Valentine's Day: Easy homemade candy treats

Valentine’s Day: Easy homemade candy treats




























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Sugar and Valentine’s Day go hand in hand, and what better way to show someone you love them than to treat them to some treats?

Of course, you don’t have to be part of a couple to show someone your love, as there are plenty of people who could use a bright smile and some chocolate: a grandparent or grandchild, your best friend or even your postal carrier. And it doesn’t even have to be Valentine’s Day to give someone candy (still, it does make for a good excuse.)

Sure, it’s easy to go out and buy a box of chocolates or one of the bags of pink/red/white/heart-shaped candies that are overflowing on supermarket shelves this time of year. But what if this year you actually made the candy?

Homemade candy — like bark, brittle and fudge — is not only great because you’ve made it with your own two hands, but you can customize it just about any which way you like it. And how about the look on their face when you hand them a box of something you’ve taken the time and effort to create?

Totally worth it.

Chocolate bark is quite possibly the easiest candy you can make. It’s really no more complicated than melting some chocolate, spreading it in a pan, and scattering a handful of favorite ingredients over the top.

Just follow these tips to get the best results:

Don’t use chocolate chips (which don’t melt easily); bars of decent quality are your best bet.

Don’t let any water get into the chocolate (it may seize up or turn grainy), so make sure any toppings you add are well dried.

Melt your chocolate slowly over low heat, and don’t overheat it — it easily burns.

I like to “temper” chocolate for bark, but don’t let that scare you or make you think it’s overly hard. Tempering is really nothing more than checking the chocolate’s temperature while you melt it and then letting it cool down a bit. You can choose to not temper your chocolate, but the benefit is your bark will snap easier, and you won’t get the “white bloom,” that dull whitish layer on the surface that takes away some show quality (perfectly edible though!).

The best part of chocolate bark is that the possibilities are endless. The recipe here brings together dark chocolate, toasted almonds and dried cherries. But you could swap out the almonds for any toasted chopped nuts you like, such as pecans, walnuts, hazelnuts or pistachios. Same goes for dried fruit: use candied orange peel, dried cranberries or chopped dried apricots instead.

Take it to the next level and experiment with other toppings — you can be as classic or crazy as you want to be. Think crushed peppermint candies, candied ginger, toasted coconut flakes, crumbled cookies, marshmallows and graham crackers, cereal, even crisp-cooked bacon (not all together mind you). The world of chocolate bark is your oyster, really. But don’t add oysters, that wouldn’t fly with pretty much anybody.

Some people don’t like chocolate, in which case, chocolate bark is not for you. Thus, brittle. Brittle is a sugar-based, hard candy made with nuts, often peanuts. It’s a little more involved, and you’ll need an instant-read or candy thermometer (which I recommend for all of these recipes actually). But it’s oh-so-pretty and, if you love pistachios (I do!), then this is for you.

The key is to work quickly, carefully (melted sugar is nothing to mess around with) and spread thinly with a greased metal spatula before the mixture sets.

It might be old-fashioned, but fudge is a classic that never goes out of style. A paper-lined box cradling squares of rich, gooey chocolate fudge is always a welcome gift. The recipe included here is straight-up chocolate but, like the chocolate bark, you can go to town with additions.

After beating the fudge, stir in up to a cup of chopped toasted walnuts or pecans, a mix of mini marshmallows and crunched-up graham crackers, or a swirl of peanut butter. Or top it with some flaked sea salt.

Once you’ve created your candy masterpieces, don’t shirk on the presentation. Sure, you can hand candies over on a paper plate, and you’ll probably get a joyful response. But make a little extra effort and you’ll likely get an even more jubilant response. Some packaging ideas include:

Clear cellophane bags tied with thin, colorful ribbon or raffia

Line a box with colorful waxed or tissue paper and tie with colorful string

Use plain or patterned paper bags tied with wide ribbon

Wrap candies in glassine then a band of patterned wrapping paper

Add to glass jars with painted lids and finish with a ribbon

Sweet!

