Bark with a Bite

For all their creative potential, edible presents are criminally undervalued, often viewed as gifts of last resort. Can’t figure out a darned thing your difficult, curmudgeonly Uncle Eddie would enjoy? Well, everyone eats food, at least. Oh, but what about that co-worker you greet every morning but forgot to include on your list? There must be something in the pantry you could cobble together and stick a bow on.

Written off as a last-minute option, haphazardly slapped together in a moment of charitable desperation, chocolate bark especially enjoys particular prominence around this time of the year. Little more than cacao slabs with a bit of extra texture, the concept nonetheless remains wildly popular despite- or perhaps in part because of- this very unpretentious simplicity. Chocolate is never a hard sell to begin with, so when you add in a handful of nuts or crushed candy canes, such effortless appeal is universal among givers and receivers alike. However, that’s just the beginning of this spicy story. Given a little bit more deliberate intention, what if I told you we could make bark even better?

Despite its comparatively blanched pallor, this particular festive candy innovation could make the finest single origin dark bar melt. Gingerbread aroma beyond your wildest dreams springs out of the woodwork, going out on a limb to kick this festive palate of spices up another notch. Chewy nuggets of candied ginger and the crisp, fresh crunch of roasted almonds lend textural dimension that goes against the traditional grain, eschewing the candy-coated peppermints of years past to complement a more balanced sweetness.

In this modern re-imagination of the classic confection, refined sugars need not apply, believe it or not. A modest measure of stevia is enough to contrast with those warming spices without risking dessert overdose during the most tempting time of year. I used Steviva Blend since it’s about twice as sweet as white sugar, thus allowing me to use less and create a more satisfyingly snappy texture. Desserts should always be about the flavor first and sweetness second, making it a perfect mix for my needs.

To satisfy your curiosity and your sweet tooth at the same time, you can check out more info about Steviva on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.

Gingerbread Bark

4 Ounces 100% Food-Grade Cocoa Butter
1 Teaspoon Blackstrap Molasses
1/4 Cup Steviva Blend
1 Tablespoon Coconut Milk Powder
1 Teaspoon Ground Ginger
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Cinnamon
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Cloves
1/8 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Cup Sliced Almonds
2 Tablespoons Crystalized Ginger, Very Finely Minced

Place your cocoa butter in a microwave-safe bowl and heat it on full power 1 – 3 minutes, pausing at 30 second intervals to stir, until it completely liquefies. Be sure to keep an eye on it at all times, as it has a much lower melting point than a bar of finished chocolate. Mix in the molasses and let sit for just a moment to cool slightly.

Meanwhile, sift together the Steviva Blend, coconut milk powder, spices, and salt. Add the dry mixture into the cocoa butter, stirring gently until smooth. Pour into chocolate molds, shaped either like traditional break-apart bars or genuine slabs of bark for greatest effect, and tap lightly on the counter to knock out any errant air bubbles. Sprinkle evenly with the almonds and ginger.

Place the molds in your fridge or freezer to accelerate the curing process, allowing them to sit undisturbed until entirely solid; at least 1 – 2 hours.

Makes 1 Large or Two Small Chocolate Bars

Printable Recipe

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Fudging the Dates

Is it too early to start talking about homemade holiday gifts? Thanksgiving decorations still liter the seasonal aisles and many dining rooms lay in ruin awaiting the grand feast, just a day away, but let’s be honest. We’ve all been looking warily towards Christmas and Hanukkah for the past month or two. The “Christmas Creep” is a real threat, as retailers try foist merriment upon us earlier each year, making it impossible to forget that presents must be purchased, urgently, abundantly, more generously than ever before. Rather than having their intended effect of spurring sales, it has quite opposite impact on me. Recoiling from such forced jolliness, I rebel, scorning the very things I love most. The limited edition items that I love, that I wait for with baited breath to return after a year’s absence, the bright spots of the dark days of winter; I deny their existence until at least Black Friday has safely passed. However, there are some seasonal specialties too good to resist. Fully embracing that urge to indulge, Voortman Bakery Chocolate Mint Wafers have made the shortlist of annual delicacies that are worth stockpiling as soon as they hit store shelves.

Delicate, light, and crisp, you’ve likely seen these classic treats before. Voortman Bakery has been baking with the best of them since 1951, slowly expanding and diversify their offerings over decades of experience. What hasn’t changed is their focus on real ingredients and fresh flavors. Though many times those bright packages caught my eye, I never stopped to investigate, wrongly assuming that such a classic staple couldn’t possibly be vegan. Shockingly, happily, it turns out there are no animal products layered between those thin pastry sheets and sweet cream fillings!

