One of the thoughts that kept coming up this weekend at Food Blog South was, “What made you want to start writing about food? What was it that got you interested in the first place?”
There was an opportunity to share a 5-minute food story, but I didn’t get to tell my story, and it answers those questions.
Back in 1998 (And I know you’re all thinking that I was way too young in 1998 to be cooking.), I was, well, a little bit lost in the kitchen. That was the year I decided to learn how to cook. I grew up eating really good classic Southern food with my grandparents, but I wanted to stretch my culinary wings into new territory.
And that was the year that I came into possession of a ragged and well-used issue of Bon Appetit from 1991. I was hooked. I read the whole thing, and then I read it again, and I wanted to cook. To really cook.
You have to realize that I was ignorant. There’s just no other way to say it. I really had no idea what I was doing or how much I didn’t know. But I had a kitchen of my own and determination that I was going to do this.
The kitchen gods smiled on me, because I got lucky pretty often. I muddled my way through coq au vin, and not only did no one die, but they actually seemed to like it. I made beef Wellington, and it didn’t look like the picture, but it tasted good.
There were the croquembouche. They made more than I thought they would, and I didn’t have a pastry bag and wouldn’t have known how to use one if I’d had it. I ended up with quickly-deflating little puffs on every surface in the kitchen and a bowl of pastry cream that I tried desperately to get into those puffs. One of those Cajun turkey injectors came in at some point. It was a bad moment. And we will not discuss the sugar. But they tasted good and I made my four year old laugh, so I wasn’t discouraged.
Then came Christmas. I made a Yule log. It took forever, but it was pretty, and I was really proud of myself. So, I decided to make edible gifts for people. This would be the first food I was making for people who weren’t related to me by blood, but I knew I could do it.
I made chocolate truffles. They were messy, but they worked.
I made caramels. Again, messy, but good.
I made bourbon balls. A few of them made it out of the house.
And then I decided to make peppermint bark.
It really should have been the easiest of the lot. I decided to make it pretty by using those little blue and white peppermints. It all seemed to be going so well until I tried to crush the peppermints.
Those little things were stubborn. I tried beating them with my rolling pin. They laughed. I put them in a bag and got Patric to jump up and down on them. Yeah, not so much. And then, I broke out the food processor.
Now, you have to understand that I like bargains. And I like gadgets. So, a gadget that’s a bargain? I can’t say no. I didn’t have a food processor until there was a Kmart going out of business. There was one on the shelf. There was no box, no manuals, and the plastic lip that was meant to keep it closed was kinda broken. But it was $5. And if you held it down, it worked. So, I had a food processor.
I’m sure that you’re seeing where this is going now. I loaded my less-than-stable food processor up to the brim with candies. I turned it on low. It was working, but it wasn’t going fast enough. So I turned it up to hi.
It was trying very hard to dance its way across the counter, but I was holding it down. It was making a funny kind of noise, but that could have been normal, right? And that hot wiring smell didn’t mean anything was seriously wrong, did it?
But then Patric needed his mom, and when a four year old needs you, he needs you then. It seemed like it would be alright if I left it for just a minute. I lifted my hand. I turned my back to it. And then….
Suddenly there was an explosion of peppermint shrapnel. It flew in every possible direction when that cracked fastener let go. I ducked, but not quickly enough to miss being showered. I made a dive for the still-spewing food processor and got a face full of mint. But I persevered. I unplugged it and took a deep breath. And looked at the havoc I had wreaked.
There were tiny little blue bits on every surface, in every crack, and these weren’t just dry little bits of candy. Since I had the food processor so full, it got a little warm in there. So, there were sticky little bits of gooey blue sugar on the ceiling, on the floor, on and under and in the cabinets, on the ceiling fan, on anyplace the ceiling fan blew them, behind the stove, the refrigerator, on the windows, and of course, all over me. It wasn’t pretty.
But, after the initial horror of the situation, it was really funny. I laughed. Patric laughed. (And if you think a child might forget something like that, you should know that he said, “Oh yeah, I remember that.” when he saw what I was writing tonight.) The candy bits came out of my hair in the shower even though they did leave little blue spots that stuck around through several washings.
And that was it for me. That was when I knew that even though I didn’t know what I was doing, I liked it. No matter what could go wrong (and there have been many things since then), it would be okay. And I wanted other people to know that — that sometimes, you may be doing everything a recipe says, and it doesn’t work, and that’s alright. There’s not much that can’t be fixed or done again from the beginning. It’s not the end of the world, it’s going to be funny and frustrating and frantic sometimes, and you’ll end up with great stories from the experience no matter how it ends.
By the way, when I was packing to move out of that house, I even found little bits of blue at the back of the drawers. Seriously. They’re probably still there.
The Infamous Peppermint Bark
This is the exact recipe from the December 1998 Bon Appetit that I used. You will note that it doesn't say HOW you were supposed to crush the peppermints. They were apparently supposed to have magically appeared in crushed form. On the second round of it, and after a lot of soap and hot water there really was one, I used candy canes. They crushed much easier than the little round candies.
If I made this now, I would use semi-sweet chocolate instead of white chocolate. There's nothing wrong with white chocolate, but Paul doesn't like it. He also probably wouldn't like helping me clean peppermint bits off of everything either.
- 17 ounces good quality white chocolate, finely chopped
- 30 red and white striped peppermint candies, coarsely crushed (50 blue and white ones are NOT recommended)
- 7 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
- 6 tablespoons whipping cream
- 3/4 teaspoon peppermint extract
- Turn large baking sheet bottom side up and cover securely with foil.
- Stir white chocolate in metal bowl set over saucepan of barely simmering water (do not allow bottom of bowl to touch water) until chocolate is melted and smooth and candy thermometer registers 110°F. (chocolate will feel warm to touch). Remove from over water.
- Pour 2/3 cup melted white chocolate onto rectangle on foil. Using icing spatula, spread chocolate to fill rectangle.
- Sprinkle with 1/4 cup crushed peppermints. Chill until set, about 15 minutes.
- Stir bittersweet chocolate, cream and peppermint extract in heavy medium saucepan over medium-low heat until just melted and smooth. Cool to barely lukewarm, about 5 minutes.
- Pour bittersweet chocolate mixture in long lines over white chocolate rectangle. Using icing spatula, spread bittersweet chocolate in even layer. Refrigerate until very cold and firm, about 25 minutes.
- Rewarm remaining white chocolate in bowl set over barely simmering water to 110°F.
- Working quickly, pour white chocolate over firm bittersweet chocolate layer; spread to cover. Immediately sprinkle with remaining crushed peppermints. Chill just until firm, about 20 minutes.
- Lift foil with bark onto work surface; trim edges. Cut bark crosswise into 2-inch-wide strips.
- Using metal spatula, slide bark off foil and onto work surface. Cut each strip crosswise into 3 sections and each section diagonally into 2 triangles.
- (Can be made 2 weeks ahead. Chill in airtight container.) Let stand 15 minutes at room temperature before serving.