Parents typically either buy pre-made baskets or pair confections with faux grass and small toys and give the Easter Bunny credit for the offerings. Eighty-eight percent of adults carry on the tradition of making Easter baskets for their children, according to the National Confectioners Association. Chocolate bunnies are some of the most popular items, with more than 90 million made each year.
If you're a crafty mom or dad, why not take it a step further and make some of the candy yourself, or even mark the holiday by having older children help out?
Talk to some North of Boston candy makers and you'll find it's not overly difficult to be an amateur chocolatier. All you need is a stovetop, a good amount of patience and items found at local craft or grocery stores.
Ben Silverstein, owner of Metropolis Fine Confections in Lawrence, recommends beginners use chocolate-flavored melting wafers, which can easily be heated up in a double-boiler or microwave and poured into plastic molds. The wafers are sold in one-pound bags and available at arts and crafts stores like Michaels or A.C. Moore, along with molds shaped like bunnies, carrots, butterflies and more.
"We typically don't use those," Silverstein said of the wafers, "but that's what's readily available at craft stores. A lot of moms will use those with their children."
Candy wafers are easy to work with, Silverstein said, because they have been pre-tempered before packaging. Tempered chocolate is carefully melted and cooled in order to tighten its crystals, allowing the chocolate to set firm and giving it a shiny look and "mouth feel."
But true chocolate aficionados can taste the difference between "real" chocolate and flavored wafers that are made with partially hydrogenated palm kernel oil instead of cocoa butter, which contains natural antioxidants.
Silverstein, who has owned Metropolis Fine Confections for 15 years, grew up in the business. His father, Sam, opened Silver Sweet Candies in 1957, and Ben Silverstein began making candy alongside his father at 12 or 13 years old, he said.
"I grew up with chocolate in my blood, I guess," said Silverstein as he used a gloved hand to dip bunny pops, chocolate nests and "chick in a basket" sweets in his showroom on Essex Street. "This is actually the way it was done years ago, in the '20s and '30s."
At Stowaway Sweets in Marblehead, chocolatier Jon McKeigue reshapes the store's signature candy - the Meltaway - for Easter. Normally square-shaped, the candy has a mocha-buttercream center surrounded by dark or milk chocolate and is sprinkled with granular sugar. At Easter, the Meltaway is sold in an egg shape, said McKeigue, who also works part time as a pastry chef at Todd English's Olive's restaurant in Charlestown.
Stowaway Sweets opened in Swampscott in 1929 and moved to its Marblehead location - a former iron foundry on the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Beach Street - in the early 1940s. Michael and Alicia Canniffe purchased the business in 1980 as a way to save money for their children's college tuition, said Michael Canniffe, who now operates the business in the family home.
In the basement, below a showroom adorned with request letters from the Roosevelt and Coolidge administrations, McKeigue hand-dips bunny pops and duck pops on a marble counter, using the Stowaway's antique equipment to temper the chocolate. In an adjoining room, longtime employees build custom Easter baskets or package chocolates in the company's signature green boxes.
Tempering chocolate is a basic process, but it requires patience and concentration, according to McKeigue.
"If the phone rings or people are around, you may come back and it may be too hot or too cold," he said. "That's why it requires a little bit of attention."
Sharon Gooch, baking manager at Johnson's Steak and Seafood in Northwood, N.H., enjoys making creative cookies for holidays, something she started doing for her three daughters when they were young.
"When my oldest daughter was 3, I started painting cookies," said Gooch, who is also the baking manager at Johnson's two other locations in New Hampshire and Maine. "They've grown up with really; it's a nice tradition."
Gooch, a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University's culinary arts program, said she enjoys making complicated Easter-themed cookies with roosters, bunnies and butterflies.
"I love doing the holiday stuff - that really makes me happy. (It's) self-entertainment, I guess."
Jon McKeigue of Stowaway Sweets in Marblehead has some tips for making pops with tempered chocolate. He said he uses Calibo, a Belgian chocolate that's available in 10-pound blocks. Smaller portions of Ghirardelli chocolate are available at some supermarkets and other retailers. A couple of pounds of chocolate will make 12 pops, he said.
