Even in the middle of recession, February means chocolate. We all need our little indulgences now more than ever. Still, that doesn’t mean many of us can afford to pay $30 a pound or more for the temptations of an exclusive chocolate boutique.
What’s a cash-strapped chocolate connoisseur to do? Why, make her own, of course.
Despite what you may think, it’s not really that hard and the only specialized equipment required is a good instant-read thermometer. You probably already have one in your gadget drawer.
We’re not talking fancy molded candy here, but rustic chocolate bark in flavors limited only by your imagination. Broken into irregular shards and simply packed in an attractive box, it’s a gift fit for the most pampered Valentine. Or you could hoard it for yourself. Who’s to know?
I’ve made indulgent fudge and soft truffles rolled in cocoa many times, but I never considered making anything that called for tempered chocolate until I took a class with Anni Golding, chef and owner of Gateau et Ganache in Palo Alto, last spring. Tempering is the heating and cooling process essential to making glossy, brittle chocolate that gives at the bite with a satisfying snap. Chocolate that’s merely been melted loses its structure and the cocoa butter separates out, leaving streaks of the unappetizing gray color chocolatiers call “bloom.”
I’d always thought of tempering as a mysterious, daunting affair requiring double boilers, marble slabs, paddles and perfect timing. Golding, though, introduced the class to the seed method of tempering, which takes a little patience and care but no special expertise. Equipped with a chunk of good chocolate, a serrated knife, a microwave, a spoon and a thermometer, anyone can turn out beautiful chocolate for molding into bonbons, dipping strawberries – or spreading over nuts and dried fruit for delectable bark.
In recent weeks, I’ve been playing with bark in different flavors. My favorite was dried cherries with toasted hazelnuts but the chopped ginger and salted macadamia nuts version was exceptionally good, too. The subtleties of Marcona almonds, on the other hand, were lost in the dark chocolate. Toasted regular almonds would work just as well at a far lower price.
The pleasant surprise was that Trader Joe’s Bittersweet Pound Plus – $3.49 for 17.5 ounces – was quite good. Valrhona and Scharffen Berger are better, it’s true, but they also cost as much as five times more. All the nuts and dried fruit came from Trader Joe’s at bargain prices, too. For each pound of chocolate, you’ll need a total of about 1 cup of nuts or fruit in any combination you like. Be sure to toast the nuts lightly to bring out their flavor. Fruit should be cut into bite-sized pieces.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to making your own:
Assemble your ingredients and equipment. You’ll need:
About 1 pound chocolate (I prefer dark)
1 cup of nuts and/or fruit in any combination you like
Spoon or spatula
Baking sheet lined with waxed paper
Cut off a chunk of chocolate equal to about 1/4 of your block and set aside. This will be the “seed” that you need to temper the chocolate and realign its crystalline structure after melting.
Chop the remaining chocolate finely. A serrated knife makes this task easier.
Place chopped chocolate in microwave-safe bowl. It’s important that the bowl be perfectly clean and completely dry. Even the smallest amount of liquid will make the chocolate seize up as it’s melting and turn into an impossible to salvage clump.
Put the bowl into microwave and heat at 50 percent power in 30-second increments, removing bowl from oven and stirring the chocolate each time. Excess heat is chocolate’s nemesis so be careful to bring its heat up to the melting point gradually.
When the chocolate starts to liquify, monitor its temperature at each interval. You’ll be ready to begin tempering when it reaches the correct melting temperature. Golding says that’s 120 degrees for dark chocolate and 115 degrees for both milk and white chocolate.
As soon as the melted chocolate reaches its appropriate temperature, place the reserved block of chocolate, or seed, into the bowl and begin to stir with your spoon or spatula. Your goal is to reduce the temperature while keeping the chocolate moving at a moderate speed. It’s critical to developing the proper crystalline structure in the finished chocolate and could take up to 15 minutes depending on the amount of chocolate in the bowl and the ambient temperature of the room. Continue to monitor the temperature of the chocolate as you stir.
When the chocolate mass cools to 88-90 degrees for dark chocolate – 86-88 degrees for milk chocolate, 85 degrees for white – the chocolate is ready to use. (For even better results, Golding notes you should take the temperature down to 84 degrees for dark chocolate and 80 degrees for white, then bring the temperature back up to the above temperatures with a little bit of melted chocolate you’ve kept warm on the side. This is the professional approach, but I get shiny, stable finished chocolate even though I skip this extra step.) If your seed hasn’t melted completely by the time you reach the final temperature, remove any remaining chunks and save for future chocolate tempering projects.
To make the bark, scatter the nuts and fruit you’ve selected in a large rectangle on the waxed paper-lined baking sheet. Pour the chocolate over them in an even layer about 1/4-inch thick, using a spatula if necessary to smooth it out. Let cool for an hour or more, until the bark easily peels off the paper and snaps when bent. Then break or cut into shards and store in an airtight container in a cool location.
For an attractive presentation, I like to hold back a handful of nuts from the filling, chop them coarsely and sprinkle over top of the chocolate while it’s still warm.