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Fill your own Easter basket with homemade treats

For many children, Easter is all about the hunt. They love searching for hidden eggs and snooping for the ultimate Easter jackpot: a basket filled with jelly beans, marshmallow Peeps and chocolate rabbits so large that they make a child’s eyes go wide.

My mother used to make homemade Easter candy. She would make chocolate lollipops in the shape of eggs, bunnies and chicks and my favorite, chocolate-dipped peanut butter eggs.

My mother is an excellent cook, but she’s no Martha Stewart. I figured if she could do it, it couldn’t be that hard. My mother used the candy melts sold at local craft stores, such as Michael’s and A.C. Moore. The candy melts don’t require tempering, a method to stabilize chocolate for candy-making by heating and cooling it. Candy melts can be melted in a double boiler or easier still, a microwave. Her peanut butter eggs were just a variation on an easy Midwestern treat called a buckeye — a chocolate-covered peanut butter ball.

My first round of candy making left me humbled.

I thought this would be easy, but my problems started when I decided to be more ambitious than my mother. I would make homemade marshmallow Peeps, create fruit gelees as a stand-in for jelly beans, and would temper the chocolate for the lollipops and massive Easter bunnies.

The raspberry fruit gelees didn’t set. I burned the first batch of marshmallows. And I soon learned how infuriating it is to temper chocolate, heating and cooling it to exact temperatures to create shiny, crisp candies.

The only recipe that worked on the first try was chocolate peanut butter eggs.

My kitchen failures led me to reach out to some candy-making experts: Beth Somers, head of the test kitchen for Wilton, the Illinois-based maker of cake and candy molds and supplies, and Casey Barber, author of "Classic Snacks Made From Scratch."

Somers explained why those candy melts are easier to use than tempering chocolate and offered a few tips on how to more easily fill the molds. Barber explained how to make homemade marshmallows, the basis for Peeps.

Back in the kitchen, I found more success. My mango gelees set. I didn’t burn the marshmallows. I used candy melts instead of trying to temper the chocolate. Instead of piping the marshmallows into the standard Peep-shaped chicks, I used chick- and bunny-shaped cookie cutters. Much easier.

And I learned a valuable lesson: My mother’s methods may not make her Martha Stewart, but she knows best.

Make your own chocolates

Beth Somers, the test kitchen manager at Wilton, offered this advice:

Candy melts are a confectionary coating and easier to work with than tempering chocolate. "They set up perfectly without any tempering." She recommends melting them in the microwave at 50 percent power in 30-second increments. They also can be melted in the top of a double boiler or in a small bowl set on top of a small saucepan of simmering water.

Place the candy melts in a disposable decorating bag, filling it halfway and twisting the bag shut. Then place the bag in the microwave and knead the melts after 30-second intervals until fully melted. Cut off the tip and pipe the chocolate directly into the molds. "For ease, convenience and cleanliness, it’s wonderful," she said.

Use a candy funnel or a regular kitchen funnel when filling larger molds. Squeeze bottles, sold at most craft stores, can also be used. Place the chocolate in the bottle and microwave, then use the bottle to fill your molds. Once your work is done, any remaining candy melts will harden; the hardened pieces are easy to break up inside the bottle, empty into a plastic bag and save for the next project.

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