Reliably found in grocery stores across the nation, the everyday flavors are delights themselves, but mint chocolate, as I might have mentioned before, is one of my favorite combinations. The simple pleasure of biting into one of these crisp biscuits is amplified when eaten chilled. At first I thought I’d prolong my stash by hiding them away in the back of my freezer, but I discovered with both dismay and delight, that made them even more irresistible.

Taking that inspiration one step further, I reached into the candy jar for some minty fresh candy canes, gleaming in a crisp coat of red and white stripes. Enrobed in a rich coat of chocolate fudge that melts in your mouth, fast and sweet like freshly fallen snow, those wafers stay as snappy as ever.

The whole treat comes together so quickly, even taking into account the time it takes to set, it feels like a bit of homemade holiday magic.

If you’re not such a big peppermint fan, that’s okay, we can still be friends. You can also find the illustrious gingerbread wafers for a limited time, which positively sing when smothered with chocolate and topped instead with very finely chopped crystallized ginger.

Can fudge still make the cut on a holiday cookie platter? With wafers at the ready, crunching throughout every festive bite, I think that these exceptional little squares get the green light; no one said you had to do all the baking!

Peppermint Crunch Fudge

1/4 Cup Vegan Butter
1/4 Cup Plain Non-Dairy Milk
2 Cups (12 Ounces) Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips
1/4 Teaspoon Peppermint Extract
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
5 Ounces (1/2 Package) Chopped Voortman Bakery Chocolate Mint Wafers
1/2 Cup Roughly Crushed Candy Canes or Peppermint Starlight Hard Candies

Line an 8 x 8-inch baking dish with parchment paper or aluminum foil, lightly grease, and set aside.

Place the butter, non-dairy milk, and chocolate in a microwave safe bowl. Heat on full power for 60 – 90 seconds, pausing at 30-second intervals to stir thoroughly, until the chocolate has completely melted. Once smooth, mix in the peppermint extract and salt. Use a wide spatula to gently fold the chopped wafer cookies into the chocolate mixture, being careful not to crush them.

Transfer to your prepared pan, smoothing it out into as even a layer as possible. Sprinkle the crushed peppermint candy over the top. Place the dish in the fridge for at least 1 hour, or in the freezer for 30 minutes, until fully set.

Use the parchment or aluminum as a sling to remove the fudge from the pan and slice into small squares with a very sharp knife. Enjoy chilled for the most refreshingly minty experience!

Makes About 1 Pound Fudge; 24 – 30 Servings

Printable Recipe

This post was made possible thanks to the support of Voortman Bakery and Towers Marketing Group. All content and opinions are unbiased and entirely my own.

Sweeter by the Dozen

They say it’s your birthday
It’s my birthday too, yeah

As I struggle to stitch together the right combination of words on yet another post, I find that The Beatles sum up the general premise quite nicely in just a few simple words. My biological birthday was last month, but today is the day that BitterSweet turns twelve years old, an implausible, unbelievable milestone that I find myself celebrating with an even greater fervor. This humble little corner of virtual space has become so inextricably linked with my identity over the years, growing and contracting, morphing and evolving, persisting against all odds, that it really is my own birthday, too.

Let’s not get too mushy here, but there is a deep debt of gratitude that I do owe to you, every last one of you, that has dropped by to comment, like, pin, tweet, re-gram or re-post. That encouragement, reassuring me that I wasn’t just blogging in a vacuum, that there genuinely was interest in my crazy experiments and rambling thoughts- That is what allowed BitterSweet to not only survive, but thrive. It’s because of you that I found my true passion in life, made a career out of it, and continue striving to create and circulate all those adventures (and misadventures) along the way.

It’s given me the opportunity to make friends all across the globe, to connect with people I would otherwise never meet, to share some of my favorite things and find many more. It’s on that note that I’d like to introduce you to one more incredible small business poised to make a big splash…

Noosh turned out to be the sleeper hit on my list of new brands showcasing their wares at the Winter Fancy Foods Show last month. Hidden in a small enclave off to the side of the main floor, wedged into a tiny booth among many, I almost walked right on by without a second glance. How many different types of almond butter do we really need, after all? Just like granola bars and protein powders, isn’t the market already saturated with more options than we know what to do with? Yet somehow I was charmed, drawn in by the slick packaging and straightforward ingredient list. It’s pure, creamy almond butter, but so silky smooth and naturally sweet that you could almost call it almond nectar. In fact, I’ve taken to drizzling it liberally over my morning oatmeal instead of using maple syrup. Since that fateful encounter, I’ve grown increasingly smitten with the stuff, packing my bags with the single serving pouches in case of almond butter emergencies on the go.

