It’s funny how some recipes just start turning up all the time, and before anybody even notices they’re a classic. This has happened with peppermint bark, which is wildly popular these days, especially during the Christmas holidays. I started giving it out as a Christmas gift about 10 years ago, and now, I can't stop--all the recipients insist they have to receive it again each year! (I'm up to making about 20 pounds every holiday; it's shown packed in gift bags below).
Aside from the fact that it features the dynamite duo of chocolate and peppermint, the festive contrasting colors probably help account for its huge appeal. (The same festive look brightens my Chocolate-Peppermint Brownies, too.)
Chocolate bark is easier to make than many candies, but there is one very important trick that a lot of the recipes circulating around don't tell you: You need to very carefully follow certain chocolate melting and cooling directions. This will ensure that the chocolate sets up quickly and has a smooth, crisp texture and sheen. Confectioners call this process tempering, and while it’s not hard to do, it can’t be skipped. Otherwise the chocolate may come out crumbly, blotchy, or streaked.
Basically, tempering ensures that melted chocolate has formed the most desirable type of crystals and cools and hardens before the natural white fat, cocoa butter, can rise to the surface and look streaky. Additionally, adding some unmelted chocolate to the bowl near the end of mixing not only cools, but “seeds the batch.” This encourages the mixture to set with the right crystals, specifically ones that makes it smooth and hard at room temperature. (I've just built the quick tempering process right into the recipe, so all you have to do is follow the steps.)
As for the recipes on the Web that make no mention of tempering: These may work if the chocolate just happens to be in the right state, but trust me, you're taking a risk. To avoid the tempering issue completely and still successfully make bark, you can buy compound chocolate or white "melting" chocolate confectionery products that include other fats such as palm kernel oil instead of the more temperamental cocoa butter. The problem is, since cocoa butter contributes a lot of the flavor to real chocolate, these convenient alternatives don't taste particularly chocolatey.
To conveniently ready the candy: Place unwrapped candies or broken-up sticks or cane pieces in the middle of a large cutting board and lay a plastic cutting mat over top. (And waxed paper over that to prevent bits from scattering. If you don't have a mat, slide the cutting board into a triple layer of heavy plastic bags, closing the bags tightly. Using a kitchen mallet or the back of a heavy spoon, whack the candy into 1/8-inch or finer pieces (larger pieces will be too hard on the teeth.)
Chocolate melts at lower than human body temperature, and will scorch if exposed to very high heat, so warm it gently. Also, melted chocolate doesn’t mix readily with tiny amounts of liquids. So, don’t add peppermint extract or any other liquid to the melted chocolate, as this may cause the chocolate to suddenly harden. (A few drops of peppermint oil, on the other hand, can be added.)
Broken-up candy canes, peppermint sticks, or red and white peppermint hard candies will all work well in this recipe. I think a combination of canes or sticks and pinwheel candies lends the best texture and flavor.
Although the pics show dark chocolate bark being made, white chocolate bark can be prepared exactly the same way. Or, if you wish to make a two-toned bark, use a larger 12" by 18" sheet pan or two smaller sheets to prevent the bark from being too thick. Ready the first layer and let it completely cool and set as directed but without sprinkling any crushed peppermint over top. Then repeat with the second chocolate, spreading over the first layer and adding the crushed peppermint garnish over top.
For a two-toned bark readied with real chocolate (not compound chocolate), you must be sure to use a white chocolate containing cocoa butter and not palm kernel oil or coconut oil. (Just read the label to be sure.) These two fats are incompatible with cocoa butter, and once the two-tone slab sets, the dark and light chocolate layers will just separate when you try to break the bark into pieces. (Chocolate expert Elaine Gonzales explained to me that the incompatibility results from the fact that the palm kernel oil and coconut oil are lauric acid fats and cocoa butter and some other commonly used fats have a completely different non-lauric chemical composition. The two types will not bond.)
