A Mixed Bag of Halloween Treats: Homemade Milk Duds, Star Crunch, and Giant Twix Bars

So yeah, I haven't been great about keeping this blog up to date. I set a very low bar for myself that I should at least write up my post about my Halloween desserts by Christmas -- and looks like I'm going to make it right under the wire.

I would never try to give out homemade candy to trick-or-treaters -- after all, we live in the real world where kids aren't supposed to take unlabeled candy from strangers. But I did make treats for a Halloween party at work. I decided to make BraveTart's Homemade Milk Duds and Star Crunch, and an epicurious recipe for Giant Twix.

I'm not particularly a fan of real Milk Duds, but I figured that any recipe from Stella Parks is worth trying. The recipe seems easy enough: you make caramel; cut it into pieces; and coat each piece in chocolate. In reality, this project turned out to be quite a headache. To make the caramel, you cook sugar, water, and salt until golden; add cream; and cook the mixture until it reaches 260 degrees, stirring constantly. I poured the caramel into a parchment-lined 8-inch pan and let it cool to room temperature.

A few hours later when I tried to slice the cooled caramel, it was hard and brittle and bits of caramel were actually chipping off. Even though I used an accurate candy thermometer, I must have cooked it to too high of a temperature. The caramel was so hard that I couldn't control my knife cuts and the individual caramels were a variety of jagged, ugly shapes. I tried to round out the caramels, but they were impossible to mold by hand. I didn't want angular, irregular Milk Duds, so I put the caramels on a parchment-lined baking sheet and put the sheet in the oven. The oven was off, but I had baked some cookies earlier in the afternoon and it still retained some residual heat. After some time in the warm oven, the caramels softened up enough that I could mold them into rounded shapes. They were still all different sizes, but at least they looked a lot better. 

The re-shaped caramels cooled off quickly and I dipped them (one at a time) in tempered Cacao Barry Lactée Supérieure 38% milk chocolate. Even though the chocolate was properly tempered, the chocolate layer was thin. When I tossed the Milk Duds into a plastic container, the chocolates rubbed against each other and you can see in the photo below that the chocolate coating got a bit scratched up. When I ate a Milk Dud, the chocolate dissolved almost immediately and the caramel was delicious -- but it was so dang hard that I was worried that I would lose a filling (I'm sure it's unrelated, but a few weeks later I did have to go to the dentist for an emergency repair after I broke off part of a molar underneath a gold onlay). 

In fact, the Milk Duds were so hard that I did something I have never done before -- I put them out at the office Halloween party accompanied by a clear written warning. It described the texture and admonished anyone with fragile dental work to beware. Texture notwithstanding, I thought these were much tastier than real Milk Duds, although I do think it would be nice if the chocolate coating on the homemade version were a little thicker. But even if I could guarantee that the caramel would be softer, I don't think I would make these again. It's just a whole lot of work -- including chocolate tempering, which I don't particularly enjoy -- to yield a relatively small amount of candy.
By contrast, Stella's homemade Star Crunch recipe promised to be much easier. I have never eaten real Little Debbie Star Crunch before. In fact, I had never heard of Star Crunch and didn't know it existed before I came across Stella's recipe. The Little Debbie website describes them as "A soft, chewy cookie topped with caramel and crispy rice then covered in a layer of fudge." They sounded great. The process for making the Star Crunch requires you to make caramel, so it's somewhat similar to the process for making the center of the homemade Milk Duds. You cook water, sugar, and salt until it comes to a boil and turns the color of honey; add cold heavy cream; cook the caramel to 245 degrees; cool the mixture to 140 degrees; stir in milk chocolate; and stir in Rice Krispies cereal.

Everything was going great until the part where I added the milk chocolate to the caramel. The mixture appeared to seize up, and when I tried to stir in the Rice Krispies, I had trouble getting all of the cereal coated because the chocolate-caramel mixture was grainy. When I tried forming the cookies, the cereal mixture was dry and it took some effort to form the patty shapes. My cookies looked matte and dry, whereas Stella's look shiny and glossy.
Again, I think I might have taken the temperature of the caramel a bit too high (perhaps it's time to calibrate my thermometer), because the texture of the finished cookies just did not seem right. It was neither stretchy (like a typical Rice Krispies treat) or crispy (like candied cereal), but instead was just... blah. There was nothing gooey or chewy about them. I suppose Stella's comment in the recipe headnote that the cookies have a texture like fudge is somewhat accurate, but if the texture I got was the intended result, I'm not a fan. I would much rather have a chocolate-caramel version of a traditional Rice Krispies treat, with the chewy-stretchy texture that makes a Rice Krispies treat so enjoyable.

Finally, I made the Giant Chocolate Caramel Cookie Bars from epicurious. These are essentially batch Twix, or a variation of millionaire's shortbread. You make a pan of shortbread, cover it with a layer of caramel, and then coat the whole thing in chocolate before slicing the slab into individual cookies. The cookies aren't coated with chocolate all the way around like a real Twix bar, but you also don't need to deal with the hassle of dipping each cookie in chocolate individually.
I made the shortbread dough in the mixer by beating room temperature butter with sugar; adding salt and vanilla; and gradually incorporating flour. I spread the dough into a 9-inch by 13-inch parchment-lined pan, docked the dough, baked it until golden and firm, and let it cool. To make the caramel layer, I cooked sugar and water until golden; added a warm mixture of heavy cream, melted butter, and salt; and brought the mixture up to 245 degrees. I poured it over the cooled shortbread layer (still in the pan) and let it sit for a few hours. Finally, I turned the shortbread out of the pan and coated the bottom (the cookie side) with chocolate. The recipe says to use chocolate thinned with a little oil, but since I used couverture that was very fluid (Cacao Barry 64% extra bitter Guayaquil), I didn't bother adding any oil. After I chilled the cookie to set the chocolate on the bottom, I cut the slab of cookies in half lengthwise, turned each half over so that the caramel was on top, and coated the tops and sides with chocolate. After all of the chocolate was set, I cut each slab of cookies into individual pieces about an inch wide.

Because the chocolate wasn't tempered, I stored the finished bars in the fridge. I absolutely loved the chewy caramel layer. It had just the right amount of stretch and give. The chocolate layer was quite thin, and especially because the sides of each individual piece were not coated in the chocolate, I thought that the bars could have used a bit more chocolate. For me, the weakest component was the shortbread layer. It was crumbly and bits of cookie broke off when I sliced the bars (I manged to find a few intact slices for the photo above). Perhaps I just should have baked the cookie for less time, but the fragility of the cookie base was a bit irksome. Still, the homemade Twix were absolutely delicious -- they were definitely my favorite out of the three Halloween items I made -- and I can imagine that the caramel layer could be applied on top of just about any bar cookie base, to wonderful effect.

Merry Christmas, everyone!