I do love a culinary challenge. This is in complete contrast to how I behave in normal life where I dwell firmly and resolutely within my comfort zone. You won’t, for example, catch me in the gym doing anything that has a description including the words ‘high’ and ‘intensity’. My crosstrainer will never breach level 8; the very thought of a spin class makes me feel peaky. Nor am I likely to ever book a skiing holiday, stand for parent governor or, in my right mind (in which I clearly wasn’t when I embarked on Anna for-the-love-of-God-how-many-more-pages Karenina), choose to read a novel more than 278 pages long.
In the kitchen, however, it is quite a different story, quite possibly because here there is no risk of broken legs, playground heckling or feelings of intellectual inadequacy – the worst that can happen when things don’t go well is that dinner ends up in the bin. So a recipe tagged ‘requires a little effort’ will pique my interest, while one that warns of long-winded, complex processes with a high probability of failure will have me rolling up my sleeves proclaiming: BRING. IT. ON . Ergo, I spent several days curing my own salt beef, several weeks mastering the art of the French macaron, and several months attempting to achieve a sourdough that has both those big waxy holes and a burnished crispy crust.
Being part perfectionist, part nerd, I will often try out a handful of different recipes and practice over and over in a demented fashion until I get it right. Once I have it nailed, I allow myself to feel a little triumphant, dare I say, smug – that is until one or t’other of my brood pisses on my parade by complaining the bread’s too sour or they never much cared for macarons.
But what I fail to do with any consistency, despite years of practice, is melt sugar. Whether it be making fudge (which I have been doing for about three years, ever since I read that it was really tricky), homemade toffee or a caramel for a tarte tatin, I only ever achieve about a 50% hit rate. Don’t ask me why – sometimes it just doesn’t want to work.
Take this almond brittle I made last week. Adapted from a recipe I found on Nigella’s website, this confection is essentially a homemade Daim bar. What’s not to love? Except I burnt the first batch, crystallized the second and took the third to the edge of what could be reasonably classed as edible on account of its bitterness. (Tip: never, in a rage, tip your molten failure directly into your bin, especially one made of plastic, as you will end up melting a hole not only in the bin bag, but probably the bin itself, and will have to spend the best part of an afternoon chiselling a solidified clump of sugar swimming in noxious bin juice from your bin drawer. Not nice. (Some of you may remember the bin drawer and I have form.))
When I did eventually to get the caramel to work (don’t ask me how), it was indeed delicious. But with all that money thrown down the drain on wasted sugar and butter (don’t literally throw your failed attempts down the drain either – you will get a blockage) I could have bought at least a dozen equally yummy bars from the sweet shop.
Which is precisely what I suggest you do.
Homemade Daim bars
If I haven’t already put you off and you do attempt this, I advise you to do so with the patience of a saint. It takes an age for the sugar to dissolve, but if you boil it before it has, you risk ending up with a crystallized mass. You have been warned…
Makes a lot
- 275g caster sugar (the white stuff, not the fancy golden kind)
- 100g butter
- 50g golden syrup
- 100g finely chopped blanched almonds
- 1 tsp vanilla bean paste or extract
- 1 tsp fine sea salt
- 100-150g melted chocolate of your choice
- Melt sugar, butter and syrup in a heavy bottomed pan, stirring continuously over a low heat until the sugar has completely dissolved. Check for crystals on the back of a spoon. This takes FOREVER (or about 25 minutes).
- Bring to the boil and cook until a sugar thermometer reads 150°C, making sure it is not catching on the bottom of the pan by giving it an occasional stir.
- Take off heat and add chopped nuts, vanilla and salt and stir to combine.
- Pour on to baking parchment and spread out, then place another piece of parchment over the top and using a rolling pin, roll out as thinly as possible. It will be as hot as LAVA so be careful. Leave to set.
- Melt chocolate in a bowl over a pan of barely simmering water, then drizzle over the brittle à la Jackson Pollock. Leave to set in fridge before breaking into shards.
Warning: Not suitable for those with nut allergies or teens with braces (oops).