As marvelous as the original and chocolate are, this is just the start. Not yet on the market but previewed at the show, I’m not kidding when I say that the Birthday Cake Almond Butter might just be life-changing. Yes, it is THAT good. It’s a challenge to slowly ration out my current supply until it officially hits the market, opening up the flood gates to unimpeded nut butter-based cake indulgence. Whereas many snacks promise a cake-like flavor, doomed to fall terribly short by comparison to the real thing, Noosh actually delivers. I don’t know how they do it, and quite frankly, I don’t want to. There’s a certain magic in that delicious mystery.

Inspired by that fresh-baked flavor and determined to stretch my limited stock just a little bit further, I couldn’t help but turn it into another cake facsimile. Rich, soft, melt-in-your-mouth bites of fudge both look and taste so much like the genuine article, you could easily get away with serving these at your next big party. Comprised of little more than almonds, coconut, and maple syrup, these adorable miniatures will satisfy your sweet tooth without inciting a sugar coma, even if you do indulge in seconds- or thirds.

Mercifully, the tortuous wait for a fresh supply of that ambrosial almond elixir is almost over. After much needling and prodding, I’ve been assured that this incredible flavor will finally be ready for purchase within the coming month. Best of all, so cheered by my irrepressible enthusiasm, Noosh has offered to send three readers a package of their very own, as soon as it’s available. What better way to celebrate a blog birthday than with presents, and of course, cake?

To enter, all you need to do is leave me a comment. If you’re a longtime subscriber, tell me how long you’ve been along for this wild ride. Have you tried any recipes over the years, or do you remember way back when BitterSweet was primarily about the knitty gritty of more crafty ventures? If you’re new to these parts, introduce yourself, say hi! What brought you here, what got your attention?

Log this and additional entries to improve your odds on the official giveaway page until Wednesday, February 14th at midnight PST. Win or lose, don’t forget to come back for the recipe which you’ll want to celebrate all year, every year.

Cupcake Fudge

Cupcake Fudge Base:

1/2 Cup Noosh Birthday Cake Almond Butter
1/4 Cup Melted Coconut Butter
2 Tablespoons 100% Grade B Maple Syrup
1/2 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1/4 Teaspoon Salt

Chocolate Fudge Frosting:

1/2 Cup Noosh Chocolate Almond Butter
3 Tablespoons Melted Coconut Butter
2 Tablespoons 100% Grade B Maple Syrup
1 Tablespoon Cocoa Powder
1/4 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1/4 Teaspoon Salt

Garnish (Optional):

Edible Glitter and/or Shimmer Spray

Begin with the cupcake fudge base: Simply mix together all of the ingredients in a large bowl until smooth. Spoon the liquid fudge into small fluted cup silicone truffle molds. Let sit for at least 30 – 45 minutes, until completely solidified. Pop them out of the molds and keep them in the freezer.

Meanwhile, prepare the frosting by going through the same process of blending together all the ingredients, spooning the mixture into spiral (as pictured) or small dome silicone truffle molds and place on a flat surface in the freezer. Let rest for 10 – 15 minutes until they begin to set but are not yet entirely firm.

Take the finished cupcake fudge bases and gently pressure them into the soft frosting fudge. Return the molds to the freezer to allow them to finish solidifying. After 30 – 60, they should be ready to pop out all in one cohesive piece.

Garnish with edible glitter(s) if desired. Store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to a week, or in the freezer for up to a month… If you can manage to stay away from them that long, that is.

Makes 20 – 22 Cupcake Fudge Truffles

Printable Recipe

Scary Good Sweets

’tis time! ’tis time!
Round about the caldron go;
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.

Fear not, dear readers. The bubbling hell broth on my stove on this crisp October evening is not poison, nor calls for such unpleasant inclusions as eye of newt or baboon’s blood. Quite the contrary, the glowing orange brew cooking away on my fire lands distinctly on the opposite end of that spectrum, farm from poison, or similarly tricky “treats.”

