I don't have a sweet tooth. I'm lactose intolerant. And my only two candy-making role models – Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz – were so incompetent, they were fired from their first day at the chocolates factory in one very memorable and messy "I Love Lucy" episode.
Still, the challenge of making (or at least trying to make) the chocolate-y, chewy contents of a DIY Easter basket was hard to resist.
It was also a whole lot of sweet, sticky fun.
If you've made candy before, or at least done some baking, you'll probably have an easier time than I did making chocolate. But, since things didn't turn out too badly – co-workers gobbled up my goodies in about three minutes flat – I'm going to out on a chocolate-covered limb here and proclaim that if I can do it, so can you.
My first step: Keep things as simple as possible.
I ruled out chocolate bunnies and other figures, because making them requires expensive molds. As for jelly beans … well, they seemed like way too much work for too little payback.
I did, however, take on candy clusters, chocolate-dipped strawberries and pretzels, cake pops (small balls of lemon cake turned into tasty lollipops) and, yes, Peeps, those little marshmallow-y creatures that have become such a holiday tradition, it's hard to imagine an Easter basket without them.
If you're a complete novice, your first step is finding recipes that strike your fancy. Fortunately, there's a nearly endless selection of cookbooks devoted entirely to sweets. Internet cooking sites are also chock-full of candy recipes. And, so is YouTube, where I found an easy-to-follow tutorial, "Making Chocolate Nut Raisin Clusters," that had me combining chocolate, walnuts and raisins in no time. (I added some chopped coconut to a few of my clusters, which made them appear a bit more festive. Both versions went over well, though, with my tasters.)
Dipping pretzels and strawberries into chocolate doesn't require a culinary degree, although patience helps. My first batch of chocolate (for the clusters) came out perfectly. My second, for the pretzels, seized and quickly turned into what looked like instant chocolate cake.
Eventually, though, I got it right, twirling my strawberries just so to allow the excess chocolate to drip back into my pan. My pretzel sticks were easy enough, since I covered only three-fourths of them with chocolate. For my knotted pretzels, I used wooden skewers to lower them into the chocolate and pull them back out again. I then sprinkled them with pastel-colored nonpareils, which suggested the look of salt, while adding another layer of yum.
My greatest disappointment was my tray of pecan ball cookies. I had rolled them into egg shapes and planned on covering them with colored sugar. But, after 15 minutes in the oven, they were flat as tortillas. Easter is a time of renewal, though, so I'm going to try again with the pecans I have left over.
I made my sad cookies and most of my candies at home before adjourning to the kitchen at Chef Central in Paramus, where I collaborated with our food editor, Susan Leigh Sherrill, on the cake pops and our Peeps knockoffs, inspired by Martha Stewart's recipe for Marshmallow Treats.
Our cake pop collaboration was, for me, a piece of cake. Susan made them (with the Babycakes electric cake pop maker and a mix, both sold at Chef Central) and I ate half of them – before they were iced. (For me, they were sweet enough all by themselves.) Our marshmallow treats weren't too hard to make (see recipe) and there was actually something thrilling about adding unflavored gelatin, sugar and water to a mixing bowl and winding up with a sea of marshmallow cream.
The hardest part was pushing our fluffy marshmallow mixture through a pastry bag and trying to make our little blobs look Peeps-like. (Practice, practice.) But colored sugar hid a multitude of sins.
For my first attempts at making chocolate, I used the Nestlé's chocolate chips that are sold in most grocery stores. At Chef Central, I discovered chocolate "buttons" designed for melting, which were creamier and less sweet. And, I've since learned that using better grades of chocolate (like Ghirardelli and Scharffen Berger) will yield a more complex, less cloying flavor.
Of course, if you do have a sweet tooth – and Easter is certainly the holiday to indulge it – you can tailor your handmade treats to be as sugary as you want them to be.
Choco-holics will probably gorge themselves on your creations the moment they're unwrapped. For everyone else, homemade candies, brought out after dinner, add a special flourish to your dessert table. Served alongside a selection of cakes or cookies and some fresh fruit, they'll get plenty of attention. And questions: "You made these, yourself?"
Feel free to take a bow – and to not tell them how easy it was.