Sunday, September 4, 2011

The eighth deadly sin: English toffee pie

This recipe is one that I have sought for pretty close to four decades now, and at last I am satisfied. 

Back in college, my  good buddy Pammy and I would often get intense cravings for the Yum Yum Tree's English Toffee Pie, and nothing else would do but to pile into my decrepit Datsun and answer the call for this divine fat bomb. The memory of this pie stayed with me, haunting me, if truth were told, long after I left Hawai'i, went to Taiwan, and then moved back to California. 

It's taken me that long to reconstruct one of the best tastes from my college days.

I have always liked chocolate cream pies ever since I put down the Gerber's and reached for the dessert cart, but this signature creation at the now defunct Yum Yum was a serious wedge of something that went way beyond diner-style sweets. 

For one thing, it even smelled buttery. The crust was crunchy with chopped nuts and pure butterfat, tasting more of toffee than a normal nut crust has any right to even suggest. The texture of the filling was heavier and richer than a simple chocolate cream pie, sort of a cross between a truffle and a Fudgsicle. And when it came time to try to re-create it, I knew that the whipped cream on top was just a feathery foil for all of that decadence underneath, so it should be little more than fresh cream and a touch of perhaps vanilla and powdered sugar. And every layer was less than teeth-achingly sweet so that each tantalizing flavor had a chance to dance upon my tongue without impediment.

There was lots of good chocolate in there, of course, but other flavors wavered in between that deep sensation of pure cocoa, and the question of what those flavors actually were bounced around in the back of my brain, taunting me since the waning days of Watergate and the Nixon Administration. 

In spite of all these culinary conundrums, English Toffee Pie seemed a quest worth pursuing. And I at last can rest easy on my laurels, for this is without a doubt the pie of my dreams. Is it the same recipe as the one that the Yum Yum Tree presented on its chipped china to Pammy and me? Probably not. But it's closest to the memories that folded and melted into each other, and it reflects my older taste buds and their desire for richness over sweetness, for complexity rather than simplicity.

Korean brown sugar
But what were those secret flavors, you ask? In that crust is the darkest brown sugar possible. Its deep, almost molasses scent mingles with ground pecans and good butter into a toffee crumble that gives this pie its name and its satisfying crunchiness. I use Korean brown sugar, which is moist and so dark that it is perfect for gingerbread cookies or sprinkling over your morning bowl of oatmeal. If you can't find it, regular dark brown sugar will do. I also use fresh pecans, and there's more of them here than in most nut crusts because I want their taste to leap out at my taste buds as soon as they make touchdown on my tongue. The butter in the crust fries the nuts briefly as the crust is quickly baked, making them toasty and aromatic.

Next, the filling is lots and lots of more butter. (Julia would have approved.) There's also raw eggs in there, but you'd never know it from the taste; however, if you are serving it to anyone with a compromised immune system, check with them first. For that reason I use really fresh organic eggs here, and I recommend that you do the same. More of that incredible dark brown sugar is beaten into the butter and eggs until the crystals dissolve into a light, airy mass. A stand mixer is perfect here, since you can fuss around with other things while your mixer does all the work, but a hand beater will do in a pinch.

Impromptu shrine to Nick
The chocolate, which long ago would probably have been Baker's unsweetened, is now a whole bar of rich Valrhona (72% cocoa solids). I've also added just a bit of instant espresso powder for more emphasis on the darker flavors here, but it's not enough to make you think that this was a mocha filling.

But what ends up making this filling and the crust so divine is the final secret ingredient: walnut extract. I use an organic one that tastes gorgeously of nothing but roasted nuts; it's almost a liqueur in attitude. And although just a bit is used in both layers, the walnut extract manages to punt this pie over the heads of every other contender and into the stratosphere. 

When you make this pie, be forewarned that every part of it will try to lure you into eating it as is. The unbaked pie crust is so delicious that I was tempted to even it out by nibbling away on little marbles of dough that just happened to fall into my fingers. The filling is perfect just as is right out of the mixer, and I'm sure I taste tested it much more than was actually required. And the whipped cream... well, I can never find much wrong with a spatula covered with the stuff, and so I did not resist.