Forget the laundry list of obscure magical inclusions. Candy is possible not only with simple everyday ingredients, but wholesome staples that wouldn’t spook the healthiest of goblins- Or their parents.

Pumpkin spice, straight to the point, possesses these gummy morsels with more than a merely haunting flavor. Spirited seasonal sweetness rings true in each chewy bite, casting an impossibly enchanting spell. Quantities may look small, but each batch produces a bountiful harvest of tiny pumpkin pieces, so there should be plenty to appease any hungry apparitions that arrive as the witching hour approaches. That said, they’re so quick and effortless to whip up, it may not be such a bad idea to stock up, before those charming costumed creatures turn into ravenous monsters.

This fearfully addictive snack was inspired and made possible by the devilish Pumpkin Spice Extract by Rodelle.

Pumpkin Spice Gummies

1/2 Cup Pumpkin Puree
1 Cup Apple Juice Concentrate
1 1/2 Tablespoons Agar Powder
1 Teaspoon Pumpkin Spice Extract or Pumpkin Spice Blend

Have four mini pumpkin candy molds at the ready, or a comparable shape. Alternately, you can line an 8 x 8-inch square baking pan with foil and plan to simply cut out gummy squares. Just be sure to lightly grease the foil before proceeding.

Whisk all of the ingredients in a small saucepan until smooth and set over medium heat. Stir gently but consistently; you should start to feel the mixture thicken almost instantly. Continue scraping the bottom and sides of the pan as you stir to prevent sticking or burning, until the mixture is sticky but spoonable. It will be so dense that it doesn’t quite come to a boil, but should bubble up around the edges quite a bit.

Smooth the mixture into your molds as quickly as possible, is the candy sets up very quickly. Let stand at room temperature until fully set; at least 20 – 30 minutes. Pop the pumpkins out of the molds and trim away any excess, if necessary. Store in an air-tight container in the fridge for 5 – 7 days… If they don’t mysteriously disappear first…

Makes About 60 Mini Pumpkin Gummies

Printable Recipe

Bringing the Heat

Fire engine red bottles emblazoned by high-contrast white text and capped with neon-green lids roll rapidly off the production line, unmistakable even at breakneck speed. At last count, the Huy Fong sriracha factory churns out over 3,000 bottles an hour, 24 hours a day, six days a week. In case you’re still crunching the numbers, that adds up to literal tons of sriracha, not just every year or every month, but every week. The world has developed an insatiable appetite for this distinctive hot sauce, elevating it over the course of a few short decades from obscurity to utter ubiquity. A decent restaurant with a selection of condiments will carry it, right alongside the salt and pepper shakers. A house is not a home unless there’s at least one bottle chilling in the fridge or kicking around in the pantry. No one is immune to the universal appeal of perfectly balance sweet, spicy, salt, and savory flavors found in each fiery drop.

Many people, myself included, would put sriracha on anything edible, at least once. I have yet to find any truly distasteful pairing, running the gamut from breakfast pancakes to midnight snacks. It’s just a shame that the typical liquid format doesn’t lend itself well to more delicately honed ratios of confectionery, preventing it from spreading the spicy love across all forms of food… Until now.

Hot sauce heads and sweet tooth lovers, unite! Dry, powdered sriracha seasoning from Rodelle is about to become your new best friend. Though best known for their ambrosial vanilla offerings, Rodelle shows off their feisty side with this unbeatable blend of chili peppers, garlic, powdered vinegar, and sugar. Ideal for applications where additional moisture would definitely dampen spirits, such as sprinkling over fluffy popcorn or finishing off crisp bruschettas, for starters.

As mentioned briefly, my main focus here was on dessert right from square one. Playing right into the fine balance of this brilliant sauce, white chocolate and sweet potato lend a measured sweetness that works beautifully to highlight sriracha’s unique tang and heat. Shatter through the snowy white shell with one swift bite to reveal a creamy filling, bold but not overbearing, bouncing from numerous flavorful high notes in each bite.

Prepare yourself for a new seasoning sensation. This is only the beginning of a beautiful relationship full of sweetness and spice, unrivaled by any lesser “rooster” sauce.

This post was made possible thanks to Rodelle and their superlative spicy contributions.

