I spend a lot of time in chocolate shops, and the trends I see most include chocolate with salt or nibs, with odd flavors, or with peanuts—probably the most American chocolate combination going. Peanut butter cups, which originated in the workshop of one H.B. Reese in Hershey, Pa., 85 years ago, especially are getting rushed by artisanal types. Tiny local producers like Betsy's Buns in Brooklyn, larger, more broadly popular productions like California's Joycup, and high-end names like Recchiuti are in on it—on and on the list goes.
Though these brands differ greatly, they all use better raw materials to deliver a more grown-up candy. Another company, Unreal, had the same idea, but with mass appeal. The partnership of a chef named Adam Melonas and a 13-year-old American who was not allowed to eat his Halloween candy, Unreal aimed to make tasty candy without the additives, high-fructose corn syrup and GMOs of the big brands. Unreal also adds in things like fiber and protein that are supposedly good for you.
Nearly all of these alternatives are less sweet than the original. Nearly all have more snap to the chocolate and more texture in the filling. It got me thinking ... Why call a chef? I have chocolate. I can make peanut butter. Hmmm ...
I bought food-grade silicone trays with multiple molds, by Freshware; these things make you look like a pro. I got peanuts from three sources to see what the differences were. Freshness seemed to be the key, as some were dull and soft. A warning: Do not roast peanuts from different sources together; one batch will burn before the other is done.
I used good sea salt in the peanut butter, but was kind of worried when it did not seem smooth after processing. Then I remembered Melonas' tip on this: The secret ingredient is confectioners' sugar. It's amazing. A very little bit alters the texture totally and makes a faintly sweet filling.
The payoffs of DIY are satisfaction and control. It is very satisfying to make these, and the impression they make on people is way out of proportion to difficulty. Control is great because you can use dark chocolate if you want, and make the peanut butter as sweet as you like. You also get to manage proportions, which can be a sticking point. I have given a chocolaty recipe, but some will prefer more peanut butter.
I have run through this recipe several times, once with my 10-year-old son, who was a great help; he took good notes, measured the molds and so on. He didn't even wander off to play Xbox.
He still prefers Reese's.
Owen Dugan is features editor of Wine Spectator.
3 1/2 cups bittersweet chocolate
1 1/4 cups peanuts
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 tablespoons peanut oil
1 tablespoon confectioners' sugar
1. Put your molds on cookie sheets and stack them carefully on a prepared flat surface in the freezer in advance.
2. To make the bottom of the shell, set up a double boiler with the water simmering. The top pan must be larger than the bottom one to prevent water or steam from getting into the chocolate. Melt 1 1/2 cups chocolate very slowly, stirring often. Once it is melted, stir again to be sure there are no lumps. Pull a sheet and mold out of the freezer. Drop about a teaspoon of chocolate into the bottom of a mold and carefully spread it all the way up the sides. (The cavities in my molds are 6 cm by 1.5 cm.) Be sure you cover the bottom thoroughly but thinly. Repeat until you finish 1 mold, swap it with the other in the freezer, and repeat. Return the second mold to the freezer.
3. To make the filling, preheat the oven to 350° F. Spread the peanuts on a baking sheet and roast for about 9 minutes. Roasting time will vary; remove them if they start to color too much. Once they start to smell nutty, keep an eye on them. You want them roasted but not burnt, and this is a fine line. Remove from oven and let cool completely.
4. Put peanuts in the bowl of a food processor, add salt, pulse a few times, then process until finely grained. Scrape down sides of bowl, add 1 tablespoon of oil, and process again. Continue adding oil until you have a texture you like. Scrape down the sides, add 1 teaspoon of confectioners' sugar, and process. Repeat until you have the right sweetness and texture.
5. Pull both trays out of the freezer and begin filling each cup with peanut butter. Start slowly, and even out the amounts once you have filled all. Set the rest of the chocolate in the double boiler. While it melts, begin pressing the filling down and toward the edges. Be gentle. Take your time. Try to get the filling right to the chocolate edge if possible, and then press down to flatten. Make sure the filling is not too high. I tried piping, and I tried freezing it into a log, but found a spoon and fingers work best.
6. Once the chocolate is melted and completely smooth, begin spooning it over 1 cup at a time, very delicately spreading it to the edges of the cup and pushing down at the edges to fill the gap. Some will spread onto the mold, but that's OK; freeze it to put on ice cream. Repeat. Once all are covered, check to see if any have settled, leaving gaps to fill. If so, fill them. More confident pastry chefs rap the cookie sheet and mold on the counter to reveal gaps, but I do not recommend it.
7. Return to freezer to set, then wrap cups carefully in a single layer in waxed paper (sandwich bags work best). Seal in an airtight bag and refrigerate.
8. Bring to room temperature to serve. Makes 16.