As my sons begin the annual rite of course review, trying to remember and apply skills, facts and formulae they learned months ago, I am in complete sympathy. I realize, with a sigh, that I too, need some review in basic chocolatier skills.
I go to “the chocolate cupboard”, where I keep all of my Ecole Chocolat supplies, separate from those of the rest of the kitchen, and gaze at the blocks of fine chocolate and tools I am privileged to have.
Like the blocks of clay Michelangelo was supplied by the Medici’s (clearly, one of my kids is studying the Renaissance), I have fine raw ingredients before me. Which deserve not to be messed up.
I have been avoiding this but, as my most supportive and encouraging partner noted the other day:
“Your tempering is kinda hit and miss”.
Ouch. He’s right, of course. I have never been a patient person, and taking the chocolatier’s course has been good for developing this quality, but it must be confessed – I still rush things, including tempering.
So, it is back to the first lesson. Just like Tai Chi. You learn the set, then go back and delve into it, going over the moves again and again, refining your understanding of each one.
I re-read the tempering technique lesson. Rather than just trying to remember the steps, this time I actually take notes (writing things down with a pencil really helps me “get” things), and try to visualize what is going on chemically with the chocolate as it melts, is cooled on the slab, is re-heated slightly.
I watch all of the tempering videos, to note the differences in technique and suggested temperature, and rather than finding it confusing, this time I have more understanding of the process, and can see how the subtle differences either help or hinder, depending upon size of bowl, amount of chocolate, size of slab you have, cacao content of your chocolate.
Even the size of your hands makes a difference in technique as I note how large are the hands of one of the chefs. My little hamster-like paws are much better suited to smaller bowls and spatulas!
So, here I am.
In the kitchen, ready to review, slow down, not cut corners, work on my technique. I try to forget what I think I already know, and refer to my notes, committing to memory the temperature and visual characteristics to look for, as I begin the tempering process.
This time, I am using Callebaut white chocolate, because, quite frankly, it is what I have most of in supply. It is much less forgiving of high temperatures, and therefore will require careful attention and constant monitoring. I am determined not to become distracted, or to skip ahead to “what am I doing with this, once I temper it?” I will cross that bridge when I come to it.
I chant the mantra of “45-27-29”. According to the back of the block, these are the suggested temperatures (in Celcius) for each of the stages of tempering, for this particular chocolate.
I use my big bowl, one and one half pounds of white chocolate over a bain marie of barely simmering water.
I stir gently but thoroughly, making sure there are no hot spots, adjust the heat of the pot religiously, to keep the bain marie at an even temperature, and stick in the thermometer when all is melted and satiny smooth.
And even after all my care and attention, the chocolate is too hot. I grab the bowl, and get it off the heat, onto a thick towel, to catch any water.
I stir and stir, muttering at the chocolate, willing it into “safe” range.
It doesn’t seem to have suffered any, and I pour a little less than half of it onto the marble slab, and begin the tabliering process.
I feel the chocolate starting to “pull” quickly, and it is in the proper temperature range for the next step – raising the temperature slightly, to melt unwanted crystals, and holding the temper (this is the part I dread).
Well, after having done my test blobs, it seems as though the temper is holding – not without very careful adjustments to the water bath, constant moving it on and off the heat, and stirring, stirring, stirring.
And now that the temper is holding – what am I going to do with this mass of chocolate? Have a little fun with it.
I make a pastry bag out of a sheet of parchment, and another one out of a thick plastic freezer bag (I have learned not to use thin ones – it’s just not worth it when they break), and snipping a tiny hole in one corner of the freezer bag, I cover my large Silpat mat with liquid squiggles, names dots, insects, and cat faces.
And that is when it happens.
Ozzie, our extra large tabby cat, let his curiosity get the better of him, and in an ill-timed attempt to see precisely what I was so industriously working on with my back turned, he leaped up over my shoulder and landed on my carefully piped out white chocolate rendering of the words Ecole Chocolat.
Crafted in my best cursive writing, using really good Callebaut white chocolate, the words were now nothing more than a smeared mess, as one embarrassed kitty high-tailed it off the counter and out of the kitchen, pursued by my shrieks of horror.
Chocolate can be fatal to cats if they ingest it, as their digestive systems cannot break down and excrete theobromine (one of the things humans love about chocolate – as it gives us feelings of well being).
The cats have always stayed away from the kitchen whenever I have done any chocolate work, and I realize I have become a bit lax and irresponsible, thinking they know instinctively to keep away from it. I have a moment of panic, and then remember that white chocolate actually does not contain theobromine in any significant quantity. The darker the chocolate, the more deadly it is to dogs and cats. I have dodged a bullet, but it is a good reminder to very careful of where I leave my chocolate “homework”.
Fortunately, I had just moved over to the smaller Silpat, and after cleaning off the smeared mess, I am able to create a white chocolate “mesh”. It looks terrific, and all my care in tempering seems to be paying off. I see the chocolate hardening with a nice glow, and snap.
I am able, with a sort of Jackson Pollock-inspired back and forth swirly movement, to create a white chocolate “cage” and a “fence”, to go with all the other creations.
This piping business is really fun, and the perfect pay-off to the stress incurred by tempering. There is something so satisfying about squeezing a bag full of chocolate, and having it squirt out into words, pictures, and structures. It brings out the inner artist/sculptor/kid playing with paint in me.
I highly recommend it.
And I highly recommend this reviewing business. It was good to go back to the start and hopefully, unlearn some of the bad habits and shortcuts, I have already developed (I seem to have a knack for that).
And my kids are glad for this course review, too. Because they get to eat my homework.