Shattered Sugar

Melanie Thernstrom tells how she was tempted to pilfer the best toffee recipe in the universe but found redemption in a different kind of sweet.


They said no. It was the first thing I'd asked my boyfriend's parents for, and I'd thought of it as a rhetorical request—more a compliment than a question. Surely they wanted to share the special English toffee recipe I had so nicely expressed admiration for? I was spending Christmas at their house in Massachusetts, for the first time, and I was anxious to make a good impression. So were they. We all seemed to be succeeding—at least until that moment.

"It's my special thing," my boyfriend's father said. "What would I have without toffee?" he joked—or at least I thought he was joking. I waited for him to tell me he wasn't serious. But he didn't.

Besides feeling hurt and confused, I was piqued; I actually wanted the recipe. Toffee draws on two qualities not usually associated with baking triumphs: It is burnt and it is broken. What makes toffee truly memorable is the way the butter and sugar (or maybe just the sugar) have been boiled past the point of pure sweetness. There's a fairy-tale surprise to the first taste of the shattered sugar. It's not bitter, certainly, but it carries the slightest suggestion of wintry darkness, like the walls of the witch's cottage.

That toffee had the perfect triad of textures: a crystalline burnt-sugar base, a coating of creamy semisweet chocolate and a light sprinkling of toasted almonds. Every Christmas my boyfriend's father made dozens of batches and sent them to friends, neighbors, colleagues and co-workers with notes written by his wife. A homemade sweet has a touching humility, an old-fashioned quality that's perfect for the Christmas season. "Although I'm a busy professional the rest of the year," it seems to say, "I took this time to cook for you." It's a personal gesture on the part of the giver, but it doesn't require a personal knowledge of the recipient's taste, so it suits both intimates and acquaintances.

When my boyfriend first brought me a tin of his father's toffee, I hid it behind some dusty vases on top of a kitchen cabinet. A great sweet has a hold on me, like the grip of bourbon or unfiltered cigarettes, but nicer—or sweeter, you might say. A longing for a sweet is such an innocent, easily satisfied desire. If you're overcome by temptation, you can tell yourself that you're just going to have a broken, burnt piece—the kind of thing you do with Christmas cookies. Of course, toffee is all burnt and broken, but when it's gone, you can always make more. Except in this case I couldn't.

The family had coveted the recipe themselves for a long time before they finally pried it out of their live-in babysitter, Jan, whose mother had given it to her and told her not to spread it around. Friends had asked for the recipe—which they'd adapted and improved—but they had always guarded their secret. Even their close friends had to settle for making Christmas toffee from their own recipe, which everyone knew was not nearly as good. (Their first mistake, my boyfriend said, was using the wrong brand of chocolate.)

The following May, we visited my boyfriend's parents to celebrate his father's retirement and announce our engagement. In the gaiety of the moment, I mentioned the secret toffee recipe again, and my future father-in-law intimated that after the wedding would be a more appropriate time to bring it up. The wedding was almost a year away. I bit my tongue.

A few nights later, my fiancé and I were sitting at the kitchen table while his parents tidied up. Tired and talked out, I sipped bourbon and idly flipped through a cookbook from Greenwich, Connecticut, where the family had lived when their son was a baby. And then I saw it: On two small scraps of paper, tucked between recipes for chipped and boiled beef, were penciled instructions: water, butter, sugar, salt, Nestlé chocolate chips...The Recipe.

I looked up, smiled at no one in particular, looked back down and memorized the ingredients. I continued to browse through the cookbook, periodically flipping back to the recipe to memorize the steps, which were few and simple. I got up and poured myself another bourbon in celebration.

"I found the recipe," I gloated when we finally went up to bed. "Do you want to hear it?" I recited it over and over against my fiancé's chest until we fell asleep.

I can't explain why I didn't write it down or think about the effect of alcohol on memory. I couldn't explain it to myself the next day, when, on the train home, I realized I no longer had the details right. Three and a half cups of water and two cups of sugar. Or was it two cups of butter? Water, sugar, butter. Three and a half and two—what?

I looked online, trying to jog my memory. None of the recipes I found seemed right—maybe it was my comeuppance for sneakiness. I'd get the recipe after the wedding, I reassured myself. But, as it happened, there was no wedding. By the following Thanksgiving, the engagement was over. "I'll still give you the toffee recipe," my ex-fiancé joked, one of the many sad, sweet jokes we made about all the things we'd still do for each other even though we weren't going to be life partners. But although we have kept our promises—he still edits my writing, and I still lend him my car—I still don't have my recipe.

"Neither do I," he said. He could get it, of course, but he didn't want to go against his parents' wishes. One day, he pledged, when the recipe passed to the next generation, it would be mine.

It seems a long time to wait.

When I e-mailed my best friend, Cynthia, to complain, I expected sympathy. "I agree with them," she replied, much to my surprise. "I regret giving away my Christmas biscotti recipe. I wish I'd had the courage to say no!" Cynthia, my most generous friend, never says no to anything. But she didn't find my boyfriend's parents' attitude strange; she thought it was prudent.

It isn't easy, she told me, to find "a reliable edible-gift recipe." Cookie-cutter cookies are pretty, but absurdly time-consuming and fraught with pitfalls; the tiny reindeer antlers snap off in the transfer from cookie sheet to rack, she pointed out, or Santa's thin mittens burn before his round tummy is golden.

Biscotti, on the other hand, look difficult to make but aren't. When Cynthia sent out her biscotti in antique Christmas candy tins she collected at flea markets, everyone thought she'd slaved in the kitchen—or possessed superior domestic powers. Or they did until she told everyone how easy it is to make biscotti and offered to show them how. By the next Christmas, biscotti were an obsolete gift. Teach a man to fish, and he won't buy a cow.

Since Cynthia's secret is out, I'm going to pass it on. Her recipe is adapted from the one for Almond Crunch Biscotti in Biscotti, Lou Seibert Pappas's delightful little cookbook. For Christmas, Cynthia adds shelled pistachios and dried cranberries, so the biscotti are studded with red and green, then drizzles them with melted white chocolate.

Cynthia used to tuck a handwritten copy of the recipe inside the tin, but you should not follow her example. When people ask how you made the biscotti you sent them for the holidays, smile and stay silent. They'll think you can't be serious. They'll try to re-create your recipe and fail. They'll argue that the beauty of a recipe is its communal nature and that refusing to share it is contrary to the Christmas spirit. They'll complain to all your mutual friends. When the gift box arrives next year, they'll taste the treat with a pleasure cut by envy and rich with resentment. But since bittersweet is the most interesting sweet, they'll never tire of it, and you can give it to them forever and ever.

Melanie Thernstrom is the author, most recently, of Halfway Heaven: Diary of a Harvard Murder.

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