There are times when being a creative free spirit does not necessarily reap culinary rewards. I love reading recipes, and I often do research before embarking on a kitchen adventure. Recently, I decided to give my friends homemade peppermint bark for Christmas. I researched a few recipes and found that many of the recipes were similar: melt chocolate in a makeshift double-boiler, pour and spread onto lined cookie sheet, refrigerate until it sets, repeat as needed, and top with crushed candy canes. Simple, right?
Looking back on things now, I realize that I should have picked a single recipe and stuck to it. But, no. Heady with confidence in documented recipe research and resolved not to pay Crate and Barrel the $20 they charge for their patented peppermint bark, I decided to wing it. I’m not a rookie, I thought, as I pulled my baking sheets out from under the oven, placing them on the counter with a clatter. I can do this, I thought, lining two sheets with parchment paper and one with foil in the interest of “scientific analysis.” I filled a six-quart pot with an inch of water and set it on the stove to boil. I topped the pot with my largest metal mixing bowl.
I wanted to make two-tone bark for aesthetic appeal, so I started with the brown chips to form my base layer. Once the water came to a boil, I added two bags of the chips to the mixing bowl, using a toweled hand to steady the bowl as I slowly folded the chocolate into molten goo. When the chocolate was uniformly smooth, I lifted the bowl off the pot and poured the goo onto one of the sheets (one and a half, actually). 24 ounces of melted chocolate is kind of heavy.
I tilted the sheet at various angles to help distribute the chocolate more evenly. I got the bright idea to press a separate baking sheet, coated with non-stick spray, onto the chocolate to create a perfectly flat surface. The result was not as successful as hoped. A thick layer of chocolate clung to the press as I pried it away from the base layer. I scraped it off with a spatula, salvaging what I could, and forged on to heat and pour the second batch of dark chips. When finished, I placed the finished baking sheets in the fridge to allow the first layers to chill and set.
For step two, I unwrapped candy canes and set them on my cutting board, singing an adaptation of the Bob the Builder theme song: Jules the Crusher, can she crush this? Jules the Crusher, yes she can!
“Honey,” I called out to my husband, who was reading his Economist in the living room. “Where’s the hammer? I need to smash my candy canes for the peppermint bark.”
“In the basement,” he said. The hammer was not in the basement.
“Is there any other place where it might be?” I asked.
“In the garage, on the right side.” It was not in the garage on the right side… or the left for that matter.
Perhaps judging from my extended absence, my husband came out to the back steps by the garage and suggested: “Maybe you should use a wrench… What’s that in your hand?” A wrench. It was the heaviest tool I could find. You can’t fake inanity like this.
Back inside the house, I washed the wrench in soapy water and outfitted it in a condom made from tin foil. I started smashing the candy canes with the sanitized wrench. Sticky little bits of candy cane dust bounced off the board with each whack. None of the recipes I read warned me about this. I tried to find the exact pressure needed to smash the candy canes without creating further loss of product, hoping to raise my candy-to-effort ratio. Then I discovered that the handle of my knife did a better job at crushing, so I abandoned the wrench, wrapped my knife in a towel, and carefully – oh, so carefully – started bashing the remaining candy canes, all the while praying to the kitchen muses to protect me from unwanted loss of small limbs.
A more reasonable person might have approached this task by considering other solutions, such as using a rubber mallet or a rolling pin, or putting the candy canes into a sealable plastic bag to contain the sugar splatter. But, as I said before, I am a highly creative individual, occasionally prone to lapses in good judgment, particularly when it comes to my ego as a cook. I also have an aversion to using unnecessary plastic in the kitchen – this aversion has prompted me to stop watching Rachael Ray and Sandra Lee on the Food Network, because I can’t get past their predilection for disposable, non-degradable storage bags. Four messy candy canes later – sticky bits strewn across the counter, into the sink, and on the floor; sugar caking my cheeks – I relented, with far more successful results. I pounded the remaining candy canes in bliss.
