the most popular variations in the United States. But Americans eat a lot more butter crunch, which descended from toffee and brittle — one of the oldest candies in written history.

American toffee is made with a variety of nuts — typically almonds — whereas English and British toffees are made sans nuts. And brown sugar is used to make English toffee while granulated white sugar is used in butter crunch, giving the end result a lighter complexion.

Making toffee requires two simple ingredients: butter and sugar. They are cooked together in a pot at between 310 and 315 degrees F until they caramelize or reach what’s called the “hard crack stage.” The term refers to the highest temperature used in candy recipes. Candy makers take great care to ensure toffee isn’t burned or scorched, using a candy thermometer to consistently measure the temperature.

As the two ingredients come together, sweet, buttery aromas fill the room. A rapid pour of the molten candy onto a sheet allows the mix to set. Although made with butter, toffee should never feel or taste greasy. It should be comparable to a hardened version of caramel, though it is distinctly different because caramel is made with milk or cream and cooked at a lower temperature. Thick toffee should never be hard to bite into. While crunchy is standard, some toffees are soft and others are chewy.

American Classics

Toffee appears in many American classics like the Heath bar. This chocolate bar with a solid toffee core is available in most stores. Almond Roca, a popular butter crunch brand in the U.S., was introduced in Tacoma, Wash., in 1923. Today, you can find variations of this timeless treat influenced by cultures from around the world. This simple yet satisfying confection continues to evolve.