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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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

All It’s Choc-ed Up To Be

Walk two steps into your average supermarket, corner store, or pharmacy, and you’re liable to trip over a stand of assorted chocolate temptations. The field has grown at an exponential rate ever since the first bite of tempered cacao passed through discerning lips, and that explosive growth shows no sign of slowing down. It’s impossible to keep up with all the new varieties proliferating from old favorites, let alone stay in the loop about fledgling brands. Any reasonable person can at least appreciate a good square of chocolate, so it doesn’t take much to explain the steady upward trend.

Valentine’s Day is a particularly good excuse to single out some exceptional chocolate options, should you need a reason to indulge in the first place. Gourmet truffles represent the height of the art form, but for the more casual chocoholic, a whole world of superlative bars now exist within easy reach, right on shelves alongside more accessible sweets.

Better known for their whole grains, Alter Eco has colored countless meals with their rainbow of quinoa options, but also pours that same passion for quality into their chocolate molds. Carefully, consciously sourced in order to support the farmers and workers contributing to every step of the process, it’s a brand I feel especially proud to call local to the San Francisco bay area. They truly put their money where their mouth is… In between bites of luscious cacao, of course.

Not all their confections are vegan, but the dairy-free options are so dark, rich, and deeply satisfying that it’s hard to understand why they would need such a crutch at all. Look no further than the Quinoa, Mint, and Orange varieties to see for yourself.

Move over Crunch and Crackle! The most unique option of the three, popped quinoa offers all the crispy texture you love, with the sophisticated, slightly bitter chocolate you crave. Just sweet enough to take the edge off, it’s the darkest of these three, which makes even a tiny shard quite satisfying. The quinoa adds very little flavor, but big visual and textural impact. You get all the whimsy of a childhood classic but with serious chocolate taste.

Mint chocolate is perhaps one of the most perfect flavor marriages in my mind, and this rendition does not disappoint. Luscious herbal aroma perfumes the air as soon as the seal is broken, revealing a flawlessly molded bar. Tempered to a crisp snap, it has a smooth, creamy melt with a refreshing, bright, but not overpowering undercurrent of mint. Well-balanced sweetness highlights the fresh flavor while rounding out the chocolate profile.

Substantial, chunky pieces of candied zest immediately gleam across the surface of the orange twist bar. Subtly smoky, woodsy chocolate lends a more earthy essence to contrast with the bold taste of citrus. The orange itself is relatively subdued, but still clean and fresh. Those whole pieces are the best element, adding a bit of chew and excitement into the experience.

Even bad chocolate is generally pretty good, but with so many exceptional options to choose from now, why settle for second rate? It doesn’t need to be a special occasion to indulge in any of these delights.