Tuesday 18 December 2012

Christmas Tree Bark

No, not really. Chocolate bark is a festive, versatile, delicious treat that is easy to make, perfect for your holiday parties and even makes great edible gifts. If you have young children, this is a great activity to include them in. I made two different kinds last night to share at the office today. They were a big hit. I made orange-chocolate bark with toasted almonds and sea salt as well as peppermint-white chocolate bark with cranberries and pistachios. The orange and peppermint flavours were obtained through extracts, which come in very handy for making sweets. They are optional though. As for toppings, you could use anything you want from any nuts, seeds, dried fruit, marshmallows, pretzels, shredded coconut, crushed candy canes, cookie pieces, you name it! You could even incorporate this into a treat at Easter time. In this example, I made a dark chocolate bark and a white chocolate bark. Another popular option is to use 2 parts dark chocolate to 1 part white chocolate. Once both are melted, spread the dark chocolate onto a piece of parchment paper into an even layer. Then make dollops of the white chocolate or pour in a zig-zag formation over the dark. Then use the back of a spoon or an offset spatula to create swirls and make a marbled effect. The result is beautiful.

To my recollection this is the first time I've ever made chocolate bark. There were areas of both barks that were quite thin. Most recipes advise a centimeter to half an inch for thickness. Mine wasn't as even as it could have been but it still worked fine. As long as it's thick enough to break into reasonable pieces with your hands then it will be great. I find these are best served cold. If your bark is at least a centimeter thick it shouldn't be much of a problem. Otherwise they have a tendency to melt a bit on your fingers if served at room temperature. 

You could just as easily use milk chocolate if you prefer (milk chocolate + almonds. How great is that!?). I decided to use dark and white because they look great together. Plus there is something Christmasy about dark chocolate and orange together. Although the mint extract would have been great with the dark chocolate too. Adding coarse salt to a sweet like chocolate may seem bizarre but it works magnificently. The  sweet, fragrant dark chocolate with a lingering aroma of orange against the friendly yet sharp hits of salt here and there is very interesting. You don't want to add enough to make it salty, just a pinch over the entire bark from a height before it sets is perfect. The peppermint extract also worked great with the creamy white chocolate. I paired dried cranberries and pistachios for the obvious red & green holiday colours though they are genuinely nice together. I was originally planning on dried cherries but after trying three different places I couldn't find any at the last minute. So I cut my losses and settled. No shade to cranberries though. They made me proud in the end.

Before we get into it, to melt the chocolate I used a bain marie or double boiler (a first on the blog). This just means a saucepan with an inch of simmering water with a heat proof bowl sitting on top, but not touching the water. This allows the chocolate to melt gently and smoothly instead of burning. Alternatively, you could place your chocolate in a bowl and microwave on high for 30 seconds. Give the chocolate a good stir and then repeat as needed. You don't want to melt the chocolate completely before removing it from the heat. There will be enough residual heat in the bowl to finish the job while keeping the consistency you want. 

So to begin, get your bain marie ready and the water simmering. First we'll make the dark chocolate and almond version. The very first thing I did was evenly spread 3/4 cup of whole almonds onto parchment paper and baked in the oven at 350°F/175°C for 6-8 minutes to toast them. This intensifies the flavour of the almonds. Allow the almonds to cool completely before adding to the chocolate. I really recommend not skipping that part. It makes all the difference.

Places 12 oz/340 grams of dark chocolate (70% cocoa) in the bain marie. The water should be simmering on medium-high heat.

Stirring occasionally, allow the chocolate to melt.

Just before the chocolate has melted completely, remove from the heat and stir until melted. Add 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract and 1 teaspoon of orange extract.

Place a sheet of parchment paper onto a baking tray and pour the chocolate in the center. Using a spatula, smooth out an even layer. A centimeter to half an inch is best. Don't worry about making a perfect rectangular shape as you're just going to break it all up in the end anyway.

Evenly sprinkle the toasted almonds all over the chocolate. An even and generous distribution is key as you want every piece to have both chocolate and nut. From a height, sprinkle a pinch of coarse sea salt over the bark as well. Then place the tray in the fridge for one hour to set.

After an hour, the chocolate will be stiff and effortlessly come right off of the parchment paper. At this point you could cut your pieces with a knife, or as I prefer, break rustic pieces with your bare hands (after all, the idea is it's supposed to look like bark).

Once they're broken up. You're all done! How terribly easy was that? That was so simple, let's do the whole thing over again with white chocolate...

Add the same amount (12 oz/340 grams) of white chocolate to your bain marie.

Allow the chocolate to melt while stirring occasionally. Once removed from the heat and completely melted, add one teaspoon of vanilla extract and one teaspoon of peppermint extract and stir to combine. Then spread evenly over parchment paper with a spatula.

Add a generous and even sprinkling of pistachios and dried cranberries. Once satisfied, place in the fridge for one hour to set.

Break the bark into desired pieces and serve or package. 

You could place three or four pieces into clear party bags, fasten with a pretty ribbon and give them out as gifts for the holidays. People love homemade, edible gifts. This is a great option for a last minute idea. One more thing about extracts, remember that a little goes a long way. Particularly with a flavour like peppermint, too much extract could ruin your bark. Again, extract is completely optional in the first place, but they do make quite a difference in flavour. The best thing to do would be to add a little at a time to the melted chocolate and use your taste to tweak it just to your liking (as you would with seasoning). You can always add more, but you can't subtract, so pace yourself. Even if you do go overboard, it's not like making a new batch is much effort. I had one coworker say that she couldn't quite detect the orange flavour enough in the dark chocolate bark in this recipe. It worked for my taste, but you may agree with her. So definitely play around with the flavour a bit and make it the best it can be for you. 

What are you waiting for? Give this recipe a try. Be creative and personalize your own chocolate bark for the season.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays,


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