If you're looking for a Sunday kitchen project that doesn't involve corned beef and cabbage, how about a little St. Patrick's Day candy making? For that, we suggest Hand-Crafted Candy Bars by local authors Susie Norris, a reformed television exec turned former baking and pastry instructor (specializing in chocolate) at Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena, and Susan Heeger, a lifestyle journalist and co-author with Jimmy Williams of From Seed to Skillet. A pretty solid layer of co-authors for a candy book.
Turn the page for more on the book, plus the authors' soft chocolate nougat recipe. Because really, a good chocolate nougat is all you need on any given Irish Sunday -- or any other day of the week.
Though riffs on classic candy bars here (as well as new creations), the authors offer up this disclaimer: "Our bars, though inspired by classic candy bars we love, are in no way copies of the originals..." A good thing, as far as we are concerned, as it opens up the world of "Egyptian nougat bars" (nougat's invention is attributed to the Egyptians, bless them), peanut-covered maple nut logs, and dark chocolate bark with candied fresh mint and citrus zest -- which, incidentally, looks much better than any bark we've ever made.
One minor pet peeve, which we blame on current publishing and media industry trends, not the authors: In one chapter, "Dream Bars: Healthier, Spicier, Sexier," the standard American health harpings abound -- that dark chocolate is loaded with antioxidants, that homemade candies likely have substantially less Salt Sugar & Fat than their corporate cousins. True. But does a French pastry chef make excuses for her impossibly buttery, perfect croissants or beautifully sugar-filled macarons (speaking of, time to taste through those 10 Best Macarons in Los Angeles)? We hope not. This is (thankfully) a candy book not a health book, and a pretty great one using fantastic ingredients. But hey, if the author's pink peppercorn-sprinkled version of Twix makes the "Healthier, Spicier and Sexier" cut, we'll consider it an excuse to make two batches.
What's great about this book is its approachability. Hand-Crafted Candy Bars is not another tome on the Art of the Chocolatier or the Art of the Confectioner. Because much as we love Ewald Notter's pastillage technique, most weekends, we'd rather just make chocolate taffy (p. 61), peanut butter-chocolate cups (p. 46) or dark-chocolate dipped almond coconut bars (p. 37), which sound infinitely better than a certain commercial candy with the same ingredients. Another bonus: here, the number of recipes is hardly overwhelming, so making "nut n' nougat" bars on a Saturday afternoon (better yet, on a "sick day") seems completely doable.
The chapter we keep flipping back to is "Candy Bar Basics" with gives you just that -- all the basics you need to make you own bars. These are the building blocks of the recipes in other sections of the book: soft nougat, marzipan, fondant, four versions of caramel (and really, when is one ever enough?), basic toffee, fudge, vanilla cookie dough that works as a good candy bar base, chocolate coatings of various kinds. Many of the candies, say Norris and Heeger, freeze well. Good news if you're having a dessert party, bad news if your afternoon willpower is no stronger than ours.
The authors' personal favorite candy in the book? We're pretty impressed they were able to come to an agreement. The candy is one they have dubbed "molten chocolate peanut bars," little milk chocolate-covered logs filled with pillowy vanilla bean nougat and a layer of crunchy peanut butter-caramel. "It has everything we love in a candy bar - chewiness, nuttiness, sweet-saltiness, and that irresistible chocolate-caramel combo," they say in the recipe Introduction. Next weekend.
In the meantime, we'll be whipping up a little chocolate nougat -- in less than half an hour. Let the candy bar experiments begin.
Soft Chocolate Nougat
From: Hand-Crafted Candy Bars
Makes about 4 cups (795 G)
Time needed: 20 min
3 cups/355 g ice
3 egg whites
3⁄4 cup/150 g sugar
1⁄2 cup/120 ml corn syrup
1⁄4 cup/60 ml water
1⁄2 cup/80 g melted high-quality dark chocolate
1 tbsp butter
1 tsp vanilla extract
1⁄2 tsp salt
1. Put the ice in a medium bowl and set aside. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. Put the egg whites in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment and set aside.
3. Stir together the sugar, corn syrup, and water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and continue to boil without stirring until the mixture reaches 225°F/110°C on a candy thermometer.
4. Begin whipping the egg whites on low speed. Continue cooking the sugar syrup until it reaches 245°F/118°C. (If your temperature goes higher, shock the syrup by setting the pan in the bowl of ice.) Pour a splash of the syrup into the egg whites, aiming for the space between the rim of the bowl and the whisk attachment. Continue whisking as you slowly add the rest of the hot sugar syrup. Increase the mixer speed to high and whip until the nougat reaches a full, frothy foam, about 2 minutes.
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5. Allow the nougat to cool for about 20 minutes. (It should be close to room temperature and the bottom of the mixing bowl should no longer feel hot.) Turn the mixer on again and add the melted chocolate, butter, vanilla, and salt. Continue mixing until smooth. Use a big nonstick spatula or wooden spoon to scoop the nougat onto the prepared baking sheet. Allow the nougat to come to room temperature before using in candy-bar production.
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