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SCHOOL'S IN. SWEEEEEET.

Your first attempts at making candy might not be, well, eye candy, but once you get the hang of it, homemade chocolates and toffees beat packaged treats any day, and make great gifts.

This time of year, candy is everywhere. So why not lean into the glut of toothsome sweets? Instead of the same old Snickers and Smarties, try crafting your own candy for a more sophisticated, luscious treat.

The trick? Having the right attitude.

Yes, it will be time-consuming. No, the results won't be perfect on the first try. There's a good chance something will burn, and an even better chance that nothing will come out looking like a Hershey's bar.

And you will definitely get chocolate everywhere: on your hands, on the stove, on places you won't even know about till weeks later.

But homemade candy isn't as scary as it seems.

And with a bit of patience and the right equipment, the benefits outweigh any extra hassle. From-scratch truffles dusted with bitter cocoa powder, nutty chocolate bark, sweet-and-salty toffee: They have a flavor and freshness that fun-sized Three Musketeers bars can only dream of.

Plus, homemade candy makes a great, one-of-a-kind gift (Christmas is closer than you think!), especially for those hard-to-shop-for family members. One of the easiest and most mouth-watering treats, toffee, is gorgeous when broken into pieces and sprinkled with crushed nuts. Trust me, Dad will like it more than another tie.

Plan your candymaking adventures for the weekend, or a time when you've got a few good hours (and, in some cases, a night or two) to spend molding chocolates and waiting for truffle filling to cool. Certain treats, like bark and toffee, are easier than others to make, in that they require much less equipment and time. Some, like coconut bars and caramels, take more love.

But here's the thing. It's really hard to completely mess this stuff up.

Making these sweets from scratch can be intimidating, with the different boiling temperatures and terms like "tempered chocolate." But even if the final product doesn't come out the way the recipe book indicates, remember that you're working with butter and sugar and chocolate. It's hard to make that inedible.

Take the English Walnut Toffee, which I attempted in my kitchen a few weeks ago with no special candy equipment except for a candy thermometer. The recipe says the mixture of butter and sugar (toffee has a deceptively simple ingredient list) should reach 285 degrees on a candy thermometer, but mine never quite got that hot. It didn't matter. I kept stirring until the contents of the pot turned thick and developed a rich caramel color. By the time my boyfriend said it smelled like an ice cream parlor in the kitchen, I had a feeling it was good to go. Sure enough, the hot, velvety concoction solidified just fine in the pan, turning into a sheet of solid toffee. Various tasters in the workplace couldn't detect my failure to hit that exact temperature.

That said, there are a few things you should abide by when making your own candy.

Do one task at a time. Don't think you can melt chocolate while also whipping up some caramel. The process of boiling sugar in particular must be watched closely; one minute it's a light syrup, the next it's black tar on the bottom of the pot.

Take your time. When a recipe says to melt chocolate in 30-second increments in the microwave, don't zap it for a minute to speed up the process. You'll burn the whole bowl.

Definitely invest in a candy thermometer, which is different from a regular kitchen thermometer (for meats and such) in that its temperature range is much higher.

The fridge is your friend. Many candymaking recipes suggest letting the candy firm up overnight at room temperature. But it doesn't hurt to pop caramels and truffles in the fridge for extra firmness, especially if you're in a time crunch.

Here's where that good attitude really comes in. The boiling, the measuring, the waiting: It's a fun behind-the-scenes peek at how candy is made, especially if you gather a few friends or family members and make an event out of it. The less culinary-savvy ones can be on spoon-licking duty. Or, better yet, set up an assembly line and have them garnish things like bars or bark with nuts, coconut and sea salt. (Another good thing about making it yourself: The tinkering possibilities are endless. Don't like coconut? Leave it out. Think those clusters could use just a touch more caramel? Go to town.) Your guests will thank you as they lick the chocolate off their fingers.

Compare that to eating a Three Musketeers bar: Not nearly as much fun, and it certainly won't make your whole house smell like an ice cream parlor.

Contact Michelle Stark at mstark@tampabay.com. Follow @mstark17.

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Control your temper

Many of these recipes call for tempered chocolate, which means it's been heated and cooled to certain temperatures. It's the technique professional candymakers use to get that hard, shell-like quality on chocolate mainly used for dipping.

It certainly can be daunting to do it yourself. Should you bother?

Tempering the chocolate will firm it up and give it a crisp, glossy shell. Untempered chocolate stays softer, so you'll notice that bars or caramels dipped in it start to melt immediately in your hands.

But there's nothing unsafe or unsanitary about not tempering your chocolate. If you want to leave your chocolate untempered before using it to coat things like the Dark Chocolate-Dipped Almond Coconut Bars, just be sure to keep the treats in the fridge until they're read to be eaten.

If you want to give tempering a shot, here's a recipe from Hand-Crafted Candy Bars: From-Scratch, All-Natural, Gloriously Grown-Up Confections.

* * *

MODERATE

Dark Chocolate-Dipped Almond Coconut Bars

1 cup whole almonds

3/4 cup powdered sugar

2 tablespoons heavy cream

2 cups sweetened, shredded coconut

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 batch tempered dark chocolate (see recipe, right)

2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder, for decoration

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare two baking sheets by lining them with parchment paper or aluminum foil.