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I like to temper the chocolate when making bark; it’s easier than you think, but you will need an instant read thermometer. You can omit this step if you like.

Makes about 1 pound

12 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped

2/3 cup slivered almonds, toasted

2/3 cup pitted dried sour cherries, roughly chopped if large

Line a large rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.

Set a bowl over a saucepan partly filled with simmering water (make sure the bowl doesn’t actually touch the water). Add two-thirds of the chocolate to the bowl and stir gently until melted and an instant-read thermometer reads 110 degrees (or slightly higher).

Remove the bowl from the heat and stir in the remaining chocolate, until the chocolate is fully melted and an instant-read thermometer reads 90 degrees (you might need to let it sit for a few minutes for the residual heat to melt the remaining chocolate).

Stir half of the almonds and cherries into the melted chocolate, then pour the mixture onto the prepared baking sheet, using a rubber spatula or offset spatula to spread the chocolate into an even layer. Immediately sprinkle the chocolate with the remaining almonds and cherries, gently pressing them into the chocolate (work quickly before it sets).

Set aside, uncovered, until firm, about 1 hour.

Gently peel the bark from the parchment and break into large, irregular pieces.

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Remember to work quickly and have everything ready to go before you start. You’ll need an instant-read or candy thermometer for this recipe. This recipe was adapted from Williams-Sonoma “Dessert of the Day,” by Kim Laidlaw (Weldon Owen, 2013).

Makes about 2 pounds

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 cup light corn syrup

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 pound unsalted pistachios nuts

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Spray two rimmed baking sheets with cooking spray and place in the oven.

In a small bowl, stir together the baking soda, vanilla and 1 teaspoon of water. Have ready oven mitts and a large metal spatula (an offset spatula works well here) sprayed with cooking spray.

In a large, heavy saucepan, cook the sugar, corn syrup and 1 cup water over medium heat, stirring just until the sugar dissolves, until the mixture is clear and reads 280 degrees on a candy thermometer (about 5 minutes.)

Stir in the butter and pistachios and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture has thickened and the thermometer reads 300 degrees. Watch carefully, especially toward the end, to prevent the mixture from burning. Remove from the heat and immediately stir in the baking soda mixture. Be careful, as the mixture will bubble up.

Working quickly (but carefully), remove the baking sheets from the oven. Carefully pour half of the candy mixture onto each warm baking sheet and quickly spread into an even layer about 1/4 inch thick using the greased metal spatula. The mixture will cool very quickly so it’s important to move as fast as you can. Set aside to cool for about 1 hour. Lift the edge of the brittle and break it into large or small pieces.

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This makes a very chocolatey, dense fudge without the “cheats” of marshmallows or sweetened condensed milk. You’ll need an instant-read or candy thermometer for this recipe.

Makes 36 small squares

1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar

1 cup granulated sugar

½ cup half and half

¼ cup unsalted butter, cut into pieces

¼ cup light corn syrup

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

6 ounces dark chocolate, chopped

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Grease an 8-inch square baking pan and line it with parchment paper.

In a large saucepan over medium heat, bring the sugars, half and half, butter, corn syrup and salt to a boil, stirring constantly. Boil for 3 minutes until the mixture reaches 235 degrees (soft ball stage) on a candy thermometer.

Remove from the heat and add the chocolate, stirring until the chocolate is melted completely and the mixture is well blended.

Return to medium-low heat and cook until the mixture returns to 235 degrees (soft ball stage) on a candy thermometer, about 2 minutes longer.

Remove from the heat and let cool slightly, about 10 minutes. Add the vanilla and use a hand-held mixer to beat the fudge until it thickens and becomes slightly less glossy; this will take about 5 minutes.

Working quickly, scrape the mixture into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Let stand at room temperature until cooled completely and firm, about 2 hours. Cut into squares.

Kim Laidlaw is a Petaluma-based food writer, recipe developer and cookbook producer. Reach her at kim@castironmedia.com