I don't know about you, but if I have been, say, ignored or otherwise ill-treated, chocolates will go a long way toward making up for it. So, in an effort to treat my poor blog, passed over in the frenzy of a very busy holiday season, as I would like to be treated, the following post will attempt to win back favor by indulging in an all out chocolate-fest.
I became interested in chocolate making last year after meeting with a friend of a friend, Brendan Gannon , who at the time was running a local artisan chocolate business, La Tene, and making chocolates of great beauty. It was one of those moments when something that should have been obvious but wasn't becomes clear and you are stunned by the revelation. My revelation was this: people make chocolates. I mean, of course they do, but if you were, like me, a casual consumer of chocolates and had become familiar with them in childhood by way of some waxy box of Russell Stover at Valentine's, you may have been more of the opinion that machines make chocolates. The difference is marked, like the difference between a sliced loaf of shelf-stable bread that will hang around for a week or more and a crusty, flour-sprinkled loaf that demands to be eaten straightaway.
The well-stocked and inventive chocolate section at Harvard Square institution, Cardullo's , is a favorite shopping spot of mine and frequent visits keep the chocolate bowl in my kitchen full of bars. It's been years now that I've been indulging in dark chocolate bars from around the world, many with interesting additions ranging from pink peppercorns to roasted chicory, but it was rare for me to have molded chocolates as an adult and I hadn't developed an appreciation for the artistry that goes into making them. That is until, spurred on by a visit to Brendan's chocolate kitchen, I started reading about chocolate making, learning, gathering tools and practicing on my own.
filled peanut butter chocolates waiting for their feet
This fall I got to take my practice to the next level in a series of chocolate classes with Chef Delphin Gomes , who wasn't exactly supportive of the idea of vegan chocolates or pastry, but who was an exceptional teacher whose skill with chocolate was inspiring and whose unstoppable French punning was memorable. Following the class, I started tempering chocolate in my spare time, a process in which the chocolate is taken through several different heating and cooling periods in order to create a dense crystalline structure that will make the finished chocolates shiny, smooth and hard. I'd smear the chocolate on my lip like Chef Gomes, watch it carefully as it fell back to the bowl in a gorgeous dark ribbon, feel the changing resistance of the melted chocolate as it cooled, trying to internalize how chocolate looked and felt at every different point in the tempering process. I started doodling notes, drawing from my experimentation with rolled truffles, thinking about all the different chocolates I could make. And I started thinking about making chocolates from an ethical vegan perspective.
There are plenty of near-universally recognized "great chocolates" that are naturally vegan. Valrhona, El Rey, Guittard, Michel Cluizel, and Callebaut all make couverture chocolate that is vegan and which many pastry chefs and chocolate makers prize. (Couverture, meaning "covering" in French, is a finely ground chocolate with a high cocoa butter content that is used for making chocolates.) In this sense, vegans can consider themselves lucky to have access to such a wide world of fine chocolates, but from an ethical perspective the labor and environmental practices put to work in the production of these chocolates should also be taken into consideration. Both chocolate and sugar are responsible for many labor and environmental evils around the world, but there are many positive choices to make by choosing fair trade and organic products to make delicious chocolates with an ethical point of view that also provide opportunity for simple enjoyment.
chocolate bark with ginger, apricot, pistachio and cocoa nibs
In putting together the assortment of chocolates that I gave as holiday gifts this year, I tried to create a balance of interesting, even adventurous, flavors and flavors that would be instant comfort. For every straightforward creamy peanut butter filled chocolate, a peanut butter filling loaded with freshly grated cinnamon and hand-ground cardamom.
cinnamon and cardamom peanut butter chocolate
For every Christmas classic of dark chocolate and orange...
dark chocolate with tangerine marmalade and Grand Marnier
...a satsuma and Spanish olive oil white chocolate filled chocolate.
one batch wasn't enough, more satsuma
Flavor isn't the only fun thing to play with that chocolate work offers. The opportunities for decoration are pretty much limitless too. Of course, the molds used offer variety and beauty. Some have beautiful decorative motifs, like the floral design on the first picture of the satsuma and olive oil chocolates, others are simply elegant or whimsical shapes. There's no end to the forms molds can take; I even saw cell phone, Buddha and chicken molds when I was shopping for mine. Other molds with magnetic bottoms that snap away allow for the insertion of a chocolate transfer sheet that will affix cocoa butter designs to the tops of the chocolates, as in the photograph above.
Luster dust is also a decorative option that gives a striking finish to chocolates, like this pearl dusting that I painted into the shell molds. When selecting a luster dust however, you should be prepared to ask lots of questions. Some luster dust that is sold by even reputably pastry stores actually contains chemicals that are not safe for consumption. These should be well labeled as "for decorative purposes only," but it's worth keeping an eye open. Others contain cornstarch, something that is more than likely to be a genetically modified ingredient and still others use carmine, a dye made from grinding up insects.