You may cut this pie into wedges as large as you like. An eighth of a pie doesn't sound like much, but it's actually an industrial-sized helping that will make a chocolate freak moan with pleasure. Folks more dignified than me will be happy with a tinier wedge. Judge your guests and your serving sizes accordingly.

I just made this pie this Labor Day weekend for a get-together with my reinas, Adele and Lupita (boy toys in tow), for a celebration of the life of one of the all-time good guys. Nick Humy, a Federal Public Defender who passed away recently, who left us when he was still too young. We reinas were all federal court interpreters lucky enough to work with Nick over the years, and we wanted to honor his memory with a simple get-together that featured his love for bourbon and our love for chocolate. I have to admit, it's an inspired combination. 

So here's to Nick, to his memory, and to a love for all that is good in life.

English toffee pie chez Huang 
Huangjia taifeitang pai 黃家太妃糖派 
Makes one 9-inch pie and serves 8 to 12


1 cup organic all-purpose flour
3½ ounces organic shelled pecans or walnuts
⅓ cup (packed) dark brown sugar (see note above)
¼ teaspoon sea salt
½ cup (1 stick) organic unsalted butter 
2 teaspoons cold filtered water
1½ teaspoons organic walnut extract
    My almost impossible dream
1 cup (2 sticks) organic unsalted butter, softened
1 cup minus 2 tablespoons ( cup packed) dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons instant espresso 
1 teaspoon good vanilla extract
1 teaspoon organic walnut extract
3.5 ounce bar dark chocolate (72% cocoa solids or higher), melted and cooled
4 large organic free-range eggs
Whipped cream topping:
2 cups chilled organic heavy (or whipping) cream
½ cup powdered sugar
¼ teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon good vanilla extract
1. Start this recipe the day before, or at least 8 hours before you want to serve it. Heat the oven to 375 degrees F with the rack in the middle. Place a baking sheet on the rack to protect the bottom of the pie crust from browning too quickly. Put all of the dry ingredients for the crust into a food processor equipped with a metal blade and pulse a few times to combine. Toss in the butter, extracts, and water, and process until the dough forms a solid mass. Press the dough evenly into a 9-inch pie pan with 2-inch high sides, making sure that the dough comes all the way up the sides of the pan to the top, as the crust will shrink a bit as it cooks. Bake the pie crust for 15 minutes to barely brown it, and then allow it to cool while you prepare the rest of the pie. (You can make the crust ahead of time and freeze it, too.)

2. Beat the softened butter in the bowl of an electric mixer with the paddle attachment (or in a medium work bowl with a hand-held mixer) until the butter is creamy. Add the sugar and continue to beat the butter until it is fluffy. Scrape in the instant espresso, vanilla and walnut extracts, and the melted chocolate and beat until combined. Add the eggs one at a time, beating for a few minutes after each one, until the filling is soft and glossy. Scrape the filling into the cooled pie shell, cover it with foil or plastic wrap, refrigerate it for 8 hours or overnight. 

3. In a large, cold mixing bowl with the balloon whip attachment, or with a hand-held mixer, beat the chilled cream until it forms soft peaks. Add the sugar, salt, and vanilla, and beat the cream until stiff peaks form. Pile on top of the pie and serve. Terrific with good bourbon, strong coffee, or a nice black tea.


  1. Oh my, found this on Pinterest - on a whim.
    I will see about making this some day - for something special. It'd be too much to have "around" with only two of us who don't need the temptation. :)
    I have fond memories of the Yum Yum Tree and eating the English Toffee Pie, as do many.
    Mahalo for putting this together and sharing it!

    1. He mea iki! Glad you found this and recall the Yum Yum Tree with as much affection as I do. And yes, definitely get a bunch of people to eat this, as there's no way to resist its siren call.

  2. Oh! My boyfriend remembers this as his favorite food growing - and he doesn't like eating (I know!, What??). So I've been searching online for a recipe for years. I'm so happy to find this!!! A million thanks!

    1. Thank you so much! Your kind words have made my day...