Here are his tips for creating Easter-shaped treats using tempered chocolate:
* Put chocolate in a double-boiler and melt it slowly. Never use direct heat.
* Use a candy thermometer and bring the chocolate up to 100 degrees and take it off the heat.
* Slowly stir in small chunks of room-temperature chocolate and bring the temperature down to 88 degrees for dark chocolate (86 degrees for milk chocolate and 84 for white chocolate). "If you don't go down to 88, it won't set," McKeigue said.
* Test the chocolate by pouring some on a piece of wax paper or parchment paper. Chocolate will set in a couple of minutes if it's been tempered correctly.
* While waiting for it to set, return the double-boiler to the stove but turn the burner off.
* Be sure the plastic mold is clean and dry. "Moisture is a big enemy of chocolate," McKeigue said.
* Use a spoon or pastry bag to fill the mold to the top then tap it vigorously to remove any trapped air bubbles.
* Put the pop's stick in the bottom and twist it so it's coated in chocolate.
* Wait until chocolate is completely set before attempting to pop it out. This should take about 20 minutes.
* To mix things up, add a few drops of peppermint, strawberry or raspberry extract while you're stirring in chocolate chunks. Instant coffee powder, taste good, too, McKeigue said.
"Try not to rush it; it's a patience thing," he said about tempering. "Pay attention to that temperature range."
Chris Winfrey, owner of Winfrey's Fudge and Chocolates in Rowley, has a simple recipe for parents with young children. Dip marshmallow Peeps in melted, semi-sweet chocolate morsels and put in the refrigerator to harden.
Winfrey said the morsels can be melted in a microwave, but they should not be heated to more than 92 degrees. Also, she warned against getting any water in the chocolate, which causes "blooming" and gives it a dull appearance.
Polka Dot Shortbread Cookies
Sharon Gooch, baking manager at Johnson's Steak and Seafood, leads the charge around holidays like Easter in making "hand-painted shortbread and gingerbread cookies for the holidays using many colors of royal icing and artists paint brushes," she wrote in an e-mail.."The icing dries to a smooth, satiny finish and the cookies remain crisp."
Here is a version of Gooch's recipe for a fun family project:
1 pound unsalted butter, room temperature
11/4 cups sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
11/2 teaspoons vanilla
6 cups all purpose. flour
In a mixer, cream together the butter, sugar and salt.. Add eggs one at a time and beat until smooth.. Mix in flour.. Chill dough for several hours or overnight before using. .
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.. On a lightly floured surface, roll dough 1/4-inch thick and cut out with an egg-shaped cookie cutter.. Bake on a sheet pan until lightly browned around the edges, about 12 minutes.. Cool cookies on a wire rack before decorating.
Make sure your utensils are grease-free - fats will cause the icing to break down.
2-pound bag of confectioner's sugar
6 tablespoons of dried egg white (Gooch suggests "Just Whites," found in the baking section of grocery stores)
6 tablespoons of water, plus extra for thinning icing
Food coloring as desired
Small new or food-use-only paint brushes
In a mixer, combine confectioner's sugar with the dried egg white.. Add water and beat at medium-high speed until the icing becomes thick and bright white (about 10 minutes)..Divide icing into several bowls and dye as desired..Slowly stir in enough water so that the icing is thin enough to use as a glaze, and to seek its own level in the bowl..If you make the icing very watery, it won't dry to a satiny shine and will be difficult to decorate with..Keep finished icing covered with plastic wrap to avoid crusting over. .
To decorate cookies:
Use a small spatula or the back of a spoon to spread the glaze over the top of each cookie, going right up to the edge..Use paint brushes held straight up and down to dot other colors on top of the cookies. You can either do this on top of the wet glaze, or for a neater design wait an hour or longer for the glaze to dry before decorating.
Some decorating ideas:
* Apply random dots of the same or a variety of sizes
* Use rows, stripes or waves of small dots
* Groups of three dots close together work well
* Groups of five dots placed in a circle with a second color in the center for a dot flower looks good, too
* Allow cookies to dry flat for several hours or overnight before stacking, covering or serving.