How the luster dust is applied greatly changes the look of the final product. For the strawberry, balsamic and black pepper shells, I thickly dabbed the dry luster dust into the clean mold with a paintbrush. For the white chocolate, rose and pistachio chocolates above, I dissolved a small quantity of the same pearl luster dust in vodka and softly painted it into the molds and waited for the alcohol to evaporate, leaving behind a subtle pearl-pink sparkle.
Of course, well-tempered chocolate all on its own is a beautiful thing that needs no adornment.
When making an assortment of chocolates however, if the same molds will be used for more than one chocolate, it is useful to highlight the difference between the batches, even if you are careful to mark the molds and labeled the finished chocolates. For all my care in this matter, I still managed to mix up some of the pistachio rose chocolates with the amaretto vanilla bean chocolates that were made in the same mold.
It would be embarrassing to have someone think they are biting into something that will be filled with white chocolate, rose petal and pistachio and have them come up with the liquid spill of an amaretto fondant. Fortunately, I was able to save my friends and family from this fate by eating a number of the mixed up chocolates. So there are worse things in the world, but it's still a good lesson for the future if the same molds are being reused, be sure to clearly and completely label the chocolates by type or create some means of distinguishing them in the future.
Luckily, I learned this lesson early on and painted my fresh mint filled chocolates while leaving the port, fig and meyer lemon ones made in the same mold plain.
This combination of fig, port and lemon was probably the most daringly different chocolate I made technique-wise. Heating the port gently, I added chopped fig and meyer lemon zest and let the port sit to create the infusion. Straining it, I reheated the port and then poured it over the chocolate, making a ganache of sorts. This is what I love about learning a new skill, it prompts me to think about all the possibilities and try things that there might even be good reasons not to do. Rethinking things from a vegan perspective opens a lot of creative doors like that--why should we be limited to cream when we want to have a ganache-like center?
My mistake was in the size of the morello cherry I used as the center of the cordrial--too big by far. When I add the kirshwasser fondant to the cherries, the cherries floated up and prevented a nice, neat seal on the bottom of the chocolates. Half of them fell apart, like in photo above. The remaining sticky chocolates were popped into a freezer bag from which my mom basically had to eat with a spoon. Though I'll note that she didn't complain!
I danced on the edge of out and out unusable mistake with these chocolate covered caramels. I've been very into playing with caramels lately and have hit on my ideal mix: fresh grated nutmeg with espresso flavored sea salt. It's perfect for me, but instead of working with what I know would have come out just so, I went for the adventure and made these caramels with agave instead of golden syrup. Turns out this works reasonably well, but the caramel does not like to set with firm edges. This makes it tricky to cut them in nice neat squares for dipping, but working in small batches with great speed, it can be done.
Straight cane sugar cooked down into a syrup with sea salt and ground anise, mixed with toasted pinenuts made for a super-quick and unadventurous but completely delicious brittle. Tempered chocolate spread on the bottom balanced out the sweet caramel notes of the brittle and made it hard to stop snacking on the stuff.
With the sucess of the pinenut brittle, I made another quick batch of brittle, this time with toasted sesame seeds and fresh ginger.
I also considered doing a different kind of chocolate confection, like fudge, with my small stock of precious black walnuts, but the siren-call of those intense whisky tones in the nuts made me want to amp things up even more. So, sitting cross-legged on my kitchen floor I rummaged through my partner's whiskey collection, sampling from bottles as I ate black walnuts. All in all, a very satisfactory culinary experience, though I am totally limited in my knowledge of whiskey and may have chosen this particular whiskey in great part because of its incredible name.
A trip back to the liquor cupboard was called for later when I made these espresso and anisette chocolates. Sometime in the summer I'd discovered that a quick pour of anisette into my iced coffee was pretty much my idea of perfection, so the pairing was natural and somehow worked as a great cold-weather chocolate, the bitter and earthy elements bracing against the snow and ice storms outside.
This chocolate, another favorite of mine, was also warming against the inclement weather that marked our holiday season here in New England. The heat of chili peppers and the warmth of fresh grated cinnamon stood out in a dark chocolate center and dusting of light-colored Vietnamese cinnamon on top distinguished them from the orange chocolate made in the same mold.
The final confection was a risky one that paid off nicely and made use of seasonal citrus in the form of grapefruit. Pairing the zest of the citrus with fresh tarragon and mixing them all into a creamy fondant, this was a unique, fresh and bright chocolate to cap off my first major foray into chocolate making.
Stay tuned over the next week for more chocolate, including a photo-documentary from Bribri in Costa Rica on bean to bar chocolate making, fair trade and organic chocolate resources, and my recipe for chocolate covered nutmeg espresso salt caramels.