Peaceful Peppermint Bark

The holidays bring a lot with them. A Santa sackful of stress and fun byIMG_3536 turns. They always seem to catch us off guard and we’re out of time before we even realize it’s December. Finding moments of calm and peace among all the merry mayhem is the biggest challenge of the season. For many years, my moments came with a Starbucks soy latte and one of the individual squares of peppermint bark they sold at the register. I’d sit in my car, preferably on a quiet side street, and silently enjoy my coffee and treat. It helped.

I no longer drink coffee but peppermint bark is still my number one favorite holiday treat. I used to buy it from Williams Sonoma, but a few years ago I tried making it. It’s so easy! Yet even knowing that, I continued to buy it. This year, though, when this charming video popped on my FB feed of Bouchon Bakery elves making their bark, it inspired me. I got out the hammer and the peppermint.

So this is my prescription for this hectic holiday weekend: Get your kids, your partner, or yourself into the kitchen and make Peaceful Peppermint Bark. It’s a treat that delivers on many levels:

  • Stress-relieving benefits of the peppermint
  • Endorphin-releasing pleasure from the chocolate
  • Full-on “take that!” energy release from bashing the candies

Plus, it’s takes only about an hour start to finish so it really isIMG_3533 perfect to make with kids. And it gets you back out into the merrymaking maelstrom in no time. Added bonus: You can give it as gifts!!

A word on the peppermint candy: Candy canes are fine. I’ve always used Starlight Mints which seem to be difficult to find these days. IMG_3538When I was a kid there were stands in every grocery store for Brach’s Pick-A-Mix. You filled a bag with an assortment of individually wrapped candies and paid by weight. (Each had a fairly stern “NO SAMPLING” sign, but we always did.) Apparently, such stands are no more. In the candy aisle I often find Brach’s butterscotch discs, but no mints. This year, I went to a few stores before finding Kroeger brand at Ralph’s. I’m sure there are differences in taste across brands, but really – just use what you can easily find.

The recipe is a common one – its also the easiest. As with all recipes, use the best chocolate you can find, especially the white chocolate. You want to read the label and make sure it includes cocoa butter. Don’t use white chocolate chips because they won’t melt or adhere well. Also avoid any IMG_3528white chocolate branded as “confectionary.” It’s sickly sweet, doesn’t melt well and is just a waste of your time. (Want to know more about white chocolate? Here’s a terrific post by Serious Eats.)

I use a combination of Valhrona 64% and Valhrona 72% (the bars you can get at Trader Joes) for the dark chocolate, and either Valhrona or Lindt white chocolate. (I get the white Valhrona in blocks at a specialty store, but Lindt bars are readily available in supermarkets.) You can use 6 oz of any dark or semisweet chocolate you like.

Tips

  • You don’t need a hammer, you can use any 15 oz can of something, but the hammer is faster and more satisfying. Just make sure you put the bag of candies on a wooden cutting board – don’t smash on your tile, marble, granite, etc. counters.
  • Melting dark chocolate: I don’t use a double boiler when melting chocolate. I have a low wattage mini microwave which works perfectly for dark chocolate.
  • Melting white chocolate: White chocolate is delicate and burns easily! I use a small, nonstick saucepan and melt the white chocolate over low heat, watching and stirring until just melted. Beware any incidental moisture! Steam or water, even a droplet, will cause your white chocolate to seize into a pasty goo!
  • Peppermint extract is optional. I like a little zing in my dark chocolate.

 

Peaceful Peppermint Bark

Ingredients

3 oz 64% cacao dark chocolate, coarsely chopped

3 oz 72% cacao dark chocolate, coarsely chopped

1/4 tsp pure peppermint extract (optional)

2 tsps canola oil, divided

6 oz white chocolate, coarsely chopped

1/2 c crushed peppermint candies

Preparation
Line the bottom and sides of an 8 inch square baking pan with parchment, creating an overhang on two sides.

