There was a lady I used to know who always kept candies in a bowl on her coffee table. My oldest nephew, who’s now 12 years old and almost as tall as I am, sometimes visited her with me - he was maybe three at the time? He’d toddle over to her knee, ask politely for a candy, and then, manners dispatched, gleefully help himself.
I think he thought her lovely, and possibly magic, as he should have - because she was a lovely person, and really an ever-full candy dish does seem a little magic, doesn’t it?
The candies on offer would change with the season; Hershey’s Kisses on Valentine’s Day, chocolate eggs at Easter, hard butterscotch rounds come Thanksgiving. In winter, the candies were often flavoured with mint. There would be swirled peppermints, soft-centred mints enrobed in chocolate, and hard mints with truffled fillings.
Of all the minted variations, my favourite were these chocolates flavoured with peppermint through and through. They were blocky things, made at a local shop that’s now gone, and they came wrapped in foils the colour of jewels left out in the frost. They were mild - the chocolate wasn’t too bitter, the mint wasn't too sharp. They were gentle and beguiling, with a right hit of pep, much like our host.
I adored those chocolates. I adored them enough that the other night, after hours of driving in rain and gloom, I sought out some peppermint chocolates in the dusty corner of a dodgy shop and, with full knowledge they were not the right kind and were probably going to be comparatively horrid and would never be considered coffee-table-eligible, I bought them anyway. Then promptly ate three, ignoring their inferiority and happy for their existence because they unexpectedly reminded of her, and that was nice.
I even brought a modest stash of those terrible chocolates home and ashamedly nibbled my way through the supply in the days since. So maybe it’s time to break out a double-boiler and do things up right.
While Layered Peppermint Crunch Bark isn’t exactly the candy from memory, it is a darn swell substitute and far better than my sorry replacement of recent history. This triple-layer affair has texture and a retro appeal which those clunky, cubist darlings didn't, but it is similarly ideal for ice-capped days.
They are a cinch to make, a melt-and-spread routine of white and dark chocolates, alternated with crushed peppermint snowfalls worthy of Willy Wonka himself. If you have a few hours planned around the house (the chilling takes some time), knocking together a batch of bars isn't too much by way of supplementary effort. If there's a group of you together, bulk batches are easily accommodated, and boom! Instant candy factory.
It is an old-ish recipe I’m handing over. One, in fact, published only a year before that nephew of mine was born. This recipe is one that's been already introduced and is deservedly well-loved, but I’ll stop short of apology for the encore - familiarity and a hint of kitch needn’t diminish enthusiasm. Therein lies the magic of traditions I think; they bear repeating. We talk about them over and over again, fall into their movements year after year, like the well-worn memory of an old friend who always kept her candy dish topped up.
Merry times to you.
LAYERED PEPPERMINT CRUNCH BARK
Slightly tweaked from Epicurious. This bark is surprisingly restrained; it isn't exceptionally sweet, and there's enough mint to redeem the waxy blandness of the white chocolate. (I've been known to pour the peppermint extract generously, approaching a full teaspoon in total.)
For the dark chocolate, I aim for the middle of the road and use mostly semisweet and some bittersweet if I have both on hand. The combination seems to be the most universally appealing, which is an asset if you're making these for gifts or a party. Use whichever suits your fancy or your audience. Since semisweet chocolate is quite a bit softer than bittersweet, in that case I cut the cream down to 4 1/2-5 tablespoons.
I have discovered that the red swirly peppermints called for are named "Starlight Mints" - could that be more charming? Pounding the pretties to an uneven dust affords the texture we like best. The tiny shards snap and the larger chunks crunch, but no piece is so large as to give any real resistance.
30 red-and-white-striped hard peppermint candies, crushed fairly fine (about 6 ounces)
17 ounces good-quality white chocolate (such as Lindt or Baker's), finely chopped
A good pinch kosher salt
7 ounces bittersweet (not unsweetened) or semisweet chocolate, chopped
6 tablespoons whipping cream
3/4 teaspoon peppermint extract
Run the peppermints through a coarse sieve. Reserve the dust to one side, and keep the larger pieces in the sieve itself.
Turn a large, sturdy baking sheet face side down. Cover securely with foil. Mark a 12x9-inch rectangle on the foil. Place the chopped white chocolate and kosher salt in a metal bowl over a saucepan of barely simmering water, never allowing the bottom of the bowl to touch the water. Stir until chocolate is melted and smooth, and registers 110°F on a candy thermometer. Remove the bowl from the water. Pour 2/3 cup of the melted white chocolate within border of the marked rectangle on foil. Using an offset spatula, spread chocolate to fill the rectangle. Mix some of the larger peppermint pieces into the dust to make up 1/3 cup. Sprinkle this over the white chocolate and chill until firm, about 15 minutes.
Stir the dark chocolate, cream and peppermint extract in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-low heat until smooth. Cool to barely lukewarm, around 5 minutes. Pour the bittersweet chocolate mixture over the white chocolate rectangle. Using a clean offset spatula, spread the bittersweet chocolate to form an even layer. Chill until very cold and firm, around 25 minutes.
Rewarm the remaining white chocolate in bowl set over barely simmering water, again to 110°F. Working quickly, pour the white chocolate over the firm bittersweet chocolate layer, spreading with a clean offset spatula to cover. Immediately sprinkle with remaining crushed peppermints. Refrigerate until just firm, about 20 minutes.
Lift bark off the foil onto a large work surface, with a metal spatula as aid if needed. With a thin bladed knife, trim edges. Cut bark crosswise into 2-inch-wide lengths. Cut each strip crosswise into 3 sections and each section across into squares.
Can be kept, in an airtight container in the refrigerator, for up to 2 weeks. Seperate layers with wax paper to keep candies from sticking.
Serve straight from the fridge or allow to sit at room temperature for 10 minutes or so if a softer candy is preferred. For the record, if you stash some in the freezer and then bash it to smaller shards, it makes a fine topping to a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Makes 36 pieces.