Somehow the words "working" and "chocolate" don't seem to belong in the same sentence but in June I did just that -- attended a "working with chocolate" seminar taught by Anni Golding, owner of Gateau et Ganache -- an online chocolate boutique that offers a variety of handmade truffles, bonbons and marshmallows.
Also, Draegers, a gourmet grocery store chain located in the S.F. Bay Area just started carrying her handmade marshmallows at its San Mateo location -- go Anni!
The workshop was held at the Gamble House in Palo Alto, CA. There were about 12 of us crammed into the small kitchen of this beautiful mansion. Have you ever noticed when you tour old mansions how the kitchens are often tiny compared to the living quarters? Why is it the servants were expected to turn out dinner after dinner in such a small working spaces?
But I digress.
Our task today would be to learn how to temper chocolate.
But first, we were treated to quick tutorial on the history of chocolate and much to my delight, a chocolate tasting.
I never knew how complicated chocolate could be or just how little I knew.
These days chocolate is often talked about with terms that I've typically heard used to describe wine or coffee -- words like terrior, single origin, and organic.
And chocolate tastings are a trendy and fun way to end a dinner party -- especially if you pair it with fine port.
I was particularly interested to learn more about the percentage numbers that are becoming more common on U.S. produced chocolate. Most of the recipes I have encountered simply specify "fine-quality chocolate" which isn't much guidance.
Anni explained that the percentages on the bar of chocolate referred to how much chocolate in that bar comes from the cocoa bean as chocolate liquor (the ground nib of the cacao bean) and added cocoa butter. The rest is mainly sugar. So the higher the percentage the more chocolate there is in the product.
My own personal rule is the same rule I have for cooking with wine, never cook with chocolate you wouldn't deem suitable for eating.
But back to tempering chocolate.
We divided up into partners, donned our aprons and gave Anni our complete attention. In front of us were our tools for the day: instant-read thermometer, rubber spatula, parchment paper, 1-2 lbs of chocolate, knife and cutting board, small and medium microwave-safe containers.
What does it mean to temper chocolate? The tempering of chocolate is all about the fat crystals in chocolate. The tempering process consists of three steps: heat the chocolate to melt all of its fat crystals, cool it to form a new set of crystals and then heat it again to melt the unstable crystals so only the stable crystals remain.
Why learn how to temper chocolate? After all, purchased chocolate is already tempered, that's why it is shiny and has a nice snap when you break it. But chocolate loses its temper (so to speak) when it is melted (as do I).
That is fine if you are using the chocolate in a cake or as a filling. Certainly you can melt chocolate and use it to dip fruit or as a coating for cookies. The end result will taste fine but the finish will look dull and the coating will be soft instead of snappy.
But if you want a shiny finish with a nice snap to it when eaten, you need to temper the chocolate. Tempered chocolate can be used to make chocolate "bowls" to fill with fruit and cream, or to dip fruit. The fancy "chocolate box cakes" that you see in many bakeries are made using tempered chocolate. Tempered chocolate can even be painted on to leaves, allowed to harden then gently peeled off. These chocolate leaves can be the finishing touch on top of a cake to give it that professional look.
If appearance matters, and doesn't it always, then the chocolate must be tempered.
There are several methods for tempering chocolate but the method Anni likes best is the Seed Method (see "On Food and Cooking" by Harold McGee for a more in-depth look at tempering chocolate and the various methods).
The web site baking911.com also does an excellent job of taking you through the steps needed to temper chocolate.
What did I learn? Well, tempering chocolate takes the cook's ENTIRE attention. Since you are constantly checking the temperature of your chocolate -- you must pay attention. So don't multitask while you are tempering chocolate. Anni uses a Raytek laser thermometer, which is fast and accurate and very Star Trek-like. I want one for Christmas.
I also learned that MOISTURE MATTERS. Even the smallest bit of water can make the chocolate seize up which is a graphic way to say that all that lovely chocolate is ruined. So if you are dipping strawberries, make certain the berries are completely dry.
Back at home I decided to try Anni's method on an old family recipe: Buckeyes. Buckeyes are peanut butter balls dipped in chocolate with just a small portion of the peanut butter left so that they resemble a buckeye nut from the buckeye tree. It is a very mid-western treat. Since I enjoy combining gourmet skills with down-home skills, I decided to temper the chocolate used to dip the peanut butter balls into. Typically, semi-sweet chocolate chips are melted with paraffin to create the coating for the buckeye.
I would like to tell you that I was successful but after checking the temperature of that chocolate obsessively like I do with a sick child, my chocolate ended up dull, not shiny and was definitely snap-free.
What happened? According to Anni, the most likely reason for my chocolate failure was that the peanut butter balls were too cold when they were dipped. "That would cause the temperature in your bowl of chocolate to drop faster than if you're dipping room-temperature items".
So, here is the original buckeye recipe. Many versions of this recipe can be found on the internet.
This recipe is from my mother
If you want to temper the chocolate just remember not to refrigerate those peanut butter balls.
1 pound butter
3 pounds powdered sugar
2 pounds peanut butter (not natural)
24 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/2 block paraffin
Combine butter, sugar and peanut butter in a large bowl. Chill the dough for 30 minutes. Roll into 3/4 inch balls. Pierce with a toothpick and submerge into melted chocolate. Place on waxed paper on a cookie sheet. Store in refrigerator. Makes about four dozen.