Put about 20 Starlight Mints (or other peppermint candies) into a Ziploc bag on a wood cutting board. Bash moderately with a hammer until you have a small crushed pieces. You don’t want a powder, nor do you want any big chunks. Think 1/8-inch dice. Bash until you have ½ cup.

Scatter abarkbout half the crushed candy across the bottom on the prepared pan. Set aside.

Melt the dark chocolate in a heatproof measure in the microwave on low, stopping and stirring every 15 seconds until just melted. Stir in 1 tsp of canola oil and peppermint extract if using. Pour over the crushed candy in the prepared pan, smoothly gently with an offset spatula. Place in the refrigerator to set, about 20 minutes.

Put the white chocolate into a small saucepan (preferably nonstick) and, over low heat, stir gently until just melted. Stir in 1 tsp canola oil. Pour the melted white chocolate over the set dark chocolate, spreading gently with an offset spatula to cover.

IMG_3531Immediately scatter the remaining crushed candies (to taste) over the top of the white chocolate, pressing gently with spatula. Set in the fridge for another 20-30 minutes until set.

Heat the blade of a small, sharp knife over a gas burner ( or in a glass of boiling water, wiping it dry before using), and run the blade along the sides of the bark in the pan that aren’t covered by parchment. Use the parchment overhangs to gently lift the bark from the pan.

From here you can cut or break the bark into pieces. If cutting, heat the blade of a long knife before making each cut to ensure smooth sides. You’ll get 20-30 pieces depending on size.

Enjoy!

Full disclosure: I wasn’t paying attention this go round and made two big mistakes…. My white chocolate seized and I didn’t have any more of it, so I spread the paste in the prepared pan set over low heat on the stove, and then put it in the fridge to set. Because of this, I forgot to add the canola oil to the white chocolate. Therefore, my layers separate, as is obvious in the pictures. I wanted to get this post up for the weekend, so didn’t run out for additional chocolate to make a picture perfect batch. I’m so ashamed.

 

 

 

Twenty-Minute Toffee a la Rose

Candy. Candy candy candy. I reflexively think of myself as a candy lover but when I visit places like Dylan’s Candy Bar, I’m overwhelmed by colorful options and fruity aromas. I’llIMG_5946 eat Red Vines (or Twizzlers as we call ‘em back home), Mary Janes, and the occasional Dot. But what I’m really after are the M&Ms, Reese’s, Snickers, and Milk Duds.

So, OK, I like chocolate. As distinct from candy. So where do the twain meet? In toffee. And why not? Such a delectable happy marriage. Full disclosure: Wrap chocolate around sugar cooked anywhere between 245° and 290° F and I’ll eat it. But toffee is special. Buttery maybe? With the chocolate and the nuts? I love it and will enjoy everything from an Almond Roca all the way to fancy artisanal products. I’m not beyond paying $15 for 8 ounces of handmade goodness.

Second only to eating toffee is making it. It’s so dang easy, people. Just make sure you toffee4have a good thermometer and work carefully. I’ve made many toffee recipes but my go-to, all time fave is from Rose Levy Beranbaum – Mahogany Buttercrunch Toffee. The key? Brown sugar. Oh my my my my. I use the recipe from her book Rose’s Christmas Cookies. I’ve made it so often, I can make it from memory. (Which is impressive to people when we’re sitting around and I say, “Toffee anyone?” and then pop into the kitchen and whip some up.)

Like I did this week. OK, the only people sitting around with me were a dog and two cats who don’t eat toffee but I like to think they’re impressed by my efforts. It was one of those nights – I want something, what do I have on hand? Brown sugar, butter, chocolate, almonds. Always in the pantry. It takes about 20 minutes. The toffee hardens almost immediately, the chocolate takes some time. So when wanting instant gratification, I put the tray in the fridge for 15 minutes. Nom nom nom.

