I wish I was better at saving the things that really matter, or at least really matter to me. During my senior year of high school, I was asked to write a paper on one person, other than a parent, who had shaped me as a person. Even at 18, as unformed as I was, there was a clear winner, my Grandma S. I can still remember the comments of my teacher, who knew my grandma, on how well I had captured Grandma’s and my similarities. I wish I could read the words I wrote then, but it was back in the early days of floppy discs and I could very well have typed it on a word processor (boy that ages me) and the hard copy got tossed with all the other papers at graduation. That Grandma S. shaped who I am is truer today than ever and today is her 90th birthday.
My grandma’s influence on my life began early, from giving me my first baby doll to taking me to mass. My parents moved us to a home just one mile from my Grandma’s when I was 2 years old and from then on a weekend rarely passed that we didn’t do something together. Up to the 4th grade, I passed her daily at school. Our weekends often included some shopping, catching a show (movie or live theater), and 5 o’clock mass before heading home. To this day I can’t go shopping without her in my head, reminding me to pick the one with the cutest face or noticing that there is just nothing new under the sun.
I don’t remember Grandma being much of a cook. She was more likely to assemble food, like pancake faces, than make a big meal. After she retired and moved back to the city to live with my Aunt when I was 12, we would often get together for lunch and shopping. I’m not sure what prompted it but after one such trip, she hauled out her cookbook. It was funny to hear her refer to many of the recipes as “funeral food” which meant that someone brought that item, with the recipe, to my grandpa’s funeral so long ago. That day I discovered a little known recipe in her stack that has become a holiday staple in our house, English Toffee. My edits are in parenthesis.
½ pound oleo (I use butter)
1 cup white sugar
3 Tbsp water
I start by slowly melting the butter & water until all the butter is liquid. Add the sugar and stir until it no longer feels grainy. Turn up the heat and cook together, stirring constantly until light brown. (please use a candy thermometer to reach 300° or you could miss the color and end up with a buttery mess of sugar when it gets too hot and separates again, trust me, I’ve done it.)
Pour into large, buttered tin. (I spread parchment paper on my counter and spread directly on there) Place 4 or 5 Hershey’s bars on top while hot and spread as it melts. (I use chocolate chips because they melt faster and spread easier). Sprinkle with nuts. (or not, or try sea salt, yum) Allow to cool then break apart. I almost always double this recipe when I make it. I also add a splash of vanilla when I remove it from the heat, stir it in quickly and then pour it onto the parchment. Be careful when pouring and spreading, this is hot hot hot! I’ve had Christmas blisters to show for it.
Beginning that year and every year since, I have made multiple batches of this toffee to gift all the people in our life, from teachers to bus drivers, aides to mail carriers, including a little bag for Grandma on her birthday. Even those without a sweet tooth will enjoy a little and share the rest with others.