Once the first chocolate layer sufficiently set, I turned up the heat on the double boiler and melted the second layer, this time with white chocolate. As I heaped mounds of hot white chocolate over the cold brown, I realized why so many peppermint bark recipes use only white chocolate. Molten white chocolate began melting my dark chocolate, creating gooey mocha smears in my “snow.” Being a multi-tasker did not benefit me in this scenario. Again, I scrambled to fix my hot mess.
I realized I needed more white chocolate. Initially, I’d only bought two bags, thinking I wanted a thinner layer of white atop the dark base. But when I spread the white layer too thin, it melded with the brown, forcing me to halt production for an emergency trip to the grocery store.
This experience also taught me that my indomitable politeness probably causes me more distress on a day-to-day basis than I am aware of. I ricocheted around people in the grocery store like a bullet in a rubber box. I paid in a rush, annoyed with myself. I charged towards the exit, fiddling with things in my purse, but a man stood in my way. He moved slower than molten chocolate, but walked a path that made passing him seem awkward and rude. I wanted nothing more than to scurry around him and rush out of the store, but I just couldn’t do it. Why? Because I respect my elders, damn it.
I didn’t buy enough of the ingredients I needed. The peppermint bark required only about half of the candy canes that I laboriously pulverized. But, on the up side, I was a pro by the third batch, smoothing on the white layer in quadrants and replacing the mixing bowl on the simmering water to keep it from clumping. I learned valuable lessons about my personality and how I respond to stress. I learned that some recipes seem deceptively simple, but it helps to try to make them by the book, at least for the first time. My peppermint bark turned out great.
Crazy Creative Peppermint Bark
Yields three large cookie trays worth of bark
3 12-ounce bags semisweet chocolate chips
1 12-ounce bag dark chocolate chips
4 12-ounce bags white chocolate chips
Few drops peppermint extract
8-10 candy canes, pulverized to desired consistency
Buy chocolate chips and candy canes. The peppermint extract is optional.
Identify the biggest baking sheets that will fit in your refrigerator. Line the sheets with a barrier material, such as parchment paper or aluminum foil. (In theory, I prefer parchment because it is more readily degradable; in practice, I prefer foil because it sleekly molds to sharp edges. Either works fine for the purpose of easily releasing the finished bark.)
Fill a pot with some water. Top the pot with a heat-safe mixing bowl. It doesn’t matter how much water you put in the pot – just make sure the water doesn’t touch the bottom of the mixing bowl, or you will have to dry off the bottom of your bowl every time you move it to portion out the melted chocolate.
Bring water to a boil, then reduce it to a simmer. Add chocolate to the mixing bowl and melt it in batches, folding and stirring as needed. I recommend smaller batches (one bag at a time?). Fold and mix chocolate until chips are melted and texture is smooth. Once smooth, remove mixture from heat and spread onto lined baking sheets. Texturize to your preference. (P.S. – If you come up with a solid flattening method that doesn’t require product loss, please share it with me, ok? Love you. Thanks!)
Place the filled sheets in fridge to set and cool for at least 30 minutes. (The wonderful thing about peppermint bark is that you can prepare it all in one sitting, or you can spread completion out over hours or days.)
In the meantime, smash candy canes until you reach your happy place. Go ahead and waste a plastic zip bag. Channel the Bob the Builder theme song if that helps.
When the first layer of chocolate sets, begin your second layer. Melt and mold the second layer of chocolate the same way you did for the first layer, adding peppermint extract if you would like to. But this time, when you spread out your delicious molten goo, work in smaller sections, because the hot layer will quickly melt the cold first layer below. Keep the unused chocolate warm on the simmering double boiler as you work. You’ve gotten all your aggression out on the candy canes, after all, and this is Christmas. Put on some Foghat and take it easy.
Act briskly with the candy cane crust, though, because the white chocolate hardens sooner than you’d think. Generously sprinkle on your “bark,” patting it into the chocolate to really get it crusted well. Your hands will look like you just did something wildly inappropriate with one of Santa’s elves, but no matter. The mess comes off in warm water.
Chill everything again in the fridge. Break the bark into pretty, rustic hunks before delivery, and smile, because tomorrow your friends are going to be very, very happy.