White Hot Sweet Potato Truffles

8 Ounces Vegan White Chocolate, Homemade or Store-Bought
1/2 Cup Sweet Potato Puree
1/2 Cup Confectioner’s Sugar
1/4 Cup Melted Coconut Oil
1/2 Teaspoon Molasses
1/2 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1 Tablespoon Sriracha Seasoning, Divided

Begin by melting the white chocolate over a double boiler or in the microwave, stirring periodically until completely smooth. Coat the insides of two small silicone bonbon molds with the melted chocolate, smoothing it up the sides of each cavity to ensure even coverage. Tap out any excess before stashing the molds in your freezer to set the truffle walls. Set the extra white chocolate aside for the time being.

To make the filling, simply combine the sweet potato puree, confectioner’s sugar, melted coconut oil, molasses, vanilla, and 2 teaspoons of the sriracha seasoning in a medium-sized bowl. Stir until all the ingredients are well combined and smooth.

Once the white chocolate has hardened, pull the molds out and fill them most of the way to the top with the sweet potato filling. Top each truffle off with a final drizzle of white chocolate, spreading it out to cover and seal all that sweet heat inside. Finish by sprinkling the remaining sriracha seasoning evenly on top before returning the candies to the freezer for at least 15 minutes.

When the white chocolate has fully set, the truffles can be stored in a cool, air-tight container for 3 – 5 days.

Makes About 30 Small Truffles

Printable Recipe

Short and Sweet

Good things come in small packages. Navigating the world as a vertically challenged person, this particular truism is one that I hold close to heart. Height, or lack thereof, should never be viewed as an obstacle, but rather celebrated for all the unique benefits it provides. Leg room is never an issue when flying, even on a cut-rate coach ticket, for example, and it’s effortless to slip in (or out) of a crowd. I’d like to think that a smaller size means that all the good things inside are merely condensed and intensified to fit, amplified into a more pure form. Although that can’t be said for all people, that’s certainly the case for strawberry shortcake.

Modern interpretations of this sweet biscuit sandwich stretch the definition, often towering higher than a modest layer cake, but at its core, the concept remains short and sweet. Today, I’m here to push the boundaries further, albeit in the opposite direction. Flattening out the assembly into one thin plank, this confectionery rendition measures less than a centimeter tall, dazzling with flavor rather than lofty aspirations.

Encased in darkly caramelized toffee, crispy quinoa stands in for cake or biscuits, adding just the right cereal note to support the star players. Strawberries, dried and sliced, are both beautiful and flavorful; removing the excess water creates a far sweeter treat than fresh fruit, while simultaneously extending their shelf life to suit any season. Whipped cream is out of the picture, handily replaced by a luscious drizzle of white chocolate instead.

Although shortness often carried negative associations, like being short-tempered or getting short shrift, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t celebrate the more compact things (and people) among us. There’s no need to drone on and turn this into a long post; let’s keep it short and sweet, starting with a morsel of strawberry shortcake toffee, shall we?

Strawberry Shortcake Toffee

1/2 Ounce Freeze-Dried Strawberries, Divided
1/3 Cup Crispy Quinoa Cereal or Crispy Rice Cereal
3/4 Cup Vegan Butter
1 Cup Demerara or Turbinado Sugar
1 Tablespoon 100% Grade B Maple Syrup
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract

3 Ounces (1/2 Cup Chips or Finely Chopped Pieces) Vegan White Chocolate, Melted

Line an 8 x 8-inch baking pan with aluminum foil, lightly grease, and sprinkle half of the freeze-dried strawberries along with all of the crispy cereal over the bottom, as evenly as possible. Set aside.

Grind the remaining dried strawberries down to a fine powder in a coffee or spice grinder. Combine it with the vegan butter, sugar, maple syrup, and salt in a medium-sized saucepan and set over moderate heat. Stir just to moisten all of the sugar, and then keep your spatula out of the mixture until the very end. Instead, swirl the pan gently to mix the contents, which will help prevent premature crystal formation.

Allow the margarine to melt and sugar to dissolve before clipping a thermometer to the side of the pan. You’ll want to bring the sugar to a steady boil, until it turns a deep amber brown color and reaches 300 degrees, which is also known as the “hard crack stage” of candy making.

Turn off the heat, carefully stir in the vanilla as it may sputter angrily, and immediately pour the mixture into your prepared pan. Try to pour it evenly over the goodies within so as not to displace the goodies at the bottom.

Let cool completely before snapping into more manageable pieces. Drizzle with melted white chocolate, and let set once more before handling. Store in an air-tight container at room temperature.

Printable Recipe