Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Tops in Toffee

Nilda Molina Miller’s quest for perfection in confection

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
Brava magazine, January 2008
Column: Around the Table

Recipe: Chocolate Caramel

The kitchen thermometer. That was the revolutionary tool that candy makers of the 19th century used to unlock the secrets of plain table sugar, which can break down and reform into hundreds of variously flavored and textured molecular compounds. It all depends on precisely how far it’s heated and how it’s handled as it cools, and you need a thermometer -- and a dependable stovetop -- to manage that.

In fact, just about all the sweets we’re familiar with today are Industrial Revolution-era inventions: caramel, fudge, fondant, peanut brittle, peppermint drops, taffy, butterscotch. And then there’s toffee, that toothsome marriage of flame-hot butter and sugar beloved by the British since at least 1825, yet nearly unknown in the States outside the occasional tooth-defying encounter with the rocky slab at the core of a Heath bar.

Local chocolatier Nilda Molina Miller is busting down that particular bonbon barrier with the homemade toffees she sells at the cafĂ© she opened a year and a half ago on E. Johnson Street, in the historic string of storefronts at the intersection with North Street. Unlike what she calls the stereotypical “teeth-breaking” English toffee, her chocolate-coated specialties are browned-buttery rich, with a decisive crunch that collapses pleasantly into a crumbly play of complex, nutty shades of sweetness.

Originally from Chicago, Nilda spent several years as a police officer with the City of Madison, but she yearned “to do something creative and possibly make a career out of it.” After getting a thorough grounding in the science and art of modern confectionary through Ecole Chocolat, an online professional school located in Vancouver, B.C., Nilda began tinkering with toffees, striving to create the ultimate, buttery, crunchy, melt-in-your-mouth treat.

Today Nilda’s Chocolates features a complete line of toffees, along with chocolate truffles and bar chocolate, all individually handmade by Nilda herself. Customers can take home wrapped treasures or enjoy them on the spot with a cup of coffee or tea in the cozy interior of this Art Nouveau-era shop done up in shades of -- what else? -- chocolate and toffee.

VVK: How did you get interested in toffee?

NMM: I always loved toffee as a child and I knew I wanted it to be one of my signature chocolates. I wanted to concentrate on creating a chocolate that wasn’t common in other local chocolate stores.

VVK: How has the Madison reception to toffee been?

NMM: The response has been amazing. Part of the experience is educating customers on toffee if they've never had it before. But the deal sealer is giving them samples! There's nothing like seeing a customer’s reaction for the first time when they bite into a toffee.

VVK: How do you get your toffee to come out the way it does?

NMM: It's the ingredients, and the way that I cook it. Exactly how is a secret. I worked on it a long time! Once I established my base recipe, I was able to add other flavors to come up with my line of toffee, currently nine different flavors.

VVK: What's your favorite item?

NMM: The “Nina Blues” toffee. A dark, slightly intense chocolate surrounds the toffee, which is combined with dried blueberries from Door County and roasted cocoa nibs. It goes well with a cup of coffee and it reminds me of me -- dark, slightly intense and complex!

VVK: Your family is from Puerto Rico. Does that culinary heritage contribute to the sweets and candies you make?

NMM: To a certain extent. I like to use spices that are used in Puerto Rican dishes -- anise, cinnamon, coconut milk, pineapple and mango. I also look at some of the dessert dishes as inspiration for coming up with a new flavor, or name for my chocolates. One of my truffles is called “Cafe Con Leche.” It’s a milk chocolate ganache flavored with freshly brewed coffee, dipped in milk chocolate, and sprinkled with bits of coffee beans. The “Caribbean Goddess” truffle is made with a Venezuelan dark chocolate. Instead of the traditional cream, I use coconut milk in the ganache and combine it with bits of dried pineapple and mango.

VVK: What's your favorite thing about what you do?

NMM: I get to create chocolates and make a living from it!

Chocolate Caramel

Recipe from Tops in Toffee: Nilda Molina Miller’s quest for perfection in confection
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
Brava magazine, January 2008
Column: Around the Table

Caramel is cooked at a high enough temperature that the crystals of its cane, corn and milk sugars break apart -- “caramelize” -- and reform as toasty brown, creamy goodness. It’s an easier project for the home cook than toffee, which cooks far hotter.

1 cup unsalted butter
2 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup light corn syrup
14 oz. sweetened condensed milk
2 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Add sugar and salt. Stir thoroughly. Add corn syrup. Stir. Gradually add milk and stir until all ingredients are mixed well. Add chocolate, stirring constantly until completely melted. Continue to let the mixture come to a boil, stirring constantly. You may have to wash down the sides of the saucepan with a pastry brush dipped in water to prevent the sugar from crystallizing.

Place a candy thermometer in the pan and cook until it reaches about 246-248° F (the “firm ball” stage), depending on how firm you like your caramel. Remove the pan from the stove and stir in the vanilla extract. Pour the caramel into a baking pan lined with parchment paper, allowing extra paper to fold over the sides of the pan. Cool to room temperature. Lift the parchment paper with the caramel out of the pan. Cut the caramel into squares and enjoy as is, or dip them in the chocolate of your choice.