Why Toffee-Making Is (and might always be) a Family Operation



Mary Curcio had decided to homeschool her daughter that year. It was 2003, and the family had recently moved from Chicago up into the high town of Nederland, CO.

Nora was one of three kids, a sparkling eight year old with a lot of questions. But when the holidays crept up Mary had a question for her.

You see, they needed a project. Something that would test the science and math that Nora had learned over the last semester. Mary thought that since they were at 8,234 feet, cooking might be a great project. Just boiling water is different at that altitude, so it would be a great opportunity to practice some simple conversions and arithmetic.

“What would you like to cook?”
“OK mom, make that candy that’s really hard to make.”
“Toffee?”
“Yea!”

That is how Tungsten Toffee began — with a science project that turned out to be almost impossible. For all their mathematics they just couldn’t make a decent batch to save their lives. But with all the ingenuity and determination of a daughter-mother team, they finally made some toffee. And it turned out to be really, really tasty.

So tasty in fact, Mary and her husband Tim decided to take the toffee down to the Holiday Mountain Market in Nederland. The whole family rented a booth and hunkered down to sell some toffee. People liked it so much that within 6 hours they were totally sold out.

Mary started to think she could get behind this toffee thing. She was on a 2-year waitlist for a nursing program, and people really enjoyed the toffee. The only aspect that was missing was coming up with a name. The kids came up with “Mountain Toffee” since they were making toffee the only way it could be made so high up in the mountains. But Mary and her husband wanted something more specific. They quickly landed on Tungsten, which had been mined all around the Nederland area.

By the time the nursing program had a slot for her, Tungsten Toffee was doing so well Mary decided to turn it into a full-blown business venture with licenses and commercial machinery.

OK, now what Mom? 🙂

By now they knew how the creative process could work: One part scathingly brilliant idea, nine parts sheer determination.

Creativity has a way of leaving… and then coming back. That’s how it happened with Mary.

This time she was looking for some caramel corn, but for all her looking she could only find products with corn syrup in the ingredients list.

“Our toffee is butter, sugar, and almonds.” Mary recalls, “So I thought how hard could it be to toss some popcorn in toffee? And you know it was really funny. My kids were like, ‘OK, now what mom?’”

So the Curcios went back to it. By now they knew how the creative process could work: One part scathingly brilliant idea, nine parts sheer determination.

Mary would pop the popcorn, “…in a regular old popcorn machine. And then I’d call everyone into the kitchen with a spoon. We’d have all these pans out. And I’d pour the popcorn in, and everyone’d have to stir it as fast as they could to see how it would work out.”

Eventually it did. They took their ‘Toffee Corn’ back to the same proving ground for testing: Boulder County Farmers’ Market. The response was overwhelming.

Their next hit album hailed back to their roots. The Curcios had moved from Chicago back in 2003, and Chicago has a kettle corn mix, which is basically cheddar cheese mixed with caramel. Mary always liked it but thought it could be a bit spicier. Fast forward a few months to NederChedder Toffee Popcorn! Royal Crest added this delectable morsel to the lineup this season.

Why Toffee-Making Might Always Be a Family Operation

With toffee it’s the sugar and butter and the emulsification. Even the barometric pressure can mess with emulsification.
— Mary Curcio

It makes sense how Toffee-making started as a family activity, but what will probably keep it that way forever? Toffee is very simple ingredients, butter sugar and almonds. But it’s tough to get right. “It’s not something where you can just put the ingredients in, push a button, and it ends up being toffee.” Mary told us, “You’re constantly monitoring that temperature to get it consistently delicious.”

Mary concedes the secret is too intuitive for any mass-process she knows of: “With toffee it’s the sugar and butter and the emulsification. Even the barometric pressure can mess with emulsification. That’s when the butter and sugar emulsify together to give you the consistency of a toffee.”

This unique consistency is hard to do right, and it’s rarely done at 8,234 feet, where slight changes in the weather can impact how much heat you need and at what times to make a good batch. But with a lot of practice, Mary has developed a keen eye for it. Her kids all know how to make toffee, but they still need to taste the toffee to see how it’s turning out. Mary is so practiced she can make the same judgment just by sight alone, but even she doesn’t know what will work ahead of time.

“Right when you start you can see. Toffee has a personality. Sometimes a change as seemingly minor as a pan can really make a difference. You need to get a feel for it. Then you can run your batches from there.” With that level of sensitivity you have to admit, it’s difficult to imagine a factory full of workers with Mary’s expertise stirring giant toffee pots.

That’s just one of the reasons why Tungsten Toffee doesn’t advertise. They don’t want to grow too fast, in part because they’ve known that they can only produce so much toffee in their current home in Nederland. Currently they operate out of the Nederland Community Center, which allows the family to live and work within a short drive. Now that the kids are out of the house, they can leave. But they don’t want to.

Mary told us, “We didn’t want to grow too quickly because it was a lifestyle for us being able to work up here [Nederland, CO]. We knew the consequences of growing would take us out.” They’re still in love with Nederland. If business keeps growing, the Curcios might join us down in Denver, where the kind of commercial space they need is more common. But who knows what will happen.

One thing we know for certain. We’re lucky here at Royal Crest Dairy to have Tungsten Toffee, and we’re proud to work next to them, helping to make your holidays natural, tasty, and with a flavor you can’t find anywhere else.