Bonfire night this year, like most of the occasions we celebrate, will be a little different to previous years: no hustling queues to public displays, squeezing spectators in like sardines, standing shoulder-to-shoulder. Many of us can’t have people round to ours, even in our gardens. It’s never been more important to lean into a shorthand to create a sense of occasion, something that reminds us of the rhythms and rituals of our year. Those foods that we eat at certain times are an ideal shorthand, filled with memory, nostalgia and the ability to transport us. And when it comes to Bonfire night, you can see why honeycomb has become so associated with it: bright, smokey and with more than enough sugar to gird you against the cold, it’s the perfect November treat.
Honeycomb is known by a few names in the UK – often called cinder toffee in old fashioned sweet shops, or Hokey Pokey if you’re from Cornwall – but whatever you call it, it is sweet and slightly sticky, with a light air-bubble pocked interior and smooth surface. It’s only made up of three ingredients, but the way in which they’re cooked brings complex and distinctive flavours: the caramelisation of the sugar brings that smokey caramel notes, and the golden syrup tempers it with a metallic tang.
It’s made by heating sugar and golden syrup (or honey) together until the sugar is melted and the mixture hits the ‘soft crack’ stage of sugar temperatures. Then bicarbonate of soda is added – just a small amount – which causes the mixture to fizz, creating carbon dioxide. The mixture will turn from translucent bronze to an opaque bright gold, and the gas that is forced into it by the bicarb will create little holes, like a sponge; these holes will set in place as the honeycomb sets.
Making honeycomb has always felt to me like one of the purest forms of kitchen magic: the transformation of mahogany syrup to puffy, glossy, blonde confectionary feels newly surprising each time you make it – it is the closest, I think, you can get to alchemy.
But of course, it’s not magic, it’s chemistry, and the key to good honeycomb is using just the right amount of bicarb – you need enough to give the mixture the oomph of air it needs, but too much can taste soapy or fizzy and lead to collapse. But the whisking of the mixture is important too: it distributes the bicarb evenly, so you avoid powdery, salty pockets, but it also ensures that any really big bubbles of aeration don’t make their way into the final honeycomb. It prevents the honeycomb puffing up to the size of a hot air balloon, and then almost immediately collapsing to a sad toffee of credit card thickness. A high-sided tin will also assist here, helping the toffee sit in a thick layer while it sets, rather than sprawling, which should lead to the distinctive honeycomb structure from which it derives its name.
Once the honeycomb has set, and you’ve taken out the day’s frustrations smashing or chopping it into shards, you can drag it through melted chocolate. I like milk chocolate, to create a kind of homemade Crunchie, but dark chocolate would be elegant and grown up, and bring a slightly bitter counterpoint to the tooth-aching sweetness of the honeycomb.
Homemade honeycomb is a wonderful gift, bagged up in cellophane tied with bright ribbon, the toffee glinting orange-gold. It doesn’t have a terribly long shelf life (though covering it in chocolate will help this a lot), as it will absorb any moisture in the air and become sticky. The little bits and bobs that aren’t large enough to justify a chocolate coat will elevate even the simplest vanilla ice cream, and make charming decoration for butter-creamed cakes.
To be confident in your temperatures and ensure success, I really would recommend using a sugar or digital kitchen thermometer here – but if you are slightly more cavalier than I am, you can cook the sugar mixture until it is amber and bubbling at a rolling boil before removing from the heat and adding the bicarb. In any event, hot sugar burns are extremely painful, so please act cautiously around it.
Makes: 1 20 cm square
Takes: 10 minutes
Bakes: No time at all
100g golden syrup
200g caster sugar
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
- Lightly oil a 20cm, high-sided square cake or brownie tin. If your tin is very scratched or not non-stick, you may wish to line it with non-stick parchment paper.
- Place the golden syrup and sugar into a deep saucepan, and give it a good stir. Heat gently until the sugar melts, and then turn the heat up and continue heating until the mixture registers 140°C on a sugar thermometer.
- Remove from the heat and add the bicarbonate of soda to the syrup, and immediately whisk it into the mixture. The mixture will whoosh up as you stir in the bicarb, so be careful. Whisk briskly while counting to ten, then pour all of the mixture into the oiled tin. The mixture will settle and set; leave it to completely cool.
- Once cold, turn out onto a chopping board and break into pieces using your hands, a rolling pin, or a large knife – I like to keep any small crumbly bits to throw over ice cream.
- Melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl suspended over a pan of simmering water. Take the large pieces of honeycomb and dunk or drag them through the melted chocolate, laying the dunked pieces on a sheet of baking paper or tin foil to harden.