A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big, BIG everything else: flavor, ideas, holy-cow factor. Psst: We don't count water, salt, pepper, and certain fats (say, olive oil to dress greens or sauté onions), since we're guessing you have those covered. Today, we're turning two ingredients—and a little magic—into cutie-patootie candies.
I never liked candy—there, I said it. Not Tootsie Rolls, lollipops, Jolly Ranchers, jelly beans, peppermint patties, Twizzlers. Especially not gummy worms. I remember every Halloween, I begged my mom not to take me trick-or-treating, which I hated, which she insisted upon, only so at the end of the night she and my brother could raid my loot, as I ate the only candy I liked:
Reese’s peanut butter cups. Those I wouldn’t share with anyone.
So it makes total sense that, a couple decades later, we’d end up here—with me developing a Reese’s DIY doppelgänger. What would happen, I couldn’t help but wonder, if peanut butter cups weren’t born in the early 1900s, but in 2018?
One word: tahini. The ground sesame paste is integral to many Middle Eastern cuisines and has become a celebrity ingredient in the U.S. as chefs like Yotam Ottolenghi, Michael Solomonov, and Ana Sortun publish cookbooks that make it impossible not to get excited about dishes like za’atar flatbread and yogurty shakshuka.
With respect to likability, tahini had a couple big advantages:
- It’s relatable. Just like peanut butter, recipes will tell you, but better!
- It’s versatile. You’re just as likely to see tahini drizzled over a grain bowl as you are mixed into a shortbread. Unlike peanut butter, tahini is just as much about savory as it is about sweet.
Also unlike peanut butter, tahini is runny—in fact, it’s pourable. Which is a big problem when it comes to our not-Reese’s cups. One bite should yield a distinct, neat cross-section, not a gooey mess. So I started experimenting alternatives:
I tried powdered sugar, which quickly made the filling way too sweet. I tried a buckeye-esque approach with crackers, which diluted the tahini’s flavor. That’s when I started to wonder: What could thicken the tahini without compromising its flavor?
That’s when I realized: water.
Which sounds entirely illogical. But think about making a creamy tahini sauce. You add a little water or lemon juice and it immediately seizes up. Then you add a little more, a little more, a little more, and it thins.
This is much like water-meets-chocolate, which Harold McGee explains as such: “It seems perverse that adding liquid to a liquid produces a solid: but the small amount of water acts as a kind of glue.”
Similarly, “when a small amount of juice (or any water-containing liquid) is added to tahini,” writes Cooks Illustrated, “a portion of each carbohydrate molecule is drawn to the water. As a result, clumps of carbohydrates appear.” .
If you keep adding a watery liquid, you’ll cross the threshold, which is almost always the recipe’s goal. But not here. Here, we’re thickening the tahini on purpose, yielding a spoonable, sturdy filling for our cups—full of tahini flavor and absolutely nothing else.
I originally envisioned these grown-up Reese’s with dark chocolate—how sophisticated, right?—but because there’s zero sugar in the filling, we needed something to balance it all out. Something sweet, something creamy. Something like milk chocolate. You could, of course, opt for dark or semisweet. But milk was our favorite pairing.
And to make everything sing: a pinch of flaky salt. A little goes a long way.
After forming, stick these in the fridge to set. Or keep them in the freezer indefinitely for chocolate emergencies. That’s what I used to do with my Reese’s cups—and, turns out, their tahini counterparts are just as great that way. Who would’ve thought?
- 1/2 cup well-stirred tahini
- 4 teaspoons cold water
- 1 cup milk chocolate chips (about 5 ounces)
- 1 pinch flaky salt
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