I’ve been sitting here for the past twenty minutes, trying to figure out how to start this post. I hate it when this happens. I have nightmares about it, even.

Well, let’s see. How about a photograph? Maybe it will jump-start something. One can hope.

One can also, while hoping, tiptoe over to the fridge and steal some of the peppermint bark in that photograph, even though it’s supposed to be saved for holiday gifts. That’s another option. Just don’t tell Brandon, because I told him earlier today that he couldn’t have any. Then again, he’s over at the restaurant space right now, drinking a beer and eating Cool(!) Ranch(!) Doritos(!) while he rips out the carpet, so it’s really only fair that I should have a snack here too. Like peppermint bark. Which is, for the record, very refreshing. And inspiring! Look at that. I just wrote a whole paragraph.

I was introduced to this particular peppermint bark by my sister Lisa, who always, always, finds the best recipes. For a few years now – or maybe even several; I can’t remember – she has made it for the holidays. She gives most of it away to friends, but she usually sets aside a tin for the family to eat during Christmas, when we’re all together. Last year, when we spent Christmas Eve at her house on Long Island, I’m pretty sure I ate more peppermint bark than dinner.

Lisa and I were on the phone the other day, having a marathon catch-up session, and while we talked, I made a batch of chocolate blocks. I happened to mention that I was working on my holiday gift-making, and Lisa confided that she was running behind on hers. She usually makes both peppermint bark and bittersweet almond bark, handing out small sachets of each, but this year, she told me, so many people have asked for the peppermint bark that she is thinking of skipping the almond one entirely. I was sad to hear that – last Christmas Eve, I also ate more almond bark than dinner – but I understand. That peppermint bark is special.

Before I tasted Lisa’s version, the words peppermint bark weren’t even in my vocabulary. I guess I thought of it as one of those cutesy things you get in a gift basket but never eat, like tiny jars of cheese spread or plastic-encased summer sausages. Most of the time, it was simply a sheet of pallid white chocolate with crushed-up peppermint candies mixed in – or, in a slightly fancier incarnation, a layer of dark chocolate topped with a layer of white chocolate with crushed-up peppermint candies mixed in. I know this will sound like sacrilege to some, but I couldn’t get excited about it.

But then, THEN, there was Lisa’s version, which is really Bon Appétit’s version, a recipe that ran in the magazine ten whole years ago, in 1998. It consists of not one layer, not two layers, but three layers. The top and bottom are white chocolate, onto which you sprinkle crushed peppermints, and the middle layer is a bittersweet ganache, ever so slightly soft and truffle-like, spiked with peppermint extract. It’s pretty, for one thing, but it’s also unusually delicious: heady with mint, only moderately sweet, and surprisingly sophisticated, crunchy in parts and smooth in others, like a proper chocolate confection. It’s Americana, yes, but Americana in a vintage designer dress. If the butter cookies I made last week bore a faint resemblance to my grandmother, this peppermint bark is my fantasy great-aunt: the one who lives in San Francisco, wears Jackie O. dresses and glasses with vermilion frames, makes hot chocolate from scratch, and always knows what’s showing at SFMOMA. What a lady she would be. I wish she actually existed. At least I have peppermint bark.

This recipe takes a bit more time than the average bark specimen, what with the layering of chocolates and the required chilling in between, but it’s worth the effort. Once you have your ingredients ready, it’s really very easy: you just chop, melt, smear, and repeat. And while it cools, you can do any number of important things, like washing dishes, or chiding your husband for eating Cool Ranch Doritos without you, or calling your sister to thank her for her brilliance.

Three-Layer Peppermint Bark
Adapted from Bon Appétit, December 1998

When you’re shopping for white chocolate, make sure that the words “cocoa butter” appear in the list of ingredients. When I went to buy mine, I was shocked by how many brands contain absolutely no cocoa butter. (Instead, you get only sugar, hydrogenated oil, artificial flavorings, and the like.) I wound up using Callebaut, which isn’t cheap, but it was a worthy splurge.

Also, to crush the peppermints coarsely, Bon Appétit advises tapping the wrapped candies firmly with the bottom edge of an unopened 15- to 16-ounce can. I used a heavy glass jar, and that worked fine too.

17 oz. white chocolate, such as Callebaut, finely chopped
30 red-and-white-striped hard peppermint candies, coarsely crushed
7 oz. bittersweet chocolate, such as Ghirardelli 60%, finely chopped
6 Tbsp. heavy cream
¾ tsp. peppermint extract

Turn a large baking sheet upside down, and cover it securely with aluminum foil. Measure out and mark a 9- by 12-inch rectangle on the foil.

Put the white chocolate in a metal (or other heatproof) bowl, and set it over a saucepan of barely simmering water. (Do not allow the bottom of the bowl to touch the water.) Stir occasionally until the chocolate is melted and smooth; if you take its temperature with a candy thermometer, it should register 110°F. Remove the chocolate from the heat. Pour 2/3 cup of it onto the rectangle on the foil. Using an icing spatula, spread the chocolate to fill the rectangle. Sprinkle with ¼ cup of the crushed peppermints. Chill until set, about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, combine the bittersweet chocolate, cream, and peppermint extract in a heavy medium saucepan. Warm over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until the mixture is just melted and smooth. Cool to barely lukewarm, about 5 minutes. Then remove the baking sheet from the refrigerator, and pour the bittersweet chocolate mixture over the white chocolate rectangle. Using an icing spatula – make sure you cleaned it after using it for the white chocolate, above! – spread the bittersweet chocolate in an even layer. Chill until very cold and firm, about 25 minutes.

Rewarm the remaining white chocolate over barely simmering water to 110°F. Working quickly, pour the white chocolate over the firm bittersweet layer, using your (again, clean) icing spatula to spread it to cover. Sprinkle with remaining crushed peppermints. Chill just until firm, about 20 minutes.

Carefully lift the foil from the baking sheet onto a large cutting board. Trim away any ragged edges of the rectangle. (These are yours to nibble at, a little prize for your efforts.) Cut the bark crosswise into 2-inch-wide strips. Using metal spatula, slip the bark off of the foil and onto the cutting board. Cut each strip crosswise into 3 sections, and then cut each section diagonally into 2 triangles. Or, alternatively, just cut each strip into smaller pieces of whatever size you like. That’s what I did.

Pack into an airtight container, with sheets of wax paper between layers of bark to prevent them from sticking to one another. Store in the refrigerator. Serve cold or, to emphasize the slight softness of the bittersweet layer, let stand at room temperature for 10 minutes before serving.

Note: This bark will keep for up to 2 weeks, if not more. If you plan to pack it in a tin or baggie with other holiday sweets, be sure to wrap it separately in plastic wrap. Or maybe wax paper and then plastic wrap, so that it doesn’t sweat. If you left it naked, so to speak, to mix and mingle with other cookies or candies, everything might wind up tasting and smelling like peppermint.

Yield: about 36 pieces, or more, if you cut them smaller