Go Nuts With Bark

Bark (noun): Tough protective covering of the woody stems of trees

Popcorn + Peanut Bark (noun): Delicious dark chocolate covering that protects buttery, salty, freshly popped popcorn and peanuts

Bark (verb): to speak in an unfriendly tone when it’s all gone

Now that Halloween is over and the holidays are right around the corner, are you starting to panic? Is your heart racing and blood pressure sky-rocketing? This disorder may have everything to do with the fact that you haven't a clue which direction to go as far as holiday gifts are concerned. Relax and take a deep breath — I am going to make your gift-giving very easy this year.

Gifts of food, especially sweet ones, speak volumes to your friends and family. Everyone on your list will feel special.

I was a chubby, young kid when my Mom decided to make everyone on her holiday gift list peppermint candy cane-white chocolate bark, the inspiration for this post. My Mother had zero kitchen skills, but she thought this would be a fun project for my brother, Stephen, and me. Keep in mind, this is the same mom that wanted to turn our kitchen into a library — enough said. That first year we had every neighbor that could boil water helping us, all jammed into our small kitchen. Everyone had his or her job; mine was unwrapping candy canes — boxes and boxes of candy canes. They were so difficult to unwrap by hand that I ended up using my front teeth. That taste of peppermint was so strong that every time I eat peppermint now, I’m five years old again.

That experience was so wonderful that I try to recreate it every year, only now I use ingredients like pink peppercorns, popcorn and espresso beans.

Chocolate bark evokes a feeling of a simpler time when handcrafted gifts of food were the norm. I believe everything tastes better with chocolate, whether it's gracefully sitting on top of or enrobing a slab of yumminess.

In my cookbook, Baking Out Loud, I share a quick and super easy recipe for Popcorn + Peanut Bark ( click here for the recipe). This is just the tip of the culinary iceberg, as they say. There are endless possibilities when it comes to bark. Below are some cool ideas. Use these as a starting point for your own creations:

The rule of thumb when making bark is simple: melt a chocolate of your choice (I love bittersweet), pour about a 1/2-inch-thick layer on a lined sheet pan, and generously distribute dried fruits, nuts, seeds and even popcorn on top. Chill until super firm, about 1 hour. Once cold, break into manageably sized pieces.

For the white chocolate lovers out there, this is the perfect holiday canvas. Try a combination of lightly toasted pistachios, dried cranberries and cherries topped off with crushed pink peppercorns. This screams holiday with the green and red.

If you love milk chocolate, try sprinkling cocoa nibs, espresso beans and coarsely chopped, toasted hazelnuts.

For the die-hard dark chocolate lover, go with brightly colored dried fruits such as cherries or mangoes. For an exotic bark, try using apricots, dates, figs, almonds or pistachios.

Load the finished pieces into cool jars, such as canning, ball or apothecary jars. Wrap with colorful ribbon or raffia, and attach candy canes or small Christmas ornaments. And there you go. Instant hostess gifts.

Reminder: Make extra for your family or the gifts may disappear and the jars will be found months later under the beds in your house!

Hedy Goldsmith, a 2012 James Beard Award finalist for Outstanding Pastry Chef, is the executive pastry chef for the Genuine Hospitality Group of restaurants including Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink in Miami and Grand Cayman, and Harry’s Pizzeria in Miami. Now in her second season of Cooking Channel’s Unique Sweets , Hedy has appeared on Food Network’s The Best Thing I Ever Ate and lauded in The New York Times , People , Wine Spectator , Bon Appétit , The Huffington Post and Food & Wine magazine. Hedy’s first cookbook, Baking Out Loud: Fun Desserts with Big Flavors (Clarkson Potter / Publishers), is now available.

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