For many children, Easter is all about the hunt. They love searching for hidden eggs and snooping for the ultimate Easter jackpot: a basket filled with jelly beans, marshmallow Peeps and chocolate rabbits so large that they make a child’s eyes go wide.
My mother used to make homemade Easter candy. She would make chocolate lollipops in the shape of eggs, bunnies and chicks and my favorite, chocolate-dipped peanut butter eggs.
Now that I’m a mother, I wanted to do the same for my daughter. As a toddler, she doesn’t understand the holiday’s religious meaning, let alone know about the Easter bunny. But I figured it wasn’t too early to continue my family’s tradition of making homemade Easter treats.
My mother is an excellent cook, but she’s no Martha Stewart. I figured if she could do it, it couldn’t be that hard. My mother used the candy melts sold at local craft stores, such as Michael’s and A.C. Moore. The candy melts don’t require tempering, a method to stabilize chocolate for candy-making by heating and cooling it. Candy melts can be melted in a double boiler or easier still, a microwave. Her peanut butter eggs were just a variation on an easy Midwestern treat called a buckeye — a chocolate-covered peanut butter ball.
I thought this would be easy, but my problems started when I decided to be more ambitious than my mother. I would make homemade marshmallow Peeps, create fruit gelees as a stand-in for jelly beans, and would temper the chocolate for the lollipops and massive Easter bunnies.
My first round of candy making left me humbled. The raspberry fruit gelees didn’t set. I burned the first batch of marshmallows. And I soon learned how infuriating it is to temper chocolate, heating and cooling it to exact temperatures to create shiny, crisp candies.
The only recipe that worked on the first try was chocolate peanut butter eggs.
My kitchen failures led me to reach out to some candy-making experts: Beth Somers, head of the test kitchen for Wilton, the Illinois-based maker of cake and candy molds and supplies, and Casey Barber, author of “Classic Snacks Made From Scratch.”
Somers explained why those candy melts are easier to use than tempering chocolate and offered a few tips on how to more easily fill the molds. Barber explained how to make homemade marshmallows, the basis for Peeps.
Back in the kitchen, I found more success. My mango gelees set. I didn’t burn the marshmallows. I used candy melts instead of trying to temper the chocolate. Instead of piping the marshmallows into the standard Peep-shaped chicks, I used chick- and bunny-shaped cookie cutters. Much easier.
And I learned a valuable lesson: My mother’s methods may not make her Martha Stewart, but she knows best.
PEANUT BUTTER EASTER EGGS
This recipe comes from Dorette Snover, owner of C’est si Bon! Cooking School in Chapel Hill. She wrote: “Growing up in Berks County, Pennsylvania Dutch Country, meant making these delicious — and synonymous with springtime — Easter treats. Many old-time recipes are a bit sketchy as to exact amounts of each ingredient, so let your palate be your guide.”
1 cup peanut butter, smooth or crunchy
1 ½ sticks butter, softened
1 pound powdered sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
12 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, chopped (not chocolate chips)
¼ cup toasted chopped peanuts
Mix peanut butter and softened butter in a medium mixing bowl using a hand mixer or in a standing mixer. Cream until smooth. Add powdered sugar and vanilla. It should come together to form a stiff dough. Knead if necessary to achieve a firmer consistency.
Use hands to mold dough into egg shapes and place on waxed paper-lined baking sheets. Refrigerate overnight uncovered, allowing to dry slightly.
Melt chocolate in the top of a double boiler over simmering water and stir until melted. (If you don’t have a double boiler, place the chocolate in a small glass or metal bowl and set on top of a small pan of simmering water.)
Dip peanut butter eggs in the chocolate using two forks, return to wax paper-lined cookie sheets. Sprinkle dipped eggs with chopped peanuts. Let harden and then wrap in brightly colored foil or place in festive cupcake liners.
Yield: 16-18 eggs
The original recipe calls for 1 cup unsweetened fruit puree. Author Hedy Goldsmith likes to use passion fruit, mango and guava. One note: I had no luck with making this with raspberry puree. Raspberries have little natural pectin, so I would stick with Goldsmith’s fruit suggestions. Adapted From “Baking Out Loud: Fun Desserts with Big Flavors,” by Hedy Goldsmith (Clarkson Potter, 2012).
2 ½ cups sugar, plus more for dusting and serving
2 (3-ounce) pouches liquid pectin
Line bottom of an 8-inch-square baking dish with parchment paper or plastic wrap.
Peel mangos and cut away fruit. Puree the fruit in a food mill or a food processor. You will need 1 cup of fruit puree.
Combine fruit puree and sugar in a medium saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the sugar is dissolved. Increase the heat to high and bring to a full rolling boil. Boil for 3 minutes. (You may have to lower the heat to keep the fruit syrup from boiling over.) Remove from heat and whisk in pectin. Stir until well blended, and then pour into prepared baking dish. Set aside at room temperature until completely cool and firm. The time will vary depending upon the fruit used.
