O. Tama says…
Most cultures have some form of toffee, fudge or caramel in their repertoire. This recipe is my version of the one found in Sri Lanka – milk toffee, which I learned from my Nan. Milk toffee isn’t one of the sticky ones, it’s a little more fudge-like, with a crumbly texture. Some versions can be quite hard, others a little softer. Cashews are sometimes but not always added, and I add a spice mix and a generous sprinkle of salt in mine. Traditionally milk toffee is made by first slowly reducing milk; however, most modern versions use condensed milk.
As a young child, I was a notoriously fussy eater. I didn’t really care for food despite my family on both sides being excited eaters and cooks. They all loved eating and cooking, and endlessly talked about food. Little did I know at the time, this culture of eating would come in handy later in life when I found myself becoming a chef by accident.
My dad’s family is Australian and from that side I remember my Nana cooking glorious roast dinners – baked potatoes were one of my favourites – and making her own ice creams, breads and pastry. There were also very fine lemon tarts and delicious cheese scones.
My mum’s family is Sri Lankan, and I grew up eating this food too, although less often. Mum would have excellent dinner parties and spend days creating labour‑intensive feasts. My job was frying the pappadums which, like baked potatoes, were always the exception to my fussy-eating rule. My mum’s family all lived in Perth, and I grew up in Adelaide, which meant family visits were rare. But when I did get to go to my Nan’s house there was always a tin of milk toffee. I loved its sweet, crumbling nature, and I would always ask for more. The best thing would be when we would receive a parcel from my Nan in the post: love cake for my mum, another excellent Sri Lankan sweet, and milk toffee for me, a little travel-worn and shaken, but very delicious nonetheless.
Lanka Food: Serendipity & Spice by O. Tama Carey is out now.
Makes 52 Squares
2 x 395g tins condensed milk
400g caster sugar
220g butter, diced
5g sweet spice mix
Sweet Spice Mix
4g salt flakes
2g white peppercorns
2g star anise
2g cinnamon quill, roughly crushed
2g freshly grated nutmeg
2g cardamom seeds
1g whole clove (go a little under rather than over with this measure if needed)
Preheat the oven to 150°C.
For the sweet spice mix, combine all the spices and grind to a fine powder. Set aside 5g and store the remainder in an airtight container.
Spread out the cashews on a baking tray and toast for 15-20 minutes until they are uniformly pale golden, giving them a jiggle every 5 minutes to ensure they are cooking evenly. Set aside to cool, then very roughly chop.
Line a rectangular cake tin (28cm x 18cm) with baking paper.
Place the cashews, condensed milk, sugar, butter and spice mix in a wide-based saucepan and stir over a high heat until melted and combined. A wooden spoon is fine but a heatproof spatula is better.
Reduce the heat to low and keep stirring, gently and evenly, as it can catch very easily. It will take about 20 minutes to cook. It’s ready when it darkens and you start to see patches that look a little foamy.
Carefully turn out the mix into the prepared tin and spread it out evenly with your spatula, gently pressing it down as you go. Tap the tin firmly on a hard surface a few times to compress the mixture a little and make it easier to cut. Finish with a nice sprinkle of salt flakes and gently press them down with the spatula.
Allow to cool to room temperature, then turn out the toffee slab and cut it into 3cm squares. A ruler is a helpful tool here if you want to be precise. You may find that bits crumble off but that’s okay. If it’s too hard and crumbly it can be a sign that you have cooked it a little too much; if it doesn’t set to firm, the mix is slightly undercooked.
Milk toffee can be stored at room temperature for up to a month.