A Chocolate Conundrum (backstory)

About two years ago, the invisible gremlins at Amazon.com recommended for me Peter Greweling’s book Chocolates and Confections at Home, a home cook’s primer on creating fudge, toffee, brittle, marshmallow, caramel, nougat, and, of course, chocolates. The suggestion bewildered and annoyed me.

Chocolate and Confections book

Chocolates and Confections: At Home with the Culinary Institute of America

“My dear Amazon,” I asked the ether, “What is it about my purchases of Weight Watchers New Complete Cookbook, The Moosewood Restaurant Cooking for Health, and Omron HJ-112 Pocket Pedometer that your super-sophisticated, all-obtrusive, ultra-algorithmic snoop-o-tron doesn’t understand?” I tried to ignore the beautiful chocolate-covered pretzel on the suggested book’s front cover. “Damn you, you evil small-business-killing, soul-sucking, gelt-gobbling conglomerate bastards,” I said, “why must you tempt me so, what with my epic inability to resist any fresh, creamy, crunchy, or chewy sweet within eye’s reach?” Then I wondered if there were any truffle recipes in the book. I’ve always loved truffles. “Well, maybe just a little peek . . .”

Before I realized that the mischievous marketers had successfully swapped my common sense for senses more sybaritic, I found myself holding my own copy of the book, ogling photos of homemade two-layered candy bars featured in the last chapter, such as PB&J bars and kitchen-sink bars. I tried to figure out how each bar was constructed, imagining what it looked like without its chocolate cover, even though they had already been cut in half to show off their gorgeous innards. Despite the dietary dangers that lurked within them, I wanted to make every one of those bars. Heck, I wanted to make everything in the book.

Thus began my journey down a chocolate-covered path—an excursion fueled by curiosity and challenge, giddiness and guilt, gluttony and glory. An ongoing part-time project that continues to stretch my imagination, strain my budget, test my patience, and threaten my waistline. There is no turning back on this path; I eat it as I go along.

I’m usually not one to tackle a typical cookbook front-first; rarely do I have the time or patience to read book introductions or start-of-chapter caveats before I start boning a breast or proofing some yeast. Whether I want to make a quick pasta sauce or a fancy frosted cake (for special occasions only, of course), I perfunctorily peruse the recipe, convince myself that I have given it a thorough mental tryout, then blame the recipe writer for anything that (inevitably) goes wrong. But I had a respectful fear of confectionery, especially when it required the tempering of chocolate or the handling of hot sugar solutions that could cause third-degree burns. So I approached this culinary category with the diligence it was due, if only to save my own skin—literally.

And so it was at the front of Chocolates and Confections at Home where I, full of fervor yet bereft of bravery, began my confection education. I read the explanations and studied the diagrams of its “master techniques,” then courageously tackled recipes that required no tempering or blistering liquids. That is, I made about a half dozen different kinds of fudge. Then I set my sights on truffles, since it was October and I thought that, with a little practice, I could give truffles as holiday gifts. And I figured that since truffles are simply balls of ganache dipped in chocolate, they were the next logical step in my pursuit of candy-bar confidence. If only it were that simple.

Black forest truffles

Black Forest Truffles, from Chocolates and Confections: At Home . . . Note the escaping ganache.

Ganache begins when you introduce hot cream to finely chopped chocolate. After the chocolate and cream have rested together in a covered bowl for several minutes, combine the now-melting chocolate and the cream with a rubber spatula using slow, circular strokes, sweeping the edges of the bowl as necessary, gently coaxing the cream and chocolate to coalesce. Sometimes the ganache comes together smoothly and without incident; other times you have to beat the heck out of it with a wooden spoon. Sometimes the ganache cooperates when you try to portion it out and roll it into balls, other times it will be too thick, too thin, or too sticky to be of any use to anybody.

But my gripes about ganache pale when compared to my rants about tempering chocolate. Tempering is one of the most aptly named processes in all of cookery: It requires incessant checking and controlling of the temperature of the chocolate as well as the temperament of the chocolatier, who must muster and maintain a cool composure throughout the process. It’s a process I’d been loath to learn and still find frustrating, though not impossible, after dozens of attempts. But temper I must, since tempered chocolate sets with a beautiful shine and snap, free of unsightly spots or streaks. In other words, tempering makes your chocolates look good, which makes you look good. And for me to look good is really saying something.

