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Food and Wine Best Pastry Chef winner Stella Parks recreates and re-imagines childhood favorites into sophisticated modern desserts.

BraveTart: Make Your Own Reese's Cups

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[Photographs: Victor Sizemore]

I find observing obscure gastronomic trends of yesteryear the most entertaining aspect of culinary time travel. Consider, for example, the once common practice of consuming peanut butter directly from the jar. Nowadays, we reserve this intimate act for the privacy of our own homes, but decades ago, jars of peanut butter served as convenient vehicles for on-the go snacking.

We've all but forgotten the time when jarred snacks reigned supreme, but at one time such practices were commonplace. Experts have yet to determine how far back this peculiar habit goes—modern scholarship suggests by the 1980s the practice had gone mainstream. The primary source for this study? Reese's Peanut Butter Cup commercials.

Their lively footage depicts people consuming peanut butter directly from the jar under a variety of circumstances: as a movie theater snack, a fortifying cattle ranch repast, a street food, and even as a presumed lubricant for certain robotic prototypes. The lack of commentary from the narrator confirms that contemporary viewers required no explanation.

What an audience in the 1980s would require explanation to understand, however, was the idea that peanut butter and chocolate could be consumed in tandem. (The innovation of combining peanut butter with chocolate first occurred well before the 20th century, but precise dates remain unclear. Extant sources point to antediluvian origins [1] and apocryphal 18th century accounts imply its existence was not unknown [2]. Archival footage suggests a 49er during the California Gold Rush first introduced the practice to North America [3], but the significance of this moment was overshadowed by the discovery of gold at that mining camp, and as Reese's explained, "the world would have to wait.")

And so in the 1980s, Reese's undertook to popularize the virtually unknown combination of chocolate and peanut butter via a series of Public Service Announcements. To provide Americans an opportunity to experience this revolutionary concept first hand, Reese's began selling a chocolate and peanut butter confection in conjunction with their PSAs.

By utilizing a variety of disparate genres (western, sci-fi, rom-com, adventure [4], opera [5]), Reese's told and retold a message accessible to a wide demographic base. Thus Americans first learned of the ground breaking concept: peanut butter and chocolate, in one mouth, at one time.

Reese's "commercials" varied widely in aesthetics but retained a distinct narrative style. In the broadest terms, each told the tale of innovation; two protagonists from different walks of life, brought together through conflict, learning from each other and achieving personal growth.

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Each spot relies heavily on symbolism to help the audience grasp the difficult facts. The Reluctant Peanut Butter Hero is usually depicted as a mature, traditionalist (wizened rancher [6], sentient robot, plucky young lass [7]); this character embodied America's preconceived notion of peanut butter as a convenient, healthful snack. The second character, the Chocolate Dandy, was almost universally depicted as clumsy and capricious (the hapless farm hand, absent minded scientist [8], freewheeling youth), reflecting social beliefs regarding the frivolity of chocolate. The stories would begin in medias res with the characters meeting through a benign accident, generally initiated by Chocolate Hero's bumbling. This would bring the two characters into conflict.

At the inadvertent union of their respective foods, the characters would respond with frustration, embodying the audience's repugnance to the idea. But in a plot twist, the two would overcome adversity by tasting the new combination, mirroring Reese's desire for the audience to do the same. The Peanut Butter and Chocolate Hero's dismay soon yields to epiphany. The story concludes on a note of great happiness (children laughing, a scientific breakthrough, romance blossoming [9]) to underscore Reese's positive message. Finally, the piece would conclude with the narrator's affirmation, "Two great tastes that taste great together."

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Modern readers, no doubt, find humor in such ham-handed storytelling. We take the pairing of chocolate and peanut butter for granted, which is a testament to the legacy of Reese's campaign.

Yet in spite of the simplicity of their message, Reese's Cups contain more than the mere union of "pure milk chocolate and delicious peanut butter." Rather, each boasts a delightfully sweet and slightly crunchy peanut paste.

Today's copycat recipes mimic this alluring texture by mashing together peanut butter and graham crackers. A charming but sophomoric idea. Such a thing will not transport you back to your childhood.

Scan the ingredient list on a Reese's Cup package and, leaving aside the scary stuff preservatives, only four ingredients remain: chocolate, peanuts, sugar, and salt. So, to be clear, no graham crackers...

In all likelihood you already have everything you need to make Reese's cups at home. And since you're a product of a post-Reese's society, I needn't waste time convincing you the merits of such an endeavor. The only thing left to determine: how will you eat yours?

Get the Recipe

Homemade 'Reese's Cups' »

About the Author: Stella Parks suffers from an unhealthy obsession with recreating the mass produced snacks of her childhood, but ironically is employed by a Frenchman to make the high brow desserts of his childhood. She blogs that dichotomy at bravetart.com.

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