Last year’s December issue of Bon Appetit had this recipe for Almond bark with sea salt, and being rather fond of dark chocolate + sea salt, I excitedly made it with my sister with the noble intention of giving it as gifts to our friends and family. But then we tasted it. And then we looked at each other and knew what the other was thinking… “Maybe we should just keep this for ourselves…” It is delicious and highly addictive, and I have made it probably close to 20 times in the past year, more often than not with hazelnuts instead of almonds (did you know that Oregon grows 99% of the US crop of hazelnuts? Well, now you do!). I’ve also made the recipe more complicated than Bon Appetit did, but for a very good reason. I temper the chocolate, which is what you call the state of chocolate when it is shiny and has a lovely snap to it. If you don’t do this, you can end up with those nasty grey streaks in your dull chocolate that isn’t crisp, and that would just be sad. So that said, this is going to be a rather long post for a deceptively short ingredient list:
1 cup granulated sugar
a few drops of freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
8 oz raw hazelnuts or blanched Almonds
1 lb 55%-72% dark chocolate ( I use Trader Joe’s Pound Plus bars- it’s good quality Belgian chocolate for $5 and I bake with it all the time)
Sea Salt for sprinkling
For clarity’s sake, this is the order you need to do things in (and don’t try to multi-task when making your caramel or tempering the chocolate!!!)- First you will roast the hazelnuts and skin them, then you will make the caramel and add the nuts, then break them apart into individual caramel-coated nuts, and then you will chop the chocolate finely and melt it over a pan of simmering water and temper it (for which you definitely need a candy thermometer, or a nifty infrared thermometer like mine), before you then spread it out on parchment and top it with the caramelized hazelnuts and the sea salt. Ok, ready?
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Roast the whole raw hazelnuts for 8-10 minutes, until they have started to brown, the skins have started to peel away from the nut and they start to smell roast-y. Wait until the nuts have cooled enough that you can touch them without burning yourself, and picking up handfuls at a time, rub the hazelnuts together to remove as much of the skins as you can. TV chefs always tell you to do this in a kitchen towel, which is nice but I’m guessing they aren’t doing their own laundry, so I skip the towel-dirty-ing step and just use my hands.
Now we make the caramel. Add the 1 cup of sugar to a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat and add about 3 Tbsp of water and squeeze in a few drops of lemon juice (about 1/2 tsp- the acid helps keep the sugar from crystallizing on the sides of the pan). Stir the sugar until has dissolved.
Now that it is on it’s way to becoming caramel, it’s ok to swirl the pan around so the sugar colors evenly. Your caramel is ready when it has turned the coppery shade of a penny, but it can burn in an instant (especially if you’re trying to take pictures of it so you hurry up and take a blurry photo) so pay close attention.
Immediately remove from the heat and stir in the 2 Tbsp unsalted butter. Once it has melted, stir in the roasted hazelnuts until evenly coated with caramel. Turn them out onto a parchment-lined sheet pan using a slotted spoon (to help drain off any extra caramel), start separating the individual nuts quickly, because the caramel is going to harden fast and you don’t want to cut your fingers on sharp caramel. If it gets too difficult to pull them apart by hand, it’s ok to chop them apart with your chef’s knife, it just won't look as pretty.
So now that the hazelnuts are ready, let’s get to work on the chocolate. Very finely chop the chocolate- I give it a rough chop with my chef’s knife, and then put it in batches in the food processor to chop it really fine. The reason why you should do this is because the larger the pieces of chocolate, the longer it will take to melt, which means it can get too hot. The bar of chocolate you’re working with was already tempered when you bought it, so the lower you can keep the temperature of the chocolate as it melts, the better to keep it in temper. There are various methods for tempering, which you can google if you’re into that sort of thing, but this is the method that works for me.
Fill a medium-sized saucepan about 1/3 full with water and bring to a simmer. Turn down the heat to low, because even in a double boiler, chocolate can still scorch if it gets too hot. Place your finely-chopped chocolate into a large mixing bowl that fits on top of the saucepan (make sure it's not sitting in the water!).
Place the large mixing bowl of chocolate over the simmering water, and start stirring as it melts. Occasionally lift the bowl off of the simmering water (setting on a kitchen towel so you don’t get condensation from the bottom of the bowl anywhere near the melted chocolate) so you can get it evenly melted. Once it’s mostly melted, remove the bowl from the pot of water, rather than continuing over the heat until it's all melted. The simplest explanation is that chocolate’s structure is made up of several kinds of crystals which exist at different temperature points. The good kind of crystal that is in tempered chocolate is the one which exists at a temperature range of about 88-92 F, so keep stirring until the chocolate has cooled down to this temperature, at which point it should also be all melted since you finely chopped it. If the chocolate is too hot, the evil crystals that make for sad, dull and streaky non-snappy chocolate will form and this is certainly to be avoided, since we want shiny, happy, non-streaky snappy chocolate.
Ok, now that your chocolate is in temper and ready to go, work fast because it will start to set. Spread it out into an even, thin layer that completely covers a parchment-lined baking sheet.
Then sprinkle on all of the caramelized hazelnuts so they are evenly distributed on top of the chocolate. Lightly press them into the chocolate so they will stick, and then sprinkle the sea salt on top. I used about 1 1/2 tsp of sea salt, but add it to taste as long as you keep in mind that you might lose a little of it when you break up the bark, so add a tiny bit more than you think you need.
Now the hard part is that you have to let it set before you get to eat it. So let it set for about an hour until hardened, and then break the bark into uneven pieces (that’s part of it’s charm, so don’t try to cut it into neat little squares or anything silly like that). Because it’s tempered, it will store just fine at room temperature. Now watch it disappear even as your friends cry that it’s chocolate crack and they are addicted but they won’t turn it down when you offer it to them. It makes a lovely Christmas gift for friends and family, that is, if you don’t eat it all first.