Coconut Toffee

 In the middle of the last century, there were few options for showing someone how much you cared. There were no emoticons and no in-boxes to receive assertions of affection; and no smart phones to swoosh off sparingly spelt words like luv and xxxs’. The corner shop was yet to stock greeting cards with red ribbons and pink hearts and there were no cards specially labeled for husbands, wives, sons and daughters. The only florist in town specialised in supplying flowers meant solely for the family deity. Anyway, florists of the time seldom stocked red roses; they only had baskets of flowers like jasmine and kanakambaram[1] that they strung together by the muzam (a measure about a metre). Now what would a husband do with a gift of three feet of flowers?

 With these limitations, my aunt firmly believed that the only way in which a woman could demonstrate her love for her children or her grandchildren, or a wife for her husband on a birthday or on any other occasion was by making a batch of nalikera[2] or coconut toffee. It was a special confection, specially made for special people.

 No one had a classic recipe for the nalikera toffee. No one dared tout title to the recipe as their very own and no one claimed intellectual property rights for their tharavad[3]. Instead, my aunt had her own weights and measures, for the sugar, milk and coconut and an inherited set of guidelines for the cooking and setting. Every time she set out to make the toffee she began with the hope that the setting would be perfect and the colouring absolutely like the colour linked with love – a passionate pink.

 She decided on the number of coconuts that she was going to use and got the youngest in the kitchen hierarchy to scrape the white kernel out of the nut. She then added the sugar, vanilla flavour and cochineal to the coconut, placed it over the flame and stirred the mixture with undivided attention. On many occasions more colour than was called for dropped into the pan and the mixture looked more like lust than love –when this happened, the blood red toffee was quickly distributed among the children.

There were no digital sugar thermometers at that time. The science of measuring heat and determining the setting point was limited to intuition and a bowl of cold water in which the confection was dumped from time to time. With practice trimmed with experience, the mixture was judged to be ready at an auspicious point and then quickly flipped on to a plate, spread flat and later cut into square or diamond shapes. My aunt cut hybrid shapes and the consistency was always one of three adjectives – grainy, chewy or dense.  She always hoped that the pieces would be like the perfect pieces of confection that were available in Sweet Meat Street, the main shopping area of the town. Children who hung around and watched the cooking process and occasionally contributed a minute or two of stirring got the first pay-outs. My aunt would hand out the crumbled mixture that had passed the hard-ball stage and all the broken pieces with an advisory that we may not get much more. The best shapes were set aside and reserved for the person for whom it was meant.

 All through the process of cooking there were several appeals to the deity at Guruvayur or the friendly neighbourhood goddess for presentable results. Once it was served, my aunt would seek approval from her peers and exult in the few words of praise. Then for a couple of days after the toffee was made, she would continue to remain in the mode of self-inquisition and persist in prattle about her last attempt at making coconut toffee.  “Was the colour too dark? Did you stop stirring when I went to take the registered letter from the postman?” she would ask addressing no one in particular. “Last time the toffee set better, this time it crumbled and broke up, maybe the quantity of sugar was not enough or it was kept too long on the fire?”

 Nobody replied and nobody bothered. Troubleshooting was not a science in those days and it seemed pointless to follow up on the complexities of sugar temperature or the variables that would have contributed to the colour, texture and flavour of the toffee – There was always one redeeming factor and my aunt was well aware of this – sugar, coconut, milk, a splash of vanilla and a tinge of pink looked and tasted good in any consistency. Nobody cared if the mixture looked like sweetened breadcrumbs or felt like stick jaws. And for the special person for whom it was meant, it was always better than getting a gift of half a metre of jasmine flowers.

 

 


[1] An orange-coloured flower

[2] Coconut

[3] Ancestral family

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