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Easy, customizable chocolate treat for Valentine's Day

Published:Thursday | February 5, 2015 | 2:00 AMElizabeth Karmel
Chocolate candy clusters.
A ondue duo of chocolate mango and five spice caramel sauces.
Chocolate covered caramel hearts are laid out after going through the enrober.
Chocolate candy clusters.
Chocolate candy clusters.
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Sometimes it takes just a few simple ingredients to win my heart. That's what fellow Southerner Ben Mims recently did. And he did it with candy.

Truth is, I'm generally not the sort of person who makes candy at home. It can be a bit fussy and time-consuming and I don't find the process nearly as satisfying as landing a slab of something meaty over an open fire. But I'm still a sucker for a good sweet, and as I paged through Mims' recent cookbook, Sweet and Southern: Traditional Southern Desserts, I was smitten with one of his simplest recipes.

It was his Aunt Barbara Jane's pretzel-peanut chocolate candies. Crunchy, salty and sweet, these chocolates are similar to bark, but easier. You simply mix everything together, then spoon it on to waxed paper to set up.

Of course, I'm never happy to just let things be. My mind was immediately racing with ideas for riffing on this. Such a simple and versatile recipe could be taken in so many directions. I made Mims' pretzel-peanut-semi-sweet chocolate version, but I also did cashew-coconut-chopped dried mango and dried cherry-toasted almonds-chopped candied ginger versions.

They were all delicious! And what a perfect idea for Valentine's Day. Even the kids could do this.

Looking for other combinations? Mix whatever intrigues you; just stick to the proportions in the recipe and you should be fine. Or try these combinations:

n Pistachios, dried cherries and milk chocolate

n Toasted hazelnuts, raisins and dark chocolate

n Cornflakes, butterscotch chips and milk chocolate

n White chocolate, dried apricots and cashews

n Mini marshmallows, toasted almonds and dark chocolate

n Dark chocolate, orange zest, crystalised ginger and pecans

n Crumbled cooked bacon, peanuts and milk chocolate

CHOCOLATE CANDY CLUSTERS

This recipe readily adapts to your tastes. Just stick with the proportions set out below and you can mix in whatever you like. But a good rule of thumb is to offer a contrast of textures and flavours - crunchy and soft, salty and sweet, etc. It also helps if the mix-ins are roughly the same size. Pretzels or chips should be broken into smaller pieces, while larger dried fruits such as apricots should be chopped. And if you like, the chocolates can be sprinkled with nonpareils before they set up.

Start to finish: 30 minutes

Makes 40 clusters

Ingredients

n 10-ounce bag bittersweet chocolate

n 3 cups mix-ins

METHOD

n Line a baking sheet with kitchen parchment.

n Place the chocolate in a medium microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on high in 10- to 15-second bursts, stirring in between, until the chocolate is completely melted and smooth. Stir in the mix-ins of your choice, making sure they are evenly distributed and coated with melted chocolate.

n Using two teaspoons, drop large spoonful of the mixture onto the prepared baking sheet. Let cool completely. Place in small decorative cupcake wrappers and store in an airtight container for up to three days, or refrigerate for up to a week.

n Elizabeth Karmel is a barbecue and Southern foods expert. She is the chef and pitmaster at online retailer CarolinaCueToGo.com and author of three books, including 'Taming the Flame'.