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An easy, festive treat for any occasion

All of us who could not envision a world without chocolate owe our gratitude to the Conquistadors who first brought this precious commodity back to Europe centuries ago. They were introduced to this most delectable treat by the Aztecs of Mexico who harvested the cacao, finely ground it, and brewed a beverage often flavored with chilies or cinnamon and sweetened with honey. This concoction, xocolatl, was typically served during important ceremonies and was thought to improve one’s stamina and help fight fatigue.

What we like best about making this candy is that you can tailor it to almost any occasion. We love a version that echoes the flavors of the Aztecs’ original recipe. Chocolate bark topped with toasted pumpkin seeds, ancho chili, cinnamon, and cayenne pepper makes for a nutty, spicy treat. Hulled pumpkin seeds (also called pepitas) can be found at your local natural foods store or even some grocery stores. If you have trouble finding ancho chili powder, chipotle chili powder could be used as an alternative. The blend of the sweet chocolate with the crunch of the pumpkin seeds and the subtle kick of heat is exceptional! For the holiday season, a beautiful version of a classic peppermint bark is always a welcome treat.

Stonewall Chocolate 145-350xUse your imagination and taste buds to create a bark that is just what you’re craving. White, milk, or dark chocolate topped with nuts, dried fruits, crushed candies, and spices can reflect your own creativity in a most delicious way.

After deciding on your toppings, choosing your chocolate is the only part of this simple process you need to pay attention to. Chocolate buttons found in craft stores are not chocolate; do not use them for making bark. They may melt and produce an edible candy, but they are actually made from sugar, vegetable oils, and flavoring. While chocolate chips are a little better, we don’t recommend using them for making candy. Since they are made with more vegetable oil and less cocoa butter, they are appropriate for baking in cookies and using as toppings but do not offer the rich, deep chocolate flavor you’re looking for.

Peppermint Bark

Makes about 12 ounces of bark or one standard cookie sheet full of candy

12 ounces good-quality dark chocolate

½ teaspoon peppermint extract

1 cup crushed peppermint candy

1. Break chocolate into approximately one-inch pieces. Place chocolate in a stainless steel or glass bowl and set it over a saucepan full of simmering hot water; stir constantly while the chocolate melts (or you can use a double boiler). Add extract and stir to blend.

2. Spread melted chocolate onto a cookie sheet lined with a Silpat or waxed paper. Spread with a spatula and allow to set for just a minute or two.

3. Sprinkle crushed candy on top. Gently press candy into the chocolate. Allow to cool completely in a refrigerator and then break into medium-size pieces. Keep cool until ready to enjoy.

Options:

• Melt 4 ounces of good quality white chocolate. After the peppermint bark has cooled thoroughly, drizzle the white chocolate over all. Chill again until completely cooled.

• Use green and red or blue crushed peppermint candies for a festive holiday look.

• Add slivered almonds or crushed walnuts to the topping.