Place the almonds on one baking sheet and bake for 10-15 minutes, until they are lightly browned.

In a medium bowl, combine the powdered sugar and cream with a rubber spatula until you have a paste. Stir in the coconut and salt. Shape into 2-inch firmly packed logs, each with a slightly flattened top, and put the logs on the second baking sheet. Put two almonds on top of each log and push them gently but firmly into the coconut mixture. Refrigerate for about 20 minutes.

Remove the logs from the refrigerator. Have the chocolate at 90 degrees. Dip each log into the chocolate. Use two dinner forks to fish the log out, carefully. Shake slightly to get excess chocolate off, then slide them onto the baking sheet used to toast the nuts after relining with parchment paper. Using a sifter, dust each bar with cocoa powder while the bar is still moist. Let the chocolate set at room temperature for about 10 minutes. Serve at room temperature.

Store in an airtight container for up to 3 days at room temperature, two weeks in the fridge, or two months in the freezer.

Makes about 16 bars.

Source: Adapted from Hand-Crafted Candy Bars: From-Scratch, All-Natural, Gloriously Grown-Up Confections by Susan Heeger (Chronicle Books)

* * *

EASY

Basic Mixed-Nut Bark

1/2 cup broken cashews, roasted and salted (see note)

1/2 cup broken almonds, roasted and salted

1/2 cup broken walnuts, roasted and salted

1/2 cup broken pistachios, roasted and salted

3 cups dark chocolate

1/2 teaspoon sea salt (or more to taste)

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Combine all of the nuts in a mixed bowl and set aside about 1/2 cup of the mixture for decoration.

Place chocolate in a separate bowl, and microwave in 30-second increments until completely melted. Stir after each increment. Do not overcook.

Once chocolate is melted, add the nuts and salt, then spread bark on prepared baking sheet so it is about 1 inch thick. Arrange reserved nuts on top. Allow bark to harden at room temperature for 30 minutes or in the refrigerator for 15 minutes.

Store in the refrigerator until ready to serve. To serve, remove from parchment and break into pieces.

Note: To roast nuts, place a single layer on a baking sheet in an oven heated to 350 degrees and cook for 10 minutes until aromatic. Do not roast different kinds of nuts together as they all require different roasting times. Cool them to room temperature before using.

Makes about 24 pieces.

Source: Adapted from Hand-Crafted Candy Bars: From-Scratch, All-Natural, Gloriously Grown-Up Confections by Susan Heeger (Chronicle Books)

* * *

EASY

Honey Truffles

5 ounces milk chocolate

2-1/2 ounces dark chocolate

2 tablespoons honey

1/3 cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon vodka

Chop the chocolate and place in a bowl. Pour the honey in a pot and boil until the honey is caramelized (to about 250 degrees). Carefully pour in the cream and bring it to a boil. Remove from heat and pour it over the chocolate. Mix with a hand mixer and stir in the butter and vodka.

Roll into 1-inch balls. Dip into chocolate or toss in cocoa powder and powdered sugar.

Makes about 30 pieces.

Source: Adapted from Chocolate: 90 Sinful and Sumptuous Indulgences by Elisabeth Johansson (Sterling Epicure)

* * *

EASY

English Walnut Toffee

2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter

1 cup granulated sugar

1 cup chopped walnuts

1 rounded cup semisweet chocolate chips

1/2 cup chopped walnuts, for garnish

Line a square 9- by 9-inch baking pan with foil, leaving the ends overlapping the edges so you can lift the toffee out when it has set for easier cutting.

Put the butter and sugar in a heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly. Gently boil the mixture, stirring almost constantly, until it darkens in color and reaches 285 degrees on a candy thermometer.

Remove from the heat and stir in the chopped walnuts. Pour the hot candy into the prepared pan, smoothing out with a spatula. Be very careful as this is very hot.

Scatter the chocolate chips evenly across the surface of the toffee and let sit for a couple of minutes to let the chocolate melt. Spread the chocolate out evenly with a spreader, then top with chopped nuts, pressing them in gently so they will stick to the chocolate.

Let cool until set, either at room temperature or in the refrigerator. Remove the foil and cut into pieces.

Source: theviewfromgreatisland.com

* * *

MODERATE

Tempered Chocolate

3 cups ice

3 cups chopped chocolate (milk or dark)

Put the ice in a large bowl and set aside.

Reserve a handful of the chopped chocolate, and melt the rest gently in a stainless steel bowl set over simmering water until it reaches 115 degrees on a candy thermometer. Remove the bowl from the heat.

Sprinkle the reserved chocolate into the melted chocolate and stir. Cool the chocolate by placing the bowl over a bowl of ice for a few seconds at a time, removing it, stirring until smooth, and repeating until the temperature drops to 82 degrees.

Heat the chocolate again by placing the chocolate bowl back over the simmering water for 30 seconds to 1 minute at a time. Once its temperature rises to 89 degrees, the chocolate is ready to use in candy-bar production.

Source: Adapted from Hand-Crafted Candy Bars: From-Scratch, All-Natural, Gloriously Grown-Up Confections by Susan Heeger (Chronicle Books)

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