RUN a small knife around the edge of the baking dish, invert the gelee onto a work surface, and peel off the parchment paper or plastic wrap. Using a large knife, cut the gelee crosswise into eight 1-inch-wide strips. Cut each strip into eight squares. Store in an airtight container for up to 5 days.
TOSS with extra sugar just before eating; otherwise leave the gelees alone until eating. The sugar melts if they are tossed too far ahead of time.
Yield: 64 1-inch gelees
From “Classic Snacks Made From Scratch: 70 Homemade Versions of Your Favorite Brand-Name Treats,” by Casey Barber (Ulysses Press, 2013).
1 ( ¼-ounce) envelope powdered unflavored gelatin
¾ cup water, divided
1 cup granulated sugar, plus 1 ½ cups for coating
¼ cup light corn syrup
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ounce milk chocolate or semisweet chocolate chips, a scant ¼ cup
Vegetable shortening (for bunnies)
Line a large rimmed baking sheet with waxed paper and shake a thin, even layer of granulated sugar across the waxed paper.
Sprinkle the gelatin evenly over ¼ cup water in the bowl of a stand mixer. Don’t bother to whisk; the gelatin will absorb the liquid on its own.
Stir the sugar with the corn syrup and remaining ½ cup water in a high-sided saucepan over medium heat. Stir until the sugar has dissolved and the liquid no longer feels grainy. Clip a candy thermometer to the saucepan and bring the mixture to a boil. Stir constantly to prevent burning. When the sugar syrup reaches 245 degrees on the thermometer, remove it from the heat and move fast.
Pour the hot syrup into the dissolved gelatin. Using the stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whisk at a low speed for 30 seconds. Gradually increase the mixer speed to medium-high and beat for 6 minutes, adding the vanilla during the last minute. The liquid will turn from syrupy and frothy to a light, fluffy, and shiny white marshmallow mixture that forms soft peaks when the mixer is stopped and the whisk is lifted.
Form the chicks: Fill the pastry or a gallon-size zip-top bag with marshmallow. Working on the sugar-dusted baking sheet, make chicks by piping fat teardrop shapes about 1 inch across to form the fat bodies. Pipe a circular blob on top of each body, then quickly move your hand back toward the tail and flick the goo forward to make the head and the beak. (If peeps are spreading rather than setting, wait a few minutes and try again.)
Sprinkle finished peeps with sugar and let sit on sheet for 6 to 8 hours to set.
Make the eyes: Once the peeps are set, melt the chocolate over low heat in a small saucepan, stirring constantly, just until smooth. Dip a toothpick into the melted chocolate and dot eyes on both sides of each Peep’s head.
Make bunny peeps: Instead of sprinkling a rimmed baking sheet with sugar, grease the bottom and sides of an 8-inch square glass baking dish with vegetable shortening and dust with granulated sugar, shaking the dish to coat evenly.
Use a spatula to spread the marshmallow goo into the prepared dish. Dust the top with granulated sugar. Let sit overnight, then remove the set marshmallows in a single block onto a clean cutting board. Spray a bunny-shaped cookie cutter with vegetable spray. Cut out bunnies and roll in additional sugar to coat sides. Dot on eyes as directed above for chicks.
Color your peeps: You can use either pre-colored sanding sugar or make your own. To make your own Technicolor peeps, pour 2 cups granulated sugar into a gallon-size zip-top bag. Add a couple drops of your preferred food coloring, seal well, and shake violently, using your hands to gently press the bag and make sure the granules are evenly coated. Use this sugar for dusting the baking sheet or pan and coating the shaped Peeps. (Barber recommends using gel food coloring. Brands such as AmeriColor can be purchased online. I got good results with liquid food coloring.)
Yield: about 2 dozen peeps
MAKE YOUR OWN CHOCOLATES
Beth Somers, the test kitchen manager at Wilton, offered this advice:
Candy melts are a confectionary coating and easier to work with than tempering chocolate. “They set up perfectly without any tempering.” She recommends melting them in the microwave at 50 percent power in 30-second increments. They also can be melted in the top of a double boiler or in a small bowl set on top of a small saucepan of simmering water.
Place the candy melts in a disposable decorating bag, filling it halfway and twisting the bag shut. Then place the bag in the microwave and knead the melts after 30-second intervals until fully melted. Cut off the tip and pipe the chocolate directly into the molds. “For ease, convenience and cleanliness, it’s wonderful,” she said.
Use a candy funnel or a regular kitchen funnel when filling larger molds. Squeeze bottles, sold at most craft stores, can also be used. Place the chocolate in the bottle and microwave, then use the bottle to fill your molds. Once your work is done, any remaining candy melts will harden; the hardened pieces are easy to break up inside the bottle, empty into a plastic bag and save for the next project.
Candy melts are available in an array of flavors and colors. Wilton always offers dark cocoa, light cocoa and white. The company occasionally offers limited-edition flavors. This spring, those include marshmallow and dark cocoa raspberry. The melts also are available in pastel and primary colors, and in speckled white.