So, here we are, it's nearly Christmas, and I have yet to mail the annual holiday boxes of candy and cookies I send to my mom, brother, and in-laws, scattered up and down the East coast from Massachusetts to Florida. I feel like an old fogy, saying “Oh, goodness gracious me, where does the time go?”–but it’s true! There are a thousand things I WANT to do to get ready for the holidays… but which ones do I actually get to? Luckily, the recipients of these gifts understand my "flexible" sense of time.
Even if decorating and Christmas cards fall by the wayside, holiday baking is something I never miss. Maybe it’s the panettone I make for my husband’s large Italian family (and yes, sometimes they even think it’s better than the ones that come from the supermarket!). Or the very simple chocolate fudge, the recipe for which I read right off the Marshmallow Fluff® label. (Though I might switch to dark chocolate almond bark with dried cranberries and pecans this year…) Or the Chip 'n' Chunk Cookies everyone seems to love (including Santa–he leaves the plate clean every year!). But what I do know is this: the joy of creating and giving is a great pleasure, not a chore. And no matter how time-pressed I am, I simply take a deep breath before I begin, remember what’s important–family, friends, and the love and care they bring to life–and dive in.
I’m no expert, when it comes to making things pretty; I'm just not one of those "crafty" people. And maybe my baking isn’t exactly cutting edge. But it tastes good, it’s presentable enough once I gift-bag it, and it comes from the heart. That’s a combination that just can’t be beat.
So, if you're pressed for time and out of ideas, whip up a batch of chocolate bark. It’s as simple as melting chocolate in the microwave–honest! Here’s a basic recipe; use your imagination to customize candy for your favorite sweets-lover.
Melt 1 1/3 cups (8 ounces) chocolate (white, milk, semisweet, or bittersweet, block, chips or chunks). When you’re melting chocolate, for candy or any other use, be gentle. Chocolate should never bubble; in fact, it shouldn’t even melt all the way before you take it off the heat. Melting chocolate slowly ensures its flavor won’t be compromised, and also helps the appearance of the final product (e.g., candy with a nice sheen, rather than a dull surface).
The most foolproof way to melt chocolate is in a double boiler; but most of us (me included) don’t want to fool around with that. Instead, use the microwave and a thick glass or stoneware bowl that’ll hold heat. Microwave for a short amount of time–30 seconds? 1 minute? It depends on the amount of chocolate and the power of your microwave–then remove the bowl from the oven, and stir the chocolate.
If nothing happens–e.g., if the chips or chunks just sit there without starting to melt as you stir–return to the microwave briefly. Once you’ve heated the chocolate to the point where it begins to melt as you stir it, stir for about 30 seconds, or until it’s melted, but there are still some chunks showing. Let it rest for a minute (the bowl’s heat will keep it warm), then stir again, till the mixture is completely smooth.
When the chocolate is completely smooth, stir in the add-ins of your choice, and quickly spread the bark on a parchment-lined or lightly greased baking sheet. Make it as thick or thin as you like. Allow it to cool at room temperature.
Spread the soft bark on a piece of parchment, for easiest release and NO cleanup afterwards.
Once the chocolate is completely set, break it up into bite-sized pieces, and bag in small gift bags. No kidding, that’s it! The recipe above makes enough to fill a small-to-medium gift bag. It’s very easy to double it, if you decide you want to make a lot of one flavor. I prefer making smaller batches of multiple flavors.
If you’re afraid to deviate even one iota from a recipe, now’s your chance to expand your horizons a little. Most baking recipes should be adhered to fairly strictly–the perfect balance among fat, liquid, flour, salt, sugar, and leavening is what separates a delicious treat from something only the birds will enjoy–and you shouldn’t change amounts of those ingredients unless you really know your baking chemistry. However, this candy doesn’t involve any of those ingredients, except in a marginal way. You’re simply melting chocolate, and stirring in other goodies. The point is, you just can’t ruin this simple treat, so long as you start with decent chocolate and melt it carefully.
Curious about other flavors I've tried? Well, how about diced crystallized ginger and dried cranberries in white chocolate? Or piña colada bark, with diced dried pineapple and toasted coconut. Sacher Torte bark: dark chocolate and diced dried apricots. Try cappuccino: melt cappuccino chips, and stir in a teaspoon of espresso powder and toasted nuts and/or chocolate chips. Or melt cinnamon chips, then stir in 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon (Vietnamese preferred), dried apple nuggets, and toasted chopped walnuts. Just remember, your basic recipe is 8 ounces chocolate, plus 1 cup "add-ins," plus an alcohol- or oil-based flavor, if you like.
Now, if you know someone who loves that newly fashionable "salty-sweet" thing, melt white or milk chocolate (dark chocolate isn't sweet enough), and add some small salted pretzel rings (the ones that are about 1” big). Stir gently (but quickly; you don’t want the chocolate to cool), then place the pretzels, one by one, on parchment. Admittedly, the “one by one” is kind of a pain and you CAN just dump them out and break them up haphazardly once they cool, but they’re prettier cooled individually.
If even finding the ingredients to add to melted chocolate is too much for you–it's OK! Don't get down on yourself. Frankly, one of my favorite holiday treats is chocolate sandwich cookies dipped in melted chocolate. Sprinkle with red and green nonpareils, for a festive look. There’s not a chocolate-lover alive who won’t love a plateful of THESE treats! And if you're someone who really likes to follow directions, check out our Chocolate Dips recipe. Happy holidays!