I've been making chocolate truffles for a few years with decent results, but never quite the quality I was looking for. I don't like them coated in cocoa powder and my dipping technique was haphazard. So over the last few months, I've been getting a lot more serious about chocolate.
Let me start by saying that the people who make fine chocolates deserve every penny that they charge. Chocolate is a finicky substance that doesn't always do what you want it to, or turn out the way you expect. To make small batches of excellent chocolates by hand requires a great deal experience and skill; to make them on a larger scale requires expensive equipment to control the temperature and the knowledge to know when the machines aren't working as advertised.
The first thing I needed to learn was how to temper chocolate. I started my education a while ago by reading items on the internet (David Lebovitz's is quite good) and snippets from books.
The next step was to buy Chocolate Obsession by Michael Recchiuti and Fran Gage, a beautiful book of daring flavors (chocolate paired with tea, herbs, or spices) and careful instructions on how to handle chocolate. It also has a bunch of recipes for other chocolate-based desserts (like the S'mores that Sam loves so much) -- I've been too busy with the dipped chocolate portion of the book to try those concoctions. If you want to learn to work with chocolates, Chocolate Obsession is definitely worth a look.
The next step in my 'choco-cation' was a hands-on class at Spun Sugar in Berkeley devoted to tempering chocolate. We spent a morning learning how to temper dark, milk, and white chocolates. The instructor took much of the mystery out of the process of tempering and gave us plenty of useful tips.
Some of the advice I received included these two tips: 1) Use a good thermometer because the tempering window is only a few degrees wide (88-91 F for dark chocolate). If your chocolate is on either side of the window you might not get the snap, shine, or flavor you were hoping for. 2) To improve your dipping experience, melt a lot more chocolate than you will need. The larger thermal mass will keep the temperature "in the zone" for a longer time, giving you more time to work before you need to reheat the contents. Whatever is unused can be remelted and retempered on another day. Apparently chocolate can be melted and solidified many times before it becomes untemperable.
The tempering window for most chocolates is only about three degrees Fahrenheit wide (1.7 degrees Centigrade), so a good thermometer is critical. My collection is shown below. The dial thermometer (middle photo) is unacceptable because of the low resolution of the markings -- there is little chance of finding the three degree range. The electronic one (right photo) could be a suitable sensor, but it bothers me. Not only it is unclear where the sensing element is (at the tip? 1 inch from the tip? 2 inches from the tip?) but the display unit is weighted in such a way so that it rotates when set on a bowl edge to rest, as shown in the photo below. Such oversights in design really annoy me.
My favorite chocolate thermometer is the one on the left above. It is made of glass and filled with colored alcohol (not mercury!) and is specifically designed for chocolate tempering. The temperature range is fairly narrow so that I can accurately identify when the chocolate is in the tempering range. And I never need to replace its batteries. I got mine for about $20 at Spun Sugar.
The low-tech thermometer has been a boon for my chocolate tempering. After many attempts (which I'll write about in a future post), I've reached the point where more than half of my dipped items have properly tempered coatings. I'm also slowly improving my bar making -- I have a dream of reproducing an "1848" brand bar of bittersweet chocolate mixed with hazelnuts and caramel coated cacao nibs. Fortunately, it's hard to have a catastrophic failure when working with ganache and bittersweet chocolate: even the 'mistakes' are delicious.
Coming up in part 2: how not to make dipped chocolates.
Random link from the archive: Winter Melon
Technorati tags: Chocolate : Food