Friday, March 24, 2023
March 24, 2023

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Easy-to-make Christmas cracker toffee delicious — and a reminder to look for joy

The Columbian
5 Photos
Use up crackers and other goodies left over from holiday gatherings to make this festive Christmas Cracker toffee.
Use up crackers and other goodies left over from holiday gatherings to make this festive Christmas Cracker toffee. (Monika Spykerman/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

I don’t always love Christmas. There, I’ve said it. I might as well add that I don’t like Disneyland and I don’t instantly love every dog I meet. I think that’s the Grinchy Trifecta, right there, although even Grinch has his dog, Max. So I’m officially Grinchier than the Grinch.

Like many people, I’m prone to dark moods during December. (And January and February …) I love the Northwest but I do get the blahs after many consecutive gray days, when I suddenly become hyperaware of everything that feels wrong in my life. These wintry blues cover everything from past regrets and relationships to the hole in our dining room ceiling that still needs patching after plumbers punched through the drywall a year ago to fix a leaky shower upstairs.

Of course, I’m perfectly capable of being sad in July. Feelings ranging from mild discontent to inconsolable sorrow are part of the human condition in every season. I think that may be why people like dogs, because their relentless enthusiasm is a welcome counterbalance to our occasional gloom. Cats are shameless pleasure-seekers, too, but hardly anything is more entertaining that watching a dog absolutely lose its mind over a walk, a ride in the car, a belly rub or a piece of sausage under the table. Actually, those are all things that make me happy, too, except I prefer my sausage on top of the table, without the dust bunny chaser.

Maybe dogs do know the secret to a happy life, and it’s this: Look for the sausage under the table, because in the dark, shadowy places of life, there’s often a bit of unexpected joy. Keep your eyes open for anything to savor and then savor it like crazy — some little bit of pleasure, some glimpse of breathtaking beauty, some crack in the wall of sorrow that lets the light through or admits a tiny green tendril of growth. Watch out for the cracks.

Which naturally brings me to a cracking Christmas treat that you can make with leftover crackers. It’s fun to make, fun to eat and fun to share, so you’ll be spreading little bits of happiness all around like tinsel. A couple of years ago I shared a recipe for cracker toffee, aka “cracker crack” due to its addictive sweet-salty flavor. Let’s just say it’s probably best to put off your resolutions until next year.

Cracker toffee is traditionally made with saltines, a wonderfully salty foil for the other extremely sweet ingredients, but this time around, I raided my pantry in an effort to use up all the leftover bits that tend to pile up around the holidays: slightly stale graham crackers, half a sleeve of Ritz crackers, a few peanut butter crackers, candy canes, sticky mini-marshmallows, walnuts leftover from another recipe and four animal cookies. I also found several half-eaten dark chocolate bars, thanks to my chocoholic husband. I did feel bad about using up all his chocolate but sometimes sacrifices must be made (but not by me).

I hoped that mixing Ritz and peanut butter crackers with the graham crackers would balance the sweetness, especially with salted butter in the toffee. When I make this again, I’m going to include a tart element like dried cranberries or dried cherries, or maybe a slightly spicy element like crystallized ginger. Maybe I’ll sneak a dash of cayenne into the toffee, although that’s really living on the edge.

I covered half my Christmas crackers with walnuts and left the other half nut-free because my husband and daughter don’t generally like nuts, but they both happily ate the nutty toffee. “You can’t even taste the nuts with all the other good stuff,” quipped my husband. Sometimes I’m not sure if what he’s saying is exactly complimentary, but we’ll save that for another time.

Turn your oven to 400 degrees. Spread crackers on a regular-sized baking tray with raised edges so the toffee doesn’t spill over the sides. Break crackers apart and arrange them to fit any awkward holes. Don’t worry about small gaps because the toffee will fill them in. Next, melt two sticks of butter and 1 cup of packed brown sugar over medium-low heat and let it bubble, stirring constantly, for three minutes. Remove from the heat and pour over the crackers, making sure absolutely everything is covered. They might move around a bit in the pouring but that’s fine.

Put the tray in the oven and bake for five minutes, until the toffee is nice and bubbly. Take it out and let it cool for just a minute, then spread 2 cups of semi-sweet chocolate chips or bittersweet chocolate chunks over the top. Within about 50 seconds, the chocolate should have melted enough that you can spread it around with a spatula to get an even coating. (You can use milk chocolate or white chocolate, but I like the bitterness of dark chocolate against the sweetness of the toffee.) While the chocolate is still soft and melty, sprinkle on your toppings — crushed candy canes, nuts, dried fruits or what have you. I crushed animal cookies and tossed them on top for a little pink-and-white flair.

Allow everything to cool completely and cut into small diamonds with a pizza roller or crack it into chunks by hand. It breaks cleanly when it’s been chilled in the fridge a little bit, allowing the butter and chocolate to really solidify. Some recipes recommend lining the baking tray with parchment paper or foil for easy removal, but I’ve never had a problem getting it to pop right off the bare baking sheet.

As you munch your Christmas crackers, you might pick up a copy of Ross Gay’s “The Book of Delights,” a collection of brief essays about things that delighted the author. He wrote an essay nearly every day for a year about whatever lifted his spirits, from the mundane (a flower) to the profound (his relationship with his mother). In interviews about his book, Gay said that the practice of writing the essays changed his perspective because he was actively looking for delightful things and so he noticed more of them. As I hobble through my bout with the blues, I’m going to let each bite of Christmas cracker remind me to watch the cracks and find every single sausage under my table, unless my cat finds them first.

Christmas Crackers

1 package Graham crackers

Assorted other crackers for filler, like Ritz or saltines

1 cup butter (2 sticks)

1 cup packed brown sugar

2 cups bittersweet chocolate chunks or chips

Festive toppings (crushed candy canes, nuts, candied orange peel, crushed cookies)

Cover bottom of standard cookie sheet (must have raised edges) with single layer of crackers, breaking apart or tucking in as necessary. Melt butter with brown sugar and bring to boil for 3 minutes, then remove from heat and pour evenly over crackers, covering every bit. Place in 400-degree oven for five minutes, until bubbly. Remove and allow to cool for 1 minute, then pour chocolate chips or chunks evenly over the top. Allow to melt for 1 minute then spread evenly over the top with a spatula. Immediately sprinkle toppings over melted chocolate. Cool to room temperature or chill in fridge. Break into chunks or cut into diamonds with pizza cutter.