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British Candy That Bites You Back

The toffee gets its deep color and flavor from a molasses-based syrup.
The toffee gets its deep color and flavor from a molasses-based syrup. (By James M. Thresher For The Washington Post)
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By Rebecca Koffman
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 22, 2008; Page F07

Treacle toffee -- black, shiny and addictive -- is dangerous. It fastens viselike around the teeth. Making it is an adventure: In its heavy pot, it seethes like tar or crude oil, and its strong mineral smell rapidly fills the house.

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When poured and set, the toffee has the hard gloss of obsidian. It tastes like a bonfire at midnight. Give a piece to a beginner: Notice the involuntary widening of the eyes, the instant of confusion -- is this horror or delight? -- as the rich, smoky taste floods the mouth. That first wave of dark sweetness is scary.

Black treacle is a molasses-based syrup widespread in Britain and its former colonies. It is thicker and slower-moving than light molasses, with a complex flavor that is markedly less sweet. But it is not as daunting as blackstrap molasses. While excellent in gingerbreads, Christmas puddings and glazes for meat, it is in treacle toffee, to my mind, that black treacle attains its highest purpose.

My mother, who is from Lancashire, made it every year for Guy Fawkes Night, an annual celebration in England to commemorate the foiling of a plot by Guy Fawkes and other conspirators to blow up the houses of Parliament on Nov. 5, 1605. It's a night of bonfires and fireworks, traditionally accompanied, in the north of England, by sausages, jacket (baked) potatoes and, of course, treacle toffee.

We lived in South Africa, and every year at the beginning of November, Lyle's Black Treacle in its shiny red-and-gold tin would appear on the kitchen counter. The toffeemaking was an occasion. My mother would turn to the recipe in her battered 1960 edition of the "Good Housekeeping Cookery Book," and we would begin. My friends and I leaned over the pot, inhaling the dark treacle and repeatedly dropping small spoonfuls of boiling toffee into a saucer of water to see if it formed a ball. After it set, we cracked the toffee with a small hammer and wrapped each jagged piece in greaseproof paper. Then, pockets stuffed full, we went out to the back yard to help build the bonfire. Fireworks burn more brightly when your mouth is full of buttery toffee.

After I moved to the States and married an American, Halloween became my favorite holiday. I like everything about it except the candy corn, and last year it occurred to me that treacle toffee and Halloween were made for each other. My lucky children were in for a treat.

Or perhaps not. As that familiar long-lost fragrance wafted through the house, my son and daughter ran up to their bedrooms to escape. "Mom, that smell is making me want to throw up" is not the reaction I was aiming for. They were afraid to taste the toffee. Neither of them got through a whole piece. My husband -- "I've never really been into toffee" -- watched me tear precisely measured squares of wax paper to wrap the toffees, inquiring mildly if this wasn't all a little futile.

I was saved by the appearance of our neighbor (a grown-up). He bit into the toffee, looked briefly alarmed and came down squarely on the side of delight. "More," he demanded. "More now, please." He left with his pockets bursting.

Try it if you dare.

Freelance writer Rebecca Koffman lives in Portland, Ore. She is hoping to win more converts to treacle toffee this Halloween.


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