Even tempered chocolate (as opposed to even-tempered chocolate) can misbehave as it sets. Case in point: my dipped truffles were cracking or oozing at an alarming rate. I don’t mean that they cracked quickly; it was much more torturous than that, for they cracked slowly, after they had set beautifully and my chest had swelled with pride. I do mean that the truffles cracked about 95 percent of the time. Cracked truffles are pain because they should be re-dipped to cover up the error and to make sure the truffle filling is properly protected.

But no pain, no gain, right? I soldiered on, agonizing over several more gooey-ganache and cracked-truffle episodes. With a heavy heart and a deflated chest, I tried to explain to my husband, Gary, why my chocolate projects were bringing me more grief than joy. I soon found a chocolate-making and tempering workshop at a local cooking school and invited Gary to enroll with me. I knew this would be a fun gig for both of us, but my invitation was laced with ulterior motives: I believed not only that the instructor could explain the intricacies of ganache and tempering to Gary better than I could, thus fostering spousal sympathy for my strained endeavors, but also that if Gary could get excited about the chocolate-making concept (not just the chocolate-eating concept), I could probably pay for chocolate with our joint checking account. (At this early point, I had already spent over 200 bucks on high-end chocolate.)

Molded chocolates from class

Molded chocolates from chocolates class

Getting Gary on board was easy. Both of us were mesmerized by the class demonstrations of molded chocolates, slabbed ganaches, layered bonbons (a precursor to layered candy bars!), and the like. We were smitten. Gary wanted to replicate some of the demonstrated chocolates for his own winter-holiday gifting, and I was eager to practice my newly learned techniques over the months to come. By the third and final class, Gary and I had already ordered two professional chocolate molds and several dozen pounds of chocolate—all paid for with joint funds.

Endearingly geeky, Gary approached the tempering task with a healthy I-can-hack-anything attitude, figuring mere technical know-how would prevail over the persnicketies of cocoa butter. He was wrong. About two hours into his first attempt at tempering and molding, chocolate-lined bowls were slammed, utensils were thrown, and a blood-curdling bellow rang through the apartment: “I am not  f—–g  tempering  f—–g  chocolate ever again!” Our two cats dashed under the bed; I wished I could join them.

But Gary gave it another go or two, and on December 24 I filled a five-pound candy box, and several smaller boxes, with an assortment of Gary’s molded milk chocolates with vanilla ganache, his layered tea & lemon slabbed ganache dipped in dark chocolate and decorated with cocoa-butter decals (a recipe from class), my mocha, milk-chocolate, and Black Forest truffles (all double-dipped because the workshop didn’t cover truffles so I had yet to learn how to prevent the cracking), and peanut butter fudge.

Box of homemade chocolates

Our homemade chocolates, December 2011

By December 26 I was tired of tempering and dipping and closed out 2011 with homemade marshmallows and divinity, both of which required hot sugar syrup but it turned out to be not that big a deal after all.

On the eve of 2012 I thought about what chocolates I’d make in the coming year more or less at the same time I made my increasingly impotent vow to really really really lose some weight. An uncomfortable conflict, indeed. And even if I came to my senses and successfully squelched any further chocolate thoughts, we still had tons of expensive chocolate to use up. So I made a deal with myself: I could continue making chocolates no more frequently than every other week, but I had to really really really keep the nibbling and chocolate munching to an absolute minimum. Should the mission start to adversely affect my health, livelihood, or well-being in any way—if my weight climbed past a certain threshold—I would abort. Needless to say, this was easier negotiated than delivered, though I did have a few helpful tactics on tap, such as chewing gum or wearing disposable medical procedural masks while I prepared and handled the chocolates.

Valentine's Day molded chocolates

Valentine’s Day 2012: White-chocolate passionfruit chocolates and bittersweet raspberry chocolates

The first half of 2012 was a blur of more truffles, molded chocolates, slabbed ganaches, layered gianduja, and caramels. It was also a whirlwind of open houses, bidding wars, and credit scores as Gary and I sought to move out of our apartment and into more permanent abode. The time was ripe to seek new digs because mortgage rates were at historic lows, and because our apartment was not conducive to chocolate storage, chocolate tempering, or the assembly-line production of dipped chocolates. From October through April, when air conditioning was unavailable in our building, even with the heat off our apartment would hover around 75 degrees Fahrenheit, about ten degrees higher than recommended for chocolate storage and five degrees higher than it should be for tempering. And the kitchen counter was rudely cut into small segments by the sink, stove, and refrigerator. The only solution for the counter situation was to make do. To lower the room temperature, I had window fans running in the living room when I tempered chocolate, even when outdoor temps were below zero. The icy indoor gales really pissed off our cats, but the chocolate and I were happy.

