Easy to make and quick to disappear, this family-favorite treat is salty, sweet, crispy, buttery, and chocolatey. A variety of optional toppings ramp up the flavor and seasonal appeal!
Old recipes have a way of bringing back special memories. And when those old recipes are also very good recipes, they seem to create new memories!
Such is the case with cracker toffee.
My sister-in-law, Mary, has made this salty-sweet treat every year for over a decade in memory of her dear friend, Kate. Sometimes called Pine Bark, it was a favorite of Kate’s–one of those recipes that people always ask for when they eat a piece (and then a few more pieces!) at a party.
Our family holiday cookie platters would seem incomplete without these tasty gems, and when I tested a gluten-free variation recently, my dad did not deprive himself. After all, he had lost time to make up for!
A toffee-like cookie that’s easy to make for a crowd, this family-favorite treat is salty, sweet, crispy, buttery, and chocolatey. Optional toppings allow you to customize to taste and provide seasonal appeal.
The base recipe is nut-free and can be made gluten-free with the use of a gluten-free alternative to Saltines. Or you can use 5 sheets of gluten-free matzo squares.
How do you know the caramel mixture is done? A candy thermometer isn’t necessary for this recipe. When simmering the caramel, look for the sugar and butter to transition from a melted mix that isn’t incorporated to a homogeneous mixture that is foamy and bubbly across the entire surface. (See photos below.) Once the mixture comes to a simmer over medium heat, reduce the heat to maintain that gentle, bubbly simmer. After the integrated mixture has simmered briefly, it should set up properly. Better to stop a little short of the recommended time stated in the recipe than to risk burning, as this happens quickly with sugar.
When cutting the recipe in half, the smaller batch of caramel will cook faster, so take care not to overcook. As mentioned, the brown sugar-butter mixture can go from a little too brown to burnt in no time. If this should happen, don’t be tempted to use it. (Trust me, the addition of chocolate won’t save it!)
What pan should I use? A 10”×15″ jelly roll pan works best, although a larger baking sheet will work. When using a larger pan, fold up the foil (like a box) to contain the crackers and prevent the toffee from seeping out onto the pan.
Make sure to line the pan: Heavy-duty foil works especially well because it’s easy to peel off the finished toffee. Regular foil may be used; just peel it away more carefully to avoid tearing. Either way, the toffee will release more easily if you lightly coat the foil with non-stick spray before placing the crackers on it.
Why do I need to bake the toffee after cooking the caramel on the stovetop? Baking brings the caramel to the boiling point a second time, helping the crackers absorb some of the flavor while ensuring the caramel sets up once cooled.
The chocolate: Sprinkle the chocolate over the hot toffee immediately after removing it from the oven, and let sit for a minute or two, undisturbed, so that it softens. At this point, the chocolate can be easily spread into an even layer. Nestle’s semi-sweet morsels are an excellent choice, although those who enjoy dark or milk chocolate may use that instead. Good baking bars—even Hershey Bars—work well. I caution against mini chocolate chips, as I have found some have additives that prevent them from melting smoothly.
A photo overview of the process:
If you don’t have a 10”×15″ jelly roll pan, which is the perfect size to fit the crackers, you may use a larger baking sheet. Simply fold up the foil around the crackers to create a box effect. Need a reliable gluten-free option? Look for gluten-free matzo squares.
This is the foamy, bubbly appearance you’ll want across the entire surface when simmering the toffee mixture.
When done, pour over the crackers, spreading with a knife to ensure even coverage.
When the toffee is baked, it will boil a second time.
Immediately upon removing from the oven, sprinkle the chocolate overtop and let it sit a minute or two to soften.
When soft, spread the chocolate into an even layer over the toffee.
Toppings are strictly optional, although they are an opportunity to add contrasting color, texture, and flavor and to customize to various holidays. To play up the salty-sweet notes, I love the addition of sea salt. My latest favorite topping is roughly chopped salted cashews!
Easy to make and quick to disappear, the ingredient list for this popular treat is short and the options are many!
Total Time:20 minutes plus time to chill
Yield:40 pieces (or less depending on how you choose to break the bark)
This mouthwatering bark is crisp and chocolatey with a buttery toffee finish. Toppings add a festive touch but are optional. (My personal favorite it salted cashews!)
Optional toppings: flaky sea salt, chopped nuts (like cashews, peanuts, almonds, and/or pecans; I like salted and recommend toasting if using raw nuts), mini M&Ms, sprinkles, chopped Heath or Skor Bar, etc.
Preheat oven to 400℉. Line a 15x10x1-inch jelly roll pan or a large baking sheet with foil and lightly coat with nonstick spray. (I like heavy duty aluminum foil, although regular works. Just be sure to spray for easy removal and less chance of tearing). Spread the crackers out, salted side up, on the foil in a single layer to form a rectangle. If using a larger baking sheet, fold the edges of the foil up around the crackers. It will help contain the mixture added later. Set aside.
In a small, heavy-bottom saucepan or medium pot, melt the butter and brown sugar on the stovetop over medium heat. Bring to a simmer that covers the surface, and then reduce the heat and continue to simmer for 2½ – 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. (Set a timer so you don’t go over as caramel will burn quickly.) You want the mixture to look foamy and bubbly over the surface. (Cut this time in half if making a half batch.)
Immediately pour the caramel mixture evenly over the crackers and spread to cover them completely. Bake for 5-6 minutes in the preheated oven. At this point the caramel mixture will be very bubbly. Turn off the heat, remove the pan from the oven, and immediately sprinkle the chocolate chips over the surface. Let the chocolate rest for about 2 minutes or until it is soft enough spread over the toffee. You may help it along by placing the toffee back in the turned-off oven for 1 minute.
Sprinkle with any of the optional toppings while the chocolate is still soft, and then chill in the freezer for 2 hours to set. (If you don’t have freezer space, the refrigerator works, too. It may simply take a little longer to fully set.) Once set, peel away the foil and break into pieces. For more uniformly sized pieces, you could instead cut with a long, serrated knife using sawing motions.
*Saltine alternative: Five sheets of matzo squares offer a worthy alternative to the saltines. You will have to break one of the sheets to make your rectangle.
*For a gluten-free cookie: Look for a GF alternative to the classic saltines or opt for 5 sheets of gluten-free matzo bark. I’ve tested the latter with good results.
**Nestle semi-sweet morsels work well. I find the minis don’t tend to melt as smoothly. Dark or milk chocolate chips may be substituted, as can chopped baking chocolate. Hershey Bars offer yet another option.
Storage: Keep in an airtight container in the fridge for up to a week. The bark also freezes very well.