These nut clusters are the richest of the rich. I’m not talking about monetary richness; while being rich in cash is probably nice to a degree (i.e. you can buy all the baking ingredients you want without concern for going over your grocery budget), I bet it is no where near as enthralling as the richness of dark chocolate + salted date caramel + nuts of different shapes, textures, and flavors. The former three things equate to a richness, an edible one at that, that I can’t help but
think, feel, KNOW is unique and special and worthy of hyperbolic praise.
When I was little I would get really excited about having saved up 20 NTD (a little under 1 USD). That kind of money seems like almost nothing in retrospect, but at the time it was my candy currency. 7-11 sold a white chocolate bar for 18 NTD and so, unsurprisingly, I would excitedly spend my allowance money on it. With my white chocolate bar in tow, I was a big kid, a budding chocolate connoisseur. Obviously, the white chocolate was shi-. I tried it a few years ago and couldn’t believe how waxy and plastic-like it tasted. Every child’s dream: white chocolate plastic. There was definitely no real cocoa butter to be found in it, and while I turn up my nose to cheap vegetable oil chocolate now, unexperienced little Meg thought it was divine magic. To this day, I can’t help but view a bar of white chocolate, with it’s neat columns and rows, and perfectly sized rectangular bites, as something incomprehensibly special. I guess childhood has a way of making the inanimate unusually animate in one’s mind; white chocolate sits on a table, unmoving and speechless, but in my mind it catalyzes an avalanche of excitement. Memory is such a weird thing. And so is waxy chocolate. Don’t worry, this isn’t a buildup to my confession about having used plastic chocolate in this recipe, no, no, quite the contrary. These caramely nut clusters are encased in velvety, dark chocolate; dark enough to appreciate the richness of cacao, but not so deprived of sweetness that your mouth feels chalky. There’s also a hint of umami provided by a tad bit of miso paste (try not to simply replace it with salt).
I may no longer be seven years old, but I am still dewy eyed in the face of chocolate. I’m also very, very dew eyed when presented with a salted chocolate caramel combination. These nut clusters are made without heaps of refined sugar and oil, but they don’t connote the grudgingness that ‘healthy’ often equated to when I was a kid. Healthy meant eating carrot sticks and sour apple slices and it was not fun. If it’s worth anything, I think I’d make my 8 year old self proud with this recipe; the all too straightforward and bland crunch of a dry carrot has been replaced by a matrix of rich, chewy, crunchy, sweet, and salty.
Kids are often labeled picky eaters and put down for their undeveloped palettes, but I think we (adults) can learn a thing or two from them. It’s easy (and honestly sometimes fun) to get caught up in the swing of intricate dishes and complex flavor combinations; there is a thrill in all of that, but there’s also a special, unassuming quality to simplicity that ought not go overlooked. I’m no self-proclaimed philosopher, so I’ll try to spare the tangential thoughts, but I think what I’m trying to get at is that it’s the simpler, mama-used-to-make-that kind of dishes that hold a special place in people’s hearts. If you give most kids free reign to choose what they want for dinner or snack, they’ll likely say pizza or pasta or brownies or ice cream. Each food stands on it’s own, stripped of convoluted wording (which I know I tend towards) and ingredients. For some reason, those straightforward foods from our childhoods become cemented on our tongues and hearts and minds. White chocolate will always be awe-inducing for me and salted caramel will always remind me of happy summers spent on the Oregon coast. It’s easy to dismiss seemingly ‘easy’ dishes as boring and unexciting, but at the end of the day, it’s what we usually choose to come back to.
There’s an unseen comfort submerged in the pumpkin soup you first tasted as a child. How pureed roasted pumpkin can be so powerful, I don’t know. Sometimes I enjoy asking questions I know I won’t be able to answer. I don’t really know why. Maybe there’s a thrill in uncertainty and the active pursuit of finding an answer. Or maybe calling attention to the mysteriousness that underlies a day to day activity such as eating adds more depth to my life; making soup can sometimes feel straightforward and mundane, but as soon as you incorporate emotion and memory inducing flavors into the mix, you have a bizarrely magical soup on your hands.
While I’m sure my eight year old self wouldn’t have specifically craved dark chocolate coated date caramel nut clusters, she definitely would have day dreamed about salted caramel ice cream and Hershey’s chocolate bars. And so, as a nod to my little kid self, I dressed up my childhood cravings in velvety chocolate and gooey date caramel. I tasted these clusters and wondered how can something taste so wonderful? Even though I put them together and anticipated how they’d taste, I couldn’t help but be struck by their spot-on sweet umaminess. You may not have revered salted caramel and chocolate as much as I did as a kid, but it’s never too late to imprint yourself with new, awe-inspiring flavors. We’re all still wide-eyed little kids, aren’t we?
1 cup unsalted nuts of choice (I like a mix of hazelnuts, walnuts, and almonds)
1 cup chopped dates*
2 tbsps coconut oil, melted
1-2 tbsps brown rice syrup or other sticky liquid sweetener
1/2 cup bittersweet chocolate chips or chopped chocolate (I used 70% cacao)
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp red miso paste*
Pinch or two of salt for sprinkling
*Soak the un-chopped dates in hot water for 10-15 min to make it easier to puree them.
*If you don’t have miso paste on hand, you can probably just replace it with salt (gradually add it to taste), but I do think the miso adds a unique, subtle flavor that salt can’t provide on it’s own.