blended, sweetly

toffee square, on flowered plate

Even under the best of circumstances, divorce isn't very appetizing. In fact, it can be downright tasteless. I'm not referring to the heartache and tears, but to the actual food involved when, say, your dad moves into a gloomy apartment with green shag carpeting and serves up foil-wrapped
Pop-Tarts® for breakfast.

But life wasn't all bad. Dad had tuna fish and egg salad nailed, and could fry up a flawless birdie in the nest. Then there were -and still are - Dad's grilled cheese sandwiches: whole wheat bread, sharp cheddar, sliced tomato, and Dijon mustard. It is this perfect, just-so combination that prevents me from ordering grilled cheese when I'm out. I know it wouldn't be the same, and I don't take well to disappointment.

Dad also made pancakes. He used a mix, but so what? Taste didn't much matter since the eating was merely an afterthought. The main event was the pancake sculpture that Dad would fry up and flip onto our plates. Wielding a spatula and a ladleful of batter, Dad would build one masterpiece after another. First came a few typical-looking pancakes as a warm-up. Next, Dad would set out to pour and cook the largest, and then the smallest, pancakes possible. Dad liked to get creative. Once, he ladled out a pancake face with batter-y bean-shaped ears. I gave it blueberry eyes, a strawberry nose, a maple-syrup smile, and raspberry earrings. Ooo la la. My favorite piece was The Graduated Tower, a stack that began on the plate with an enormous, floppy round, and reached to the sky, one Bisquick®-y circle after another, each pancake slightly smaller than the one beneath it. At the tippy-top lay a tiny speck of a pancake that I would delicately chomp with my front teeth in a single crunch. Our pancake breakfasts were not served, but curated on our plates.

When Dad brought Amy into our lives, the kitchen brightened, to say the least. Amy had just left a first-marriage of her own, but she dared not leave behind the tastiest morsel of her not-so-tasty union: the recipes from her ex-mother-in-law, Vella. One night last week during my visit home, we sat around the kitchen table paging through Amy's tattered recipe file. A sheet of Vella's yellowed stationery caught my eye. It was the recipe for her toffee squares.

toffee squares, boxed

We baked up a pan the next day. Though Amy's first husband may not have been a keeper, this recipe sure is. In the short time that I've been home in Cambridge, dear ones, I have churned out not one but two batches of these addictive little squares to share with friends and neighbors.

With its press-in crust and confetti of chocolate that is kind enough to melt itself over the just-baked bottom, this recipe is simple as can be. No muss, no fuss. And aren't they pretty? Theirs is the kind of no-nonsense, natural beauty to which I aspire: a little sweet, a little salty, elegant enough, yet pony-tail approachable. It's an honest beauty I'm after, and I could do much worse than to follow the example of these comely squares. Each one of the ingredients shines through. A sheet of fine chocolate stretches over the buttered, brown-sugar bed, and a sprinkling of toasted pecans tops it all off. I think you'll find these toffee squares straightforwardly delicious.

As you know, I have a special place in my heart for recipes that come to me by way of meandering genealogies. I delight in announcing, "This recipe is from my step-mom's ex-mother-in-law." Ha! That is one fun statement. Sounds a little transgressive, even, doesn't it? I can't help but smile at the twisted, forbidden path that brought Vella's toffee squares to me, her son's ex-wife's second husband's oldest daughter. These rich, tasty treats are a far cry from the cardboard-like Pop-Tarts® and tacky shag carpet of Dad's first solo apartment. I like to think of each bite as further proof that, when it comes right down to it, my family is blended in the sweetest sense of the word.

two toffee bars on a plate

[Special thanks to guest photographer, Dad.}

Toffee Squares
from Vella, adapted by me

Don't be misled by the name of these squares. The toffee in this title is not the crunchy candy stuff. It's that same toffee flavor transposed onto buttery bars. I like to splurge on 70% Scharffen-Berger chocolate for this recipe. You'll notice that the amount of chocolate listed is approximate. From a 9.7 oz. baking bar of Scharffen-Berger, I use two of the five rectangles, which is just under 4 ounces. A standard bar of chocolate is typically between 3 and 3.5 ounces. You can take your pick. I've added a bit of salt to Vella's recipe to accent the sweetness of the squares. I have a hunch that an additional light sprinkling of coarse salt over the nuts while the chocolate is hardening would be divine. If you give the added salt a shot, do let me know how it turns out!

1/2 lb (2 sticks) butter
1 c. brown sugar
1 egg yolk
1 t. vanilla
2 c. flour
1/4 t. salt
3 -4 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1.5 c. pecans, toasted and chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Cream together the butter and brown sugar. Mix in the egg yolk, vanilla, and salt, and then the flour. Press the dough evenly into an ungreased 9x13 inch pan. Bake for 20-25 minutes until lightly golden.

Remove the baked crust from the oven, and immediately sprinkle with the chopped chocolate. Using a rubber spatula, spread the melting chocolate in a thin layer over the entire crust. Sprinkle the chopped pecans over the top, and allow to cool slightly.

Cut into squares while still warm. (A pizza cutter helps me slice evenly. Oh, and be sure to grab a taste of one of the crusty corners while they're warm.) Remove squares to a rack to cool. Allow to cool completely, until the chocolate is set.

Makes 30-40 squares, depending on how small you slice them.

Amy assures me that the squares freeze and thaw out beautifully, and that they're actually quite yummy directly from the freezer.


Sara said...

Jess - I love your blog, these look delicious! I tend to veer towards bar cookie recipes because they taste great and aren't as time consuming as baking multiple batches of cookies.

Lo said...

These look delicious, and the fact that they come with such a great story makes them even better! YUM.

Jess said...

Hi, Sara
Thanks so much for stopping by! I know what you mean about cookie baking. All of that cookie sheet juggling can easily eat up an evening. I also prefer preparing treats that need not be baked in batches.

And hi, Lo
It's a pleasure meeting you. For me, the life and relationships surrounding the food are just as delicious as the food itself! Thanks so much for reading.

Zahavah said...

yum yum yum. when can i taste?????

Kevin said...

Those toffee squares look really good!

Jess said...

Zahava - I'll let you know when I make the next batch.

Thanks for your note, Kevin. Yes, they are delicious.

Meseidy said...

These look delicious! I love pecans and toffee so these are perfect! I also love the photo. I am a wannabe food stylist.:)

Jess said...

Thanks, Meseidy, for stopping by and leaving such a kind note!

Yaffa said...

Yum! I just have a question... what is a galette? I am a little new to baking as my mom is strictly a cooker, so I am a little lost in this sea of new words deemed baking worthy. So if you would be so kind as to tell me what shortening means and how do you cream something together? Sorry I am just a little out of my depth here.

Jess said...

Yaffa, you are the sweetest little cousin-in-law ever.

A galette is a free-form, crusty pastry filled with either sweet or savory ingredients.

Shortening is a kind of fat. It can be animal or vegetable based. I use a brand called Spectrum.

"Creaming" is just the blending together of, for example, sugar and butter, until the combined ingredients are smooth and, well, creamy.

Yaffa said...

yay! now it makes sense!
Thanks Jess!

Anonymous said...

Gave a light sprinkling of kosher salt....delish. Thanks for sharing this recipe!