Kate Coffey of Chocolate Twist calls herself the Queen of the Twist. Pastry Chef, Chocolatier, and Confectioner all sound too stuffy to her. We call her a wizard -- whose medium of choice is sugar.
This magician’s turf is suburban Illinois. With her staff of three and her mom, who works two to five days a week and always comes with hot lunch for the crew, Kate crafts caramels and other confections with ingredients you wouldn’t expect: balsamic vinegar, dill, mint, peas, wine, pretzels, beer, and burnt toast. “We don’t take ourselves too seriously here,” Kate acknowledged, but the flavors aren’t intended just to shock -- these caramels actually taste good. Folks in the office described the beer-pretzel caramels as the right combination of sweet, salty, buttery, and melty and the burnt toast flavor as crunchy yet ooey-gooey -- and the only acceptable way to eat burnt toast.
Terry Coffey (a.k.a Queen Mum); beer-pretzel caramels.
Sticking some burnt toast in hot caramel does not a good caramel make, however. Incorporating such bizarre ingredients takes some expertise (Kate is a wizard, remember?). She knew making beer-pretzel caramels was possible -- others had done so successfully before her. So she tried to make them lots of different ways: She thickened the beer with cornstarch before putting it in the caramel. She tried agar-agar too, but the beer flavor still wouldn’t pop. One day, she poured an entire can of beer into a batch, just to see what would happen. And it turns out, simpler was better. A whole can of local Finch’s beer is part of Kate’s winning beer-pretzel caramel formula.
The pretzels posed a different problem: Putting them straight into the caramel resulted in mushy pretzels. She tried using pretzel chips, but they added too much grease to an already oily situation. She became friends with the people at Gnarly Knots, based nearby in the little town of Winfield, Illinois. Gnarly Knots started drying slices of leftover soft Bavarian pretzels for Kate. These salt- and oil-free chips were indeed the missing link in Kate’s beer-pretzel caramels because they packed an unadulterated pretzel flavor. Each caramel gets a generous sprinkle of pretzel chips on top, so there’s a pretzel piece in every bite. Kate thinks the final formula “is pretty kick ass, if I do say so myself.” We tend to agree.
Burnt toast caramel may be a harder sell to some, but burnt toast is special to Food52: It was one of the original names for the site, and it’s now the name of our new podcast (listen to the first episode below!). We found a fellow burnt toast fan in Kate -- she likes toast that’s not black, but rather just too brown for her kids to eat, with some butter. We like it crumbled in her caramels.
The idea for burnt toast caramels came to Kate while she took a little staycation for a few days earlier this year --she was in an Airbnb on the couch in pajamas with every magazine and cookbook she’d never had the time to read. She saw in Saveur that burnt toast was the next big thing, which was almost enough to end her getaway early.
Right when she got back to candy land, she over-toasted a stale loaf of whole wheat bread and added its crumbs to the top of caramel. It wasn’t quite the caramel of her dreams yet. The answer? Salted caramel, bigger crumbs of toast -- and even more burnt toast, because, as Kate explained, “When you burn whole wheat bread, you get a really nice nutty flavor. There are almost some caramel undertones...but maybe I’m getting too philosophical with it.”
Speaking of burnt toast, listen to the first episode of our podcast, named Burnt Toast, right here:
First image by Alpha Smoot; next two courtesy of Kate Coffey; and last two by James Ransom.