Countertop

Six feet of uninterrupted countertop

Attempting to keep the chocolate and myself happy after the move, I included three key items on the list of demands I handed to our real-estate agent: a climate-controlled basement, all-season air conditioning, and at least six feet of uninterrupted kitchen countertop. Check, check, and check. After we moved and were unpacking our kitchen stuff, I took charge of appliance triage to ensure that nothing cluttered up my precious counter space, relegating the toaster oven, slow cooker, stand mixer, and coffee maker to other rooms. But even with adequate counter space, the galley-ness of our new kitchen makes sharing the space plenty difficult on non-chocolate days; on days when I am tempering and dipping, poor Gary can hardly get a fingernail in edgewise, either because there is too much melted chocolate being flung about, or because he would sense that I am on edge and stay away for self-preservation purposes. Often he’d try to stick an arm into the kitchen just far enough to get into the fridge to procure sandwich fixings, which he’d assemble at the dining room table.

During the latest Christmas season, 2012, the kitchen seemed to get even smaller, for both of us, once again, wanted to make our own chocolates for holiday gifts. We had to broker kitchen time slots for recipe trials and final batches, and get things rolling by the end of November in order to ship our chocolates out a week before Christmas. During this period, it would often be Gary who was in the kitchen tempering, dipping, and fuming, and I would be the one who was too afraid to enter the kitchen. During one of these sessions I wanted to help him add cocoa-butter decals to his layered tea & lemon chocolates (a reformulated reprise of last year). This was a layered slabbed ganache that he had cut unevenly, and as I watched him dip each irregularly shaped piece into the chocolate and place it on the prepared sheet pan, I wanted to help him along by saying, “You should let the chocolate drain off a bit more; the pieces are sitting in puddles of chocolate . . . Don’t you think the chocolate is a little too flowy right now? . . . Watch out, you’re allowing too many air bubbles.”  But I have my own self-preservation streak.

Ultimately his tea-and-milk-chocolate ganache and his lemon-curd-like whipped ganache were fabulous. Eaten together in one chocolate, they were exquisite.

Chocolate-covered toffee

Chocolate-covered cashew-studded toffee

I hate to admit that I felt pangs of regret for having hooked Gary on making chocolates the previous year, not only because sharing the kitchen at this busy time was aggravating, but also because Gary, the annual confectioner, had no business making chocolates that tasted better than mine—and double-layered to boot—especially after I had diligently made so many fabulous chocolates throughout the year, such as raspberry truffles, cappuccino truffles, chocolate nougat bars, orange-almond squares, and chocolate-covered cashew toffee. (Not that I need an excuse, but there had been so many different kinds of chocolates to make and new confectionery books to embrace that I simply hadn’t gotten to layered anythings yet.)

apricot butter ganache chocolates

Apricot butter ganache covered in milk chocolate

My competitiveness in chocolates — or, more precisely, my egomaniacal fixation on achieving superiority and inspiring awe in others — comes to the fore less often on the home front than it does in the workplace. Whenever I take chocolates into work (sometimes in the spirit of giving, sometimes in the spirit of better-you-eat-all-of-these-than-I), I sneak into one of the kitchens just before the lunchtime rush, leave my well-labeled white cardboard box of chocolates on a table, scamper back to my desk, then announce the presence of the chocolates via a company-wide e-mail. I’m not sure why I’m so swift and stealthy about the placement of the chocolates, or why I don’t want to be nearby when people eat them, but I have a couple of theories. First theory: I am feeding my fantasy that my coworkers think my chocolates are the best things on earth. I like to imagine, for example, that Gracie from accounting will bite into a white-chocolate orange truffle, then, after catching her breath, will say, “Oh my God! I must sit down!” while grabbing another. Or that Jeff from HR will casually drop a handful of apricot butter-ganache chocolates into his blazer pocket when he thinks nobody is looking. Second theory: I am feeding my fear that my coworkers think my chocolates are the worst things on earth. I don’t want to espy Gracie dashing to the sink to spit out her truffle or Jeff tossing a handful of chocolates into the trash. Or maybe someone will lose a tooth while biting into one of my caramels. Or find one.

