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Candied land: Homemade bars are worth the effort this Halloween

The Maple BourbCandy Bar by C-House pastry chef MelissTrimmer. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

The Maple Bourbon Candy Bar by C-House pastry chef Melissa Trimmer. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: May 9, 2012 9:55AM

First, the smooth snap of a milk chocolate shell. Next, the formidable crunch of a half-inch layer of salty peanuts. Then, a sweet ribbon of gooey caramel that just barely sticks to the roof of your mouth. Finally, a ribbon of rich, nutty nougat to balance out the sweetness.

This is the anatomy of the prototypical candy bar, genus Marsian, species Snickersus. As the best-selling candy bar in the world, Snickers is guaranteed to end up in nearly every kid’s Halloween pumpkin alongside a rainbow of its confectionary relatives such as Skittles, 3 Musketeers, Kit Kat and Hershey bars.

But in this era of concern over preservatives, modified ingredients and refined sugars, families can skip the grocery aisle and whip up their own candy bars. While the kitchen may end up a bit stickier than when you began, chefs say it’s well worth the splattered caramel.

“Candy bars that are mass-manufactured have a chocolate quality that is really low, compared to what you could make in your home,” says pastry chef Melissa Trimmer, who creates the signature confections at C-House in the Affinia hotel using rare Felchlin Swiss chocolate.

“I think the chocolate makes all the difference in the world,” Trimmers says. “Also, mass-produced bars have to hold for a certain amount of time, so the manufacturers do things with preservatives that you don’t have to in your own home.”

Homemade confections allow a cook to select high-quality chocolate, as well as play with the flavors, to create a unique candy bar that can’t be found on grocery shelves.

“A lot of candy bars are very masculine,” says pastry chef Amanda Rockman of the Bristol, a competitor on the second season of Bravo’s “Top Chef: Just Desserts.”

For a candy bar challenge on the show, Rockman says she took a more feminine approach: “I made a white chocolate Earl Grey with a bitter orange caramel. If I could have a dream candy bar, it would have a bit of acid in it from lemon or citrus.”

While Americans have had a love affair with manufactured candy bars since the early 20th century, gourmet candy bars are a more recent phenomenon. Companies like Chicago’s Vosges Haut Chocolat have taken the humble rectangle to new levels, infusing chocolate with Indian sweet curry, African rooibos tea and Hawaiian black sea salt.

Like coffee beans, single-origin cocoa also has become a selling point, with premium beans from Sao Tome and Papua New Guinea fetching top dollar.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that serious chocolatiers like Valrhona and Lindt began labeling their products with the percentage of cocoa beans used. By 2006, mass producers had caught on, and Hershey’s introduced a line of “Cacao Reserve” chocolates that advertised cocoa content.

While gourmet bars may contain better quality chocolate, chefs say there’s still no substitute for the freshness and creativity of a homemade bar.

“When you do it yourself, you can have fun with the flavors, and it’s still not too stressful,” says Rockman. “Using condensed milk in caramels or using Rice Krispies instead of feuilletine make it easier for the home cook.”

She suggests that parents making Halloween candies with children cut down on some of the gourmet ingredients in order to save time. For example, they may want to buy tempering chocolate from a grocery or craft store instead of melting chocolate in a double boiler to cut down on the mess, or use molds, also available at craft stores, to save time on cutting and shaping the bars.

Mostly, though, chefs stress that making confections from scratch isn’t the daunting, scientific task that it seems. Any cook with sugar, corn syrup, gelatin and cream can turn those ingredients into caramel and marshmallow, adding nuts, spices or extracts for added flavor.

The one downside to homemade confections? You might just spoil yourself.

“We do a lot of candy at my house, and unfortunately, my daughter has become a total chocolate snob,” says Trimmer. “She won’t touch Hershey’s anymore. Though I guess she is her mother’s daughter.”

Kate Bernot is a Chicago free-lance writer.

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