A touch of nostalgia

61f9a96ecd1c78fcdab784dc35ca72d7In writing this piece, I thought about my earliest toffee memories. While not toffee per se, what I remember is Callard & Bowser Butterscotch. It came in a white package wrapped in cellophane. Each piece was a tablet about an inch long wrapped in foil. I think my grandfather turned me on to this, it seems like he always had it on hand. I’m not generally into butterscotch (you can keep your Werther’s and your Pick-A-Mix disks), but this was something altogether different. Heavy on butter, light on sugar. I came across this lovely ode to the C&B Butterscotch on candyprofessor.com, which is itself a lovely blog that appears to be not currently active. She expresses the wonders of this wonderful confection better than I could.

Toffee Lessons Learned

  • Focus, focus, focus. I don’t think anyone wants to see a picture of the scar on my forearm from the time I wasn’t 100% focused on the task. Take it from FullSizeRender_2me – 250° sugar syrup on the arm is painful. (Also, if anyone is also still under the delusion that butter is meant to resolve a burn, forget it. Cold water is your only response.)
  • Trust your thermometer, but verify. Boil water and put your thermometer in. Account for any degrees above or below 212°F or 100°C.
  • Chocolate. Less is more with the darkness here, IMO. I use Valhrona Manjari (64%) or Caraibe (66%). If the chocolate is too dark, I feel like that’s all I taste.
  • Almonds. I don’t toast them. And I use less than suggested. I’m not in it for the nuts.
  • Prepare your workspace. Pre-measure your vanilla and baking soda and set near the stove. Set your prepared baking sheet nearby as well. I set up an assembly line of stove – potholder on counter – pre-measured vanilla and baking soda – prepared baking sheet. Once the sugar syrup is the right temperature, speed is of the essence.


Mahogany Buttercrunch Toffee

Adapted from Rose Levy Beranbaum

Ingredients

1 ¼ c blanched, sliced almonds, coarsely ground (toast if you want, I don’t)

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1/4 tsp. baking soda

1 ¼ c firmly packed light brown sugar

2 Tbs water

½ c (1 stick) unsalted butter

3 oz. semisweet chocolate (64% cacao), coarsely chopped

Line a rimmed baking sheet with a Silpat or butter generously, and set near the stove. Set your pre-measured vanilla and baking soda nearby as well.

Preparation

Sprinkle about half the nuts over a 7 x 10 inch area on the cookie sheet. Set it near the stove. Have the vanilla and baking soda nearby as well.

In a heavy-based saucepan, preferably nonstick, combine the brown sugar, water and butter. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly (trying not to disturb the thermometer), until the mixture reaches 285°F on a candy thermometer. Mind the heat: The first few times I made this, I had the heat too high and the syrup cooked too fast and scorched. While Burnt Caramel is trending in ice cream, it’s not so nice in toffee. Medium high heat, please.

Immediately remove the saucepan from the heat [onto the potholder] and stir in the vanilla and baking soda. Pour the toffee mixture carefully and evenly onto the nuts, keeping within the 7 x 10 rectangle.

IMG_5946Working quickly, scatter the chocolate onto the toffee. Press the chocolate lightly with your fingertips so it starts melting.

Let it sit for five minutes so the chocolate is soft enough to spread in an even layer over the surface of the toffee. Dust the chocolate with the remaining almonds. Leave the toffee to cool completely, then break it into irregular pieces, or refrigerate if you just can’t wait.

You can store the toffee in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a month. But you won’t have to. I keep it on the counter in a Ziploc bag. It lasts aboutoffee3t a day and a half.

Chunky Toffee: Sometimes I want thick pieces. When I do, I generously butter the bottom of an 8×8 square pan and sprinkle with the nuts. Everything else is the same except I go a little easier on the chocolate. When ready, I poke it sharply with a knife point to break and then go from there.

Note: Apparently Rose has updated the recipe in her latest book The Baking Bible. She now puts chocolate on the bottom and the top, as described delightfully here.