Love bark? Here's a brief explanation of the iconic holiday treat's origins.

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If you’re a seasonal candy connoisseur, then you may rightly think of peppermint bark as a premade treat that can only be scored during the weeks immediately surrounding Christmas. And not without reason; candy manufacturers like William-Sonoma and Ghirardelli have been marketing the commercial version of the confection for the better part of two decades. But if you didn’t grow up watching a loved one make the sweet treat, you might rightly wonder why so-called peppermint bark is called “bark” in the first place. After all, most store-bought versions of the treat, aside from the shards of peppermint, tend to resemble a regular chocolate bar.

Like other forms of sheet candy, such as brittle, peppermint bark is generally made by pouring tempered chocolate over the top of crushed hard peppermint. Once the chocolate has cooled, it’s then cut up or broken into smaller pieces. It’s easy to see, then, why the most commonly accepted origin of chocolate “bark” comes from the fact that the treat, when finished, resembles the craggy surface of a tree. (In all transparency, that was always the explanation I was given by my maternal grandmother, who captained the Christmas cooking effort in my youth.) As Mental Floss points out, though, the origin of the dessert’s name, and indeed the dessert itself, is still not entirely certain. One of the oldest records we have of peppermint bark in the U.S. comes from the 1960s, when a Florida shop was offering the customer’s choice of pretzel or peppermint bark for the sweet sale price of $1.20 a pound. And that sale was going on in September, which seems a bit early to shop for holiday confections.

One likely theory for why peppermint bark became a Christmas treat is that the confection is a permutation of the classic French dessert, mendiants. Like peppermint bark, mendiants are often broken up into slabs, though they are also frequently presented in medallion shapes. They are also traditionally made and eaten during the Christmas season. In fact, mendiants are one of the 13 desserts served during Christmas in the French region of Province to represent Jesus and his 12 disciples. Unlike peppermint bark, however, mendiants tend to have four kinds of treats studded into their surface. In classic mendiants, the confections embedded in the chocolate bark are meant to represent the major monastic orders of the Middle Ages using the color of their robes. Almonds were used for the white cloaks worn by the Dominicans, raisins for the gray robes of the Franciscans, hazelnuts for the brown robed-Carmelites, and dried figs for the purple-clothed Augstinians. As Good Housekeeping points out, the name of the candy itself means “begging,” a reference to those monks who swore themselves to a life of poverty for the sake of their religion. 

Today, mendiants are made using far more than those four ingredients (though most confectioners recommend limiting the toppings to four per mendiant).Cacao nibs, apricot, rose petals, fresh honey, crushed coffee beans, marshmallows and much more can all be used to put a twist on the Christmas treat. And since peppermint has long been considered a wintery flavor, it can naturally become a stunning addition to any homemade chocolate, whether mendiant or bark. So if your family takes pride in its homemade bark abilities, consider switching things up this year by adding mendiants to your table; you may mint a few new holiday flavors to go alongside your usual peppermint bark.