Chocolate-covered caramels

My caramels

I didn’t lose track of the aforementioned competition aspect. Here it is: Since I’ve been bringing chocolates into work, I get defensive when others invade my turf. First of all, I hate when people leave substandard confections in the kitchen without any notes or e-mails, which often leaves my coworkers to assume that I brought in the ugly inedibles. And then there are those people who I’m convinced are out to outdo me (assuming my chocolates are generally well-received, which I believe they are), such as the guy who brought in some Needhams that his mother had made. He sent out an e-mail explaining that they’re a staple in the state of Maine and oh-how-unique they are because they’re made with coconut and mashed potato. Well, I googled “Needhams” and discovered that, in the classic recipe, they are dipped in a molten mixture of unsweetened chocolate, supermarket chocolate chips, and paraffin wax. Paraffin wax! Wikipedia tells me that paraffin wax, “although edible, is nondigestible, passing right through the body without being broken down.” Just like Olestra! YUCK!

More chocolates

“Dark and Stormies” from Chocolates and Confections (the big book)

Which brings me to the ever-present health-and-weight-versus-overabundant-chocolates battle, which in turn reminds me of a lunch at Friendly’s I had several years ago with my aunt, who had urged me to order fries with my burger. “Go ahead! Enjoy! You deserve it!” she said. So I ordered the fries and enjoyed them. But then she freaked out when I poured one of those little containers of half-and-half into my coffee. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING? DO YOU KNOW HOW BAD THAT IS FOR YOU??” This is exactly the hypocritical health-obsessed hell I’ve been putting myself through for decades. My aunt was merely demonstrating that she lives in that hell, too.

Sometimes I accept that certain evils abound in the foods that I love; I refuse these foods or savor them depending on the situation, which means I’m totally inconsistent in these matters. Other times I’m in denial that any danger exists. For example, in my awareness of the prevalence of added sugars in most every processed food on the market, I buy plain yogurt and unsweetened cereals, and reject most bottles of ketchup, barbecue sauce, and “light” salad dressings that contain corn syrup. But when I made a batch of 170 soft caramels, I merely stared into the saucepan with a sense of amused horror as I poured 1¾ cups of corn syrup and 3 cups of sugar on top of the cream and evaporated milk. I then proceeded with the recipe and gobbled up plenty of caramels. (Chewing gum and medical procedural masks only help when I use them.)

One evening Gary and I watched the film Kings of Pastry. In one scene, an accomplished pastry chef who was getting ready for a competition painstakingly prepared a test run of a complex cake consisting of several layers of sponge cake, mousse, caramel, dacquoise, and something very crunchy. It was shaped into a perfect dome and given two layers of glaze; the glaze was then burnished. The chef and his assistant each tasted and evaluated a small piece then unceremoniously dumped the remainder of the cake into the trash. Gary and I were awestruck. They were done with it. They tossed it. They moved on. Would we be able to do that?  So far, the answer is, “Er . . . we’re working on it.”

Until my common sense returns, or the gremlins at Amazon.com recommend the book How Your Chocolates are Killing You, I will, helplessly or heroically, continue to make chocolates, seek out new or more challenging recipes and confectionery techniques, ruthlessly force high-quality chocolates on my friends and family, and perfect my imperfectly selected craft through trial and error. (I’ve long since cracked the cracked-truffle case, thank you very much.) But my passion for this pastime goes beyond the challenge, competitiveness, and calories. As a graphic designer by trade, I believe that what I adore most about confectionery is the opportunity to enhance the alchemy with artistry: I don’t want to make chocolates that are merely delicious; I want to (eventually) make them breathtakingly beautiful as well.

Chocolates and Confections (the big book)On the eve of 2013 I thought about what chocolates I’d make in the coming year more or less at the same time I made my increasingly impotent vow to really really really lose some weight. This time I had the “pro” version of Chocolates & Confections at the ready—a Hanukkah gift from Gary (purchased, I believe, from Amazon). Also written by Greweling, this enormous tome is widely accepted as the artisan confectioner’s bible. In the last chapter are dramatic photographs of multilayered chocolate bars such as passion hazelnut bars and espresso caramel crunch bars, plus a triple-layered “caraschmallow” bar. I want to make every one of these bars. Heck, I want to make everything in the book.

And, in time, I probably will.

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