I am very lucky. I got the opportunity last week, in the hectic run-up to Valentine’s Day, to spend a day at Cocoa Nymph, Rachel Sawatzky’s gem of a boutique chocolate shoppe, on Vancouver’s west side.
But, I was not there as a customer – oh no – I had the chance to go “backstage” and actually BE a chocolate apprentice for the day. For those of you who have been following this blog, and my trials and tribulations involving enrobing, this day was a chance to “get it right”.
My intrepid photographer partner and I set off last Friday morning, and arrive just before opening hour. Stephanie, one of the Cocoa Nymph team, unlocks the door and let us in, a few minutes early. We are greeted warmly, and we inhale deeply. It smells heavenly, as usual, and I am surprised by the air of calm and good humour, even though it is the last week day before Valentine’s Day – often considered one of the “Big Three” in the chocolate industry.
I am sorely tempted to order up one of Rachel’s famous combinations of drinking chocolate and homemade marshmallows, as the 2nd annual Vancouver Hot Chocolate festival is currently running. I remember a heavenly pepper dark drinking chocolate with salted caramel marshmallow I had last year. While I am ruminating, the door swings open and another friendly face comes down the ramp. Pam Williams, from Ecole Chocolat, is in the building for a quick chat with Rachel and gives me a big re-assuring hug to start my adventure.
Enough shilly-shallying. I am here to work today, and Rachel loses no time getting me into an apron and head scarf (the Cocoa Nymph uniform) and into the capable presence of Jen, a Cocoa Nymph veteran, and a serene, confident presence as I face the vats of tempered chocolate.
Jen is from Tasmania, and I could just stand here and listen to her lovely accent all day, but before us lie a stack of plastic heart molds, the tempered dark chocolate, and all the equipment I am to become friends with, today. Our first mission: turn these into chocolate heart cases. There will be flat bottoms created for these, and they will be filled with Cocoa Nymph truffles and bonbons. A delicious, fully edible take on the traditional heart-shaped box (I am no fan of the red velvet version of this).
I have told Jen I am “not bad” at molding, and now I have to prove it. It is actually so nice to have such a large amount of chocolate with which to work, and it takes four scoops of it to fill each mold to the brim. A quick flip over, a brisk shake to knock out the excess, flip it back over, scrape the edges for a smooth edge and then ….
Aha, this is the tricky bit – finding a way to balance an irregularly bottomed mold (It telescopes out in a swirl) so it will set evenly. We manage to balance the swirled bottom of the heart mold on the bottom of the cooling sheet, and one edge over the edge, and it holds! Brilliant. I feel like I can do this. Only a dozen more to do, in this batch.
Things do not happen one at a time in this busy shoppe, and as soon as I have finished setting up the hearts, and they are drying, Jen gets me to add seed chocolate to the tempering machine full of milk chocolate with a neat technique involving a mixture of eyeballing and drawing fraction lines in the melted chocolate, then adding in the seed (a combination of milk and a bit of dark) and stirring vigorously. When it is smooth and the seed chocolate melted in, Jen sets the temperature and the timer and we leave it to come back up a couple of degrees for perfect enrobing.
Time to unmold the hearts. These are big oversized plastic molds, not the usual poly-carbonate ones they use for chocolates and bars, and although they have been a pain to balance, they unmold pretty easily, and look pretty darn cool.
Jen has me do a test strip on parchment, to check the temper of the dark chocolate, and we get a sheet of glorious dark chocolate raspberry ganache out of the cooler, ready for me to cut with the guitar cutter. I have wanted to use a ganache guitar cutter since I first saw one on the Ecole Chocolat website videos. Like a many bladed cheese slice, this device lets you make perfect squares of ganache with one energetic cut, a ninety degree turn of the ganache, and one more cut – voila!
Jen has me put a backing coat of melted dark chocolate on the sheet of perfectly crystallized ganache, to help prevent fork marks on the finished bonbons. A simple idea, but quite brilliant. I have been having a devil of a time with exactly this thing. Once this has hardened, I pick up the sheet of ganache, flip the whole thing onto a baking sheet, and slide it onto the guitar cutter.
Every machine has some personality, and this guitar cutter has a little kick back if you don’t line the wires up absolutely correctly. After one false start however, I make a clean cut. Rows of ganache lie before me.
Jen walks away and leaves me to it!
She has got to be kidding.
She is leaving me here with a whole sheet of hand-crafted very expensive high quality ganache that I could potentially destroy.
I stare at the guitar cutter.
It’s only a device.
It’s pretty straight-forward.
Jenn has confidence in me.
I can do this.
