"Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first." Whoever first uttered those words was wise, indeed. In the sweet spirit of Top Chef's dessert-only challenge series, Chow Bella's treating you to a profile of a Valley dessert chef each week. This week's a two-for-one with the ladies of GoodyTwos Toffee Company. Enjoy!
Mother-daughter duo Donna Gabrilson, above right, and Stacey Barnes blend their traditional and modern styles to make some not-so-innocent toffees at GoodyTwos Toffee Company. One part old school and one part you-have-to-taste-it-to-believe-it twists means some seriously light-hearted toffee genius (that earned our stamp of approval).
The playful pair's company titles couldn't be more fitting: Grabrilson, the toffee monarch, is "Miss Chief" and Barnes, the "double trouble" daughter, is "Miss Chevious." Together, they've whipped up toffees that please both ends of the spectrum from naughty to nice and cooked up some "Crunchy Truths" that we'd totally live by, i.e. "A balanced diet is a piece of toffee in both hands."
Barnes says Gabrilson has always loved to cook and bake from scratch: "I've always have had fresh - no fast food or boxed ingredients," Barnes says. "Mom has been making toffee every holiday season, and so I of course couldn't wait 'til December came because that was toffee time."
Gabrilson learned to make toffee as a child on her grandparents farm in Iowa. She also says she learned early on to see any problem as an opportunity from her late '80s boss and mentor: "I'd say, 'Barry, I have a problem.' 'What's your opportunity?' would always be his response."
In 2003, she turned her problematic divorce into an opportunistic toffee venture. Family and friends had been telling Gabrilson for years that her Iowa-farm-family-recipe toffee would be a hot seller, but she jumped on the famers' market circuit first just to be sure.
"What better way to get a feel whether there is a real customer base?" Gabrilson asks. "Can you really trust family members and friends?"
Barnes jokes that she had "bigger dreams" for her mom's tentative foray into toffee and joined Gabrilson as a business partner in 2007. The two began inventing new flavors, opened a storefront in 2008 and rebranded themselves as GoodyTwos (formerly Market Street Toffee) in 2009.
Today, the duo talk toffee sans sugar coating: flavor experiments gone awry, the trick to making good toffee, their farmers' market indulgences, and the next flavor out of the kitchen.
Just a head's up: Gabrilson's responses are in normal text and Barnes' are in italics.
Any recipe experiments that have gone totally awry? Pistachio. We couldn't keep them from scorching. We use raw nuts in the syrupy batter, and the batter will roast the nuts, but the pistachios just became bitter. Yeah, that one was really disappointing.
Most unusual flavor? We did a bacon toffee. We had a lot of people talking about wanting a bacon toffee and doing the smoky, sweet that goes in there, and a little saltiness. We just haven't experimented much on that route. Whatever we come up with -- right now we have seven toffees -- and number seven is absolutely just as good as the traditional toffee, which is number one. If we come up with 25 toffees, number 25 has to stand right up there with traditional. The bacon toffee was okay, but it wasn't WOW. Cinnfully Hazelicious is Saigon cinnamon, hazelnuts and a little Frangelico, and it's just incredible. Not everyone is going to like all the toffees we have, but whatever ones they are, they have to be good enough for the people who are going to appreciate the complex flavors in there.
What's the criteria for a toffee to make the selling floor?The delicate texture has to be there. It can't break your teeth, but it's not chewy. And that WOW factor.
What's the trick to making good toffee? Starting with pure ingredients: just simple butter and sugar. The trick is bringing it up to just the right temperature. And then we add the just-ground nuts, and the nuts roast in the batter. I think it's the hand stirring. When you mass-produce toffee, you're not able to take it up to certain temperature. But when you hand-stir it in small batches, you can monitor and maintain it. A lot of times, toffee will be lighter in color and sweeter in flavor, because it's mass produced. Ours is a little deeper, more robust in flavor, and that's because it's stirred in small batches by hand. That's our signature. Made with love. All those batches that mom stirs!
Any kitchen disasters? Of course! Are you kidding? During the holidays when it's insane, we're going at least 45 days straight. It's crazy. We got a batch of bad nuts. I think they were stored improperly. The almonds weren't crisp; they were limp. When I bit into the toffee after it was all cooled, the texture was completely off. And we had a complete rack filled with probably about 120 pounds of toffee, and we had to throw it all away. When we get our almonds now, we bite into them whole to make sure it has that crunch, because if it doesn't, it's a batch of bad nuts! And the other one was during the holidays, too. We coated one side with chocolate and nuts for the Traditional toffee and the other with dark chocolate and white chocolate drizzle for the Double-Crossed. Of course, we were the only ones working at the time. We were just slaphappy at that point. Amazingly that's the only time it's happened. That was funny, though.
What's your favorite stop at the farmers' markets? All the vendors laugh, because we rarely get to get to any of them because we're all working so hard! There are those almond croissants. Oh, from Essence Bakery. YES! I make sure we have time to get that, because that's our breakfast, before we start, this is at the Old Town Farmers' Market. Their croissants are to die for! The almond ones are so good! And Cotton Country Jams and Jellies. She just has the best jams and jellies and pickles and beet, and it's all the old-fashioned way. They have all the old canning jars and the big blue enamel broilers. And Bob McClendon. It wouldn't be a farmers' market without Bob.
What's the farthest place you've shipped your toffee? Hmm... It's gone to Japan, Australia and Europe. Which is farther?
What's your favorite tool in the kitchen? That's a tough one... Mom? I don't know. Our pots are copper-lined, which is necessary to conduct the heat evenly, otherwise the toffee burns. And the Cuisinart to chop all our nuts to go into the batter freshly ground. Otherwise we'd have to do that by hand. And my silicone spatulas; there's nothing that will stick to this spatula. Thank God for silicone! And the tempering machines for the Belgian chocolate we use to coat our toffees. You have to temper chocolate to keep it from blooming, which means it gets a white film on the top. But we could chop our nuts by hand and temper by hand if we needed to, but it'd be a lot of work. It has to be the pots and spatulas.
What's always in the kitchen at home? We're really never home anymore. Back when we had time to cook, what did we have mom?The staples: Butter, sugar and eggs. The real staple I think about now is olive oil. You need a good bottle of olive oil, like Queen Creek Olive Oil. And their balsamic vinegar.
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What's your secret ingredient? One of the greatest ingredients we have is no humidity. We have the perfect climate to make candy in Arizona. If there's humidity in the air, you literally can't make a brittle toffee, which is why we have two dehumidifiers.
Is there anything you would never put in toffee? Probably corn syrup, because I wouldn't want to put anything to compromise the quality. Walnuts. They tend to be bitter - especially black walnuts; they're way too bitter and too oily. That's why our Nutty Twist has both macadamia nuts and almonds, because too much oil doesn't allow the toffee to set up right. We've tried toffees with walnuts and uh-uh,it's not a good balance. Plus, I really don't like them.
What's the next toffee out of the kitchen? Probably a dark chocolate orange citrus toffee. Or a chai toffee, because our customers keep asking for one. The test kitchen is always going on in our heads, every day we're in here working. We're looking forward to experimenting more. That's the fun part.
Are you taking suggestions? Yes, definitely.