If you have enough baking sheets, the bark recipe may be doubled. Follow the directions at the end.
Tip: You don’t have to have a candy thermometer or other special equipment for this recipe. However, if a cooking or common household thermometer that registers 88 to 90 degrees F. is on hand, use it to check the chocolate temperature. If no thermometer is available, use the touch test provided in the recipe below.
About 1 pound 6 ounces semisweet or bittersweet (not unsweetened) chocolate or white chocolate, divided
1 tablespoon corn oil or other flavorless vegetable oil
2 to 3 drops oil of peppermint, optional
1/2 to 3/4 cup (about 4 1/2 to 5 ounces) crushed peppermint pinwheel hard candy or candy canes
Line a 10- by 15-inch (or similar) rimmed tray or baking sheet with aluminum foil; allow the foil to overlap on the narrow ends by 1 1/2 inches and try not to wrinkle the foil. Break up or chop 1 pound chocolate into small chunks; leave the remaining 6 ounces whole.
In a medium microwave-safe bowl, microwave the chopped chocolate and oil on 100-percent power for 1 minute. Stop and stir. Continue microwaving on 50 percent power, stopping and stirring every 30 seconds until most of the chocolate is melted. (Alternatively, heat the chopped chocolate and oil in a heavy, medium saucepan over lowest heat. Stir and watch carefully until most of the pieces are melted. Immediately remove the pan from the heat.
Transfer the chocolate to another dry, cool bowl. Continue stirring until the chocolate completely melts, about 5 minutes longer. Stir in the peppermint oil ( if using) and 4 ounces unchopped chocolate until it melts and the mixture is almost cool to the touch. To judge the warmth, insert a thermometer in the deepest part of the bowl. Wait 30 seconds, then check for 88 or lower degrees F. (Alternatively, touch the chocolate stirring spoon to just above your upper lip; the melted mixture should feel almost cool.) Keep stirring to cool the mixture if necessary. If some chunks remain unmelted when the desired temperature is reached, just lift them out and them aside. If the added pieces have completely melted and the mixture is still too warm, stir in the remaining 2 ounces unchopped chocolate and continue cooling down the mixture by stirring.
When the chocolate is cooled enough, lift out any unmelted chunks with a fork and discard. Add the previously sifted very fine peppermint shards to the chocolate. Stir well. Reserve the remaining larger bits for garnishing the top.
Using an off-set spatula or table knife, spread the chocolate out to the edges; be sure the layer is evenly thick. Sprinkle the reserved peppermint bits evenly over the chocolate. Shake the tray back and forth and rap it on the counter several times to embed the candy bits in the chocolate. Immediately transfer the tray to the refrigerator, resting it flat. Refrigerate for 15 to 20 minutes or until the chocolate is completely set.
Carefully peel the chocolate bark from the foil as shown below; be sure to remove all bits of foil. Break the bark into 2- to 4-inch irregular pieces with your hands. Package the bark as desired.
Store airtight at cool room temperature for up to 2 months. Makes about 1 1/3 pounds peppermint bark.
Doubling the Recipe: Follow the basic directions, except ready two 10-by 15- or similar rimmed trays or baking sheets. Break up or chop 2 pounds chocolate into small chunks; have 8 ounces unchopped chocolate on hand. In a large microwave-safe bowl, microwave the chopped chocolate and 2 tablespoons corn oil on 100-percent power for 2 minutes. Stop and stir. Continue microwaving on 50 percent power, stopping and stirring every 30 seconds until most of the chocolate is melted. Continue stirring until the chocolate completely melts. Stir in 4 drops peppermint oil ( if using) and 5 ounces of unchopped chocolate. Proceed as for the original recipe, except if the mixture is still too warm, stir in 3 more ounces unchopped chocolate. Continue exactly as for the original recipe, except divide the recipe evenly between the two pans. Makes about 2 3/4 pounds peppermint bark.