You can make shiny, tasty chocolates for giving or just eating
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, pay tribute to Girl Scout Cookies with these chocolate mint copycats
Chocolate and mint are the perfect holiday pair and, when combined with the most unlikely companion, a simple Ritz cracker, become even better than you can imagine.
Several years ago, I took a chocolate-making class at a delightful place called Country Garden Cuisine in St. Charles. Unfortunately, they have since closed, but I put the skills I learned there to use every December and February when I make homemade chocolates.
The class taught us to make molded chocolates and dipped chocolates. I learned a lot during the course, but by far, the easiest and most surprising recipe was the one I am sharing today for what we affectionately call "Copycat Girl Scout Cookies" at our house.
In addition to recipes, I learned quite a bit about chocolate. Did you ever wonder why you cannot achieve the shiny finish or crisp texture you get in professional candy stores when you dip something in melted chocolate chips? I know I did, and it kept me from making candy at home because I was never happy with the outcome.
I learned more about what I have seen on television many times, and chocolate needs to be tempered to achieve professional results.
Tempering involves slowly raising and lowering the temperature of melted chocolate while continually stirring, causing the structure of the large cocoa-butter crystals in the chocolate to break repeatedly and then reform. Proper tempering gives the chocolate a smooth and glossy finish, keeps it from quickly melting on your fingers, and allows it to set up for beautiful chocolate-covered treats.
This is an exacting process, requiring patience and skill, and honestly, something I have never tried. That being said, if you'd like to try your hand at the tempering process, there are machines sold that can make your life easier, although they do tend to be rather costly.
Instead, I opt for a high-quality chocolate coating. This is another thing I learned in my class; not all coatings are created equal. Some are full of imitation ingredients and don't taste very good at all, but lucky for me, I learned about the Merckens brand.
Usually, I do not name brands, but since the quality of the coating you use is so essential to the finished chocolates, this time will be the exception. There may be other high-quality coatings available, but this is one I know I can purchase locally that has always delivered consistent results.
So, what is the difference between real chocolate and chocolate coating? Real chocolate contains cocoa butter, but in the Merckens coating, the cocoa butter has been replaced with palm kernel oil.
Again, not all coatings are created equal as some lower-quality products contain fillers and other ingredients, resulting in what I would describe as waxy and overly sweet.
While a professional may prefer the real thing, if made with quality ingredients, coating chocolate can be a very nice product, offering us novice chocolatiers a great product to work with.
Lucky for us, Merckens can be purchased through a variety of online sources, or for convenience, purchased locally at Morkes Chocolates in Palatine. They sell it in both one-pound and five-pound bags and offer two types, light and dark "chocolate," comparable to milk and dark, or semisweet, chocolate.
The coating comes in discs, and my favorite way to melt it is in the microwave. Place one pound of discs in a small glass bowl and microwave on high for 30 seconds; stir. Continue microwaving and stirring in 30-second intervals until melted and smooth. This usually takes roughly 90 seconds in my microwave. Be careful not to overheat, as it will burn.
After it's completely melted, I like to allow the chocolate to cool for five to 10 minutes, to thicken just a bit, as I find it ensures a thick and even coating when dipping. You may have to place your bowl back in the microwave periodically, depending on how fast you use the chocolate; if this is necessary, microwave in 10-second intervals to reheat, instead of the previously mentioned 30.
For these "cookies," you will need to add food-safe peppermint oil. This can be purchased near the extracts in some grocery stores but can be found with the candy making supplies in most craft stores.
Whatever you do, do not use an extract. Extract and chocolate don't mix and may result in your chocolate seizing. Oils blend well with chocolate but are highly concentrated, so be careful not to use too much.
The Ritz, or butter cracker, adds just a hint of salt, creating the perfect balance to this sweet treat. You will not believe how good these taste or how quick and dangerously easy they are to make.
For the peanut butter lover, imagine a cracker sandwich filled with a "Buckeye-like" peanut butter mixture, all dipped in chocolate. Or, imagine all the other things you can dip in chocolate; pretzels, potato chips, cookies, etc. The key is not to dip things with moisture, so if you are going to dip a strawberry, make sure it is thoroughly dry first.
I hope you have a wonderful holiday filled with sweet treats.
• Penny Kazmier, a wife and mother of four from South Barrington, won the 2011 Daily Herald Cook of the Week Challenge.