I slide the sheet under the cut ganache. It actually lifts up the way it is supposed to, onto the sheet. I open the guitar up again, and clean off the wires, the way Jen has shown me. I rotate the sheet ninety degrees and slide everything back onto the guitar cutter. I line up the edges of the ganache, with the slots, and carefully lower the top of the guitar cutter down. I make sure the wires are all lined up with the slots, take a deep breath and cut. The bottom will not go through. I notice some of the wires are not lined up exactly across the bottom edge, until I wiggle them in to place, then press down hard. Bang. The bottom edge clangs down, and I glance nervously over my shoulder to see if anyone comes running. There is a happy busy buzz of activity in the shoppe, as customers have started to arrive, but no-one gives me a second glance. Whew. I look down. I have my cubes before me. They are ready to be enrobed.
Jen returns to my side, and we set up our enrobing station. I had no idea this required such mathematics and engineering, but Rachel is a master of efficiency (perhaps because she is also very comfortable in the word of Science).
With awe, I realize how important it is to set up a system with good flow of activity. She asks me if I am right or left handed (I am left handed), and that determines the exact placement of:
- the ganache
- the tank of chocolate
- the all-important “Cheatar” (a taut wire mounted on a frame which forms a right angle to be slipped around and over the tank of chocolate – the wire forms the third side of this triangle. They’re sold as string scrapers , but Rachel calls her’s a “Cheatar”, which rhymes with “Guitar” which is much cooler).
- The parchment covered baking sheet for the finished bonbons
- The small container of powdered freeze-dried raspberries, to identify these bonbons as Papillons. Rachel now uses only natural ingredients in all of the chocolates, including decorations, so this powder must be applied by hand as each one is finished.
Jen picks up the first square of ganache, and the off-set two-tined enrobing fork, drops the ganache into the chocolate, gives three quick flicks of the fork to cover the ganache, and lifts it up from the bottom (This is why we pre-coated the bottom – no fork marks!), slaps the bottom of the bonbon onto the chocolate five times to ensure a bubble-free coating, and good “pull-down” of the chocolate, and slides the bottom over the Cheatar.
Onto the waiting parchment goes the perfect bonbon, and she pulls the tines of the fork ever-so-slightly sideways, to ensure the chocolate wraps around the bottom without leaving a “skirt”. A pinch of raspberry powder, and there it is – a perfect Papillon.
I want to applaud. It is like watching a dancer move. Swift, fluid, assured.
Jen hands me the fork. It is my turn.
My first attempts are clumsy and I leave little trails of chocolate on the parchment as I release the chocolate from the fork. Jen coaches me through this, and advises me to tip the fork ever so slightly, instead of shaking it off.
I also am having trouble getting a nice thin coating. This is soon rectified by Jenn’s patient advice to make sure I am slapping the surface of the chocolate with the bon bon, to get that good “pull-down”.
One cube inevitably upends itself in the chocolate. I swear. She laughs. Small noises of exasperation escape from me. She laughs again, and her calm and patient voice over-rides the annoying mosquito-like one in my head:
“Just fish it out and do it again. I do that all the time.”
“Don’t worry. Whatever doesn’t look pretty ends up as a sample and the customers love that.”
“You’re a bit hard on yourself, aren’t you?”
“Just keep doing it. We’ll have you an expert by the end of the day.”
And she leaves me to it. And I keep doing it. And I slip into a kind of reverie. And before I know it, there are a batch of Papillons before me.
In the middle of this, I hear Rachel’s voice say my name and I look up.
“Huh? Sorry, I think I was in a zone.”
She comes over to check. She kinda smiles and says, “That’s great. Oh, looks like these ones are toast. You can probably save these ones though.”
I have forgotten to adorn about half a dozen of the chocolates with raspberry powder, so they too, will be consigned to the samples or “mystery bites”.
I feel terrible, but Rachel is spectacularly unconcerned and very encouraging, trying to tweak my set up, for a more comfortable position.
And it goes like that for the rest of the day. Jen and I move on to enrobe Barnabus the Tortoise: a caramel and milk chocolate centre, lightly flavoured with brandy, topped with a maple glazed pecan.
These are just heavenly, and since there is no way I can forget to put a pecan half on the top (they are just too large), I feel much better about these ones!
The day has flown by, and I suddenly realize I have to get going, as I have an audition across town. I look down at my chocolate encrusted nails, and am tempted to leave them as they are, as the audition is for the part of a hag. If nothing else, I will show up smelling wonderful!
And wonderful is how I feel at the end of this marvelous day. I have been given the opportunity to try and try again, to work with good equipment and very high quality ingerdients. I look around and see molded chocolate hearts, and two sheets of enrobed chocolates, that I actually worked on. Everyone has treated me with humour and patience and Jen’s and Rachel’s instructions, techniques and professionalism has brought my level of skill up in only one day.
My partner has been patiently watching and photographing all day, and has generously volunteered to make me a Cheatar for our kitchen. For the first time in ages, I actually can’t wait to try enrobing at home.
With big hugs all around, I leave Cocoa Nymph, clutching a transfer sheet, generously donated by Rachel, to get me started on next week’s adventure, and a tiny box of four of the chocolates I made that day.
Yes, indeed, I am a very lucky Chocolate Apprentice, indeed.