An easy, festive treat for any occasion
All of us who could not envision a world without chocolate owe our gratitude to the Conquistadors who first brought this precious commodity back to Europe centuries ago. They were introduced to this most delectable treat by the Aztecs of Mexico who harvested the cacao, finely ground it, and brewed a beverage often flavored with chilies or cinnamon and sweetened with honey. This concoction, xocolatl, was typically served during important ceremonies and was thought to improve one’s stamina and help fight fatigue.
Consumption today is at an all-time high worldwide. Good-quality chocolate is readily available in every market and relatively inexpensive. The finest restaurants are highlighting chocolate in recipes in every course and, because new science suggests that dark chocolate can actually be good for us, we feel pretty good about indulging daily.
One of our favorite (and truly easy to make at home) treats is chocolate bark. We love to make a couple of batches of different flavors for holiday gifts to neighbors, for the perfect hostess gift, or to keep on hand for a sweet bite at the end of any meal.
What we like best about making this candy is that you can tailor it to almost any occasion. We love a version that echoes the flavors of the Aztecs’ original recipe. Chocolate bark topped with toasted pumpkin seeds, ancho chili, cinnamon, and cayenne pepper makes for a nutty, spicy treat. Hulled pumpkin seeds (also called pepitas) can be found at your local natural foods store or even some grocery stores. If you have trouble finding ancho chili powder, chipotle chili powder could be used as an alternative. The blend of the sweet chocolate with the crunch of the pumpkin seeds and the subtle kick of heat is exceptional! For the holiday season, a beautiful version of a classic peppermint bark is always a welcome treat.
Use your imagination and taste buds to create a bark that is just what you’re craving. White, milk, or dark chocolate topped with nuts, dried fruits, crushed candies, and spices can reflect your own creativity in a most delicious way.
After deciding on your toppings, choosing your chocolate is the only part of this simple process you need to pay attention to. Chocolate buttons found in craft stores are not chocolate; do not use them for making bark. They may melt and produce an edible candy, but they are actually made from sugar, vegetable oils, and flavoring. While chocolate chips are a little better, we don’t recommend using them for making candy. Since they are made with more vegetable oil and less cocoa butter, they are appropriate for baking in cookies and using as toppings but do not offer the rich, deep chocolate flavor you’re looking for.
Baking bars and good-quality candy bars can work, but we really recommend purchasing premium chocolate. Many varieties are available at finer food markets and from a variety of sources online. It is real chocolate that makes a perfectly glossy, firm, and flavorful, melt-in-your-mouth confection. Look for at least 75 percent cacao (for cooking) listed first on the ingredient panel. A dark, tightly sealed wrapper assures freshness, and the chocolate should have a nice matte gloss and no bloom (the whitish coloring on the surface of the chocolate). Bloom is simply the butter fat from the chocolate, but it means the bar may be old and may have been exposed to heat.
Many chocolatiers recommend tempering even the best chocolate. Generally, tempered chocolate has more of the beautiful, glossy sheen that is so enticing and the texture is exceptionally smooth. While it is a good idea and a relatively simple process, if you buy high-quality, fresh chocolate you don’t have to temper.
If you do decide to try tempering, there are many methods you can use. We believe the easiest is the best. You will need a candy thermometer for this process. Break the chocolate into small pieces. Place the bits in a bowl and set the bowl over a pot of simmering hot water or in a double boiler. Heat and stir the chocolate to exactly 109 degrees on your candy thermometer. Remove the bowl from the heat and add more solid chunks of chocolate, which you should have set aside. Stir, melting the added chocolate until the temperature gets to about 90 degrees and all the chocolate is melted. Your chocolate should be perfectly tempered and ready to spread onto a cookie sheet.
Makes about 12 ounces of bark or one standard cookie sheet full of candy
12 ounces good-quality dark chocolate
½ teaspoon peppermint extract
1 cup crushed peppermint candy
1. Break chocolate into approximately one-inch pieces. Place chocolate in a stainless steel or glass bowl and set it over a saucepan full of simmering hot water; stir constantly while the chocolate melts (or you can use a double boiler). Add extract and stir to blend.
2. Spread melted chocolate onto a cookie sheet lined with a Silpat or waxed paper. Spread with a spatula and allow to set for just a minute or two.
3. Sprinkle crushed candy on top. Gently press candy into the chocolate. Allow to cool completely in a refrigerator and then break into medium-size pieces. Keep cool until ready to enjoy.
• Melt 4 ounces of good quality white chocolate. After the peppermint bark has cooled thoroughly, drizzle the white chocolate over all. Chill again until completely cooled.
• Use green and red or blue crushed peppermint candies for a festive holiday look.
• Add slivered almonds or crushed walnuts to the topping.