A Crash Course in Chocolate Work

 Good afternoon, friends and neighbors.

I am annoyingly active on Facebook. “Annoying” certainly for myself, since I’d like to believe I have better things to do than scroll through an increasingly bleak news feed and let fear/ anxiety/ envy consume what remains of my energy. (Fun fact: I do, I just kinda suck at reminding myself to do them.)

One thing that Facebook HAS done for me, however, is connected me with a community of fellow professional cooks and chefs from around the world. I tend to haunt these conversations more than I talk- you wouldn’t believe just how much of being a good storyteller is listening, rather than talking.
The other day, though, I felt the need to pipe up.

One chef in the community was working in the kitchen of a hospital and had recently been put in charge of their pastry department as well as their hot kitchen. He was okay enough with the baking aspects- he knew how to follow a recipe, do the math, and so on. There was only one thing he was concerned about with his new duties- chocolate work.

The hospital had an EXCELLENT food program. They make chocolates and truffles in-house for their OB-Gyn unit- new mothers get a little box of specialty chocolates. The chef had chocolate on hand, tools, materials, equipment… but he knew NOTHING about working with chocolate.

Myself and another chef leapt in with a host of advice- tempering, flavoring, handling, sourcing, the works. The majority of my knowledge came from culinary school, and occasional experimenting in the casino under my friend Karen, but apparently it was more than my friend had ever gotten to hear.

Afterward, I got to thinking “You know, this is probably something a lot of folks would like to know. I should write something about it.”

Here we go, then. Strap in.

 

What is Chocolate?

Cacao Bean Podsfrom Wikipedia

Wikipedia defines chocolate as a typically sweet, usually brown, food preparation of roasted and ground cacao seeds. It is made in the form of a liquid, paste, or in a block, or used as a flavoring ingredient in other foods.”

That’s a good start. Chocolate begins its life as the seeds of the cacao plant, which are then fermented, washed, dried, and ground, and then combined with any number of additional ingredients to make the chocolate you find at your favorite candy store. Commonly, this is chocolate liquor (not alcoholic- this is the name given to the raw results of processing cacao), cocoa butter, sugar, and occasionally dairy product in order to make milk chocolate.

Often, people will describe a chocolate bar or a kind of chocolate with a percentage- 35%, 65%, 70%, and so on. This percentage indicates how much of that chocolate is the liquor in relation to everything else. While it absolutely has flavor and chemical ramifications for the professional to think about, for the average chocolate lover, you can think of this as “how chocolatey/bitter this will be.” 35% is where milk chocolate usually lands. 55% is semi-sweet, 65%-80% is “dark” or “bittersweet” chocolate, and 100% is baking chocolate- USUALLY inedibly bitter on its own. My former roommate Andrew can attest to this, as the previous gerbil for my culinary experiments.

Sorry, Andrew- I’m sure you’ll be able to taste things again one day.

Chocolate has a long and varied history as well, dating back to it’s first recorded usage as a drink by the pre-Olmec civilizations of Mexico as far as 1900 BC. Of course, its history is tragically colored by the impacts of colonialism, European exploitation, and slavery- even to today.

Buy small and local, folks… it doesn’t just stimulate your local economy, but also MUCH more likely to be ethically sourced.

While there are only three varietals of cacao harvested right now, the permutations of their growth, location, season, and harvesting process invite limitless flavor profiles and terroir not unlike fine wines or other crops.

No, not ALL chocolate tastes alike.


Keeping You In Suspense: Tempering, Blooming, And Using Chocolate

When you hold a chocolate bar in your hand, it seems like a single, unified substance. It is… well, “chocolate.”
Now you KNOW, however, that it’s a mixture of chocolate solids, cocoa butter, and probably a mess of other ingredients- sugar, dairy, emulsifiers, flavorings, childhood dreams, etc. All the same, it seems like one, unified solid. You’ve probably seen a case where that wasn’t quite true though- and I don’t mean melting.

If you eat chocolate (especially as a little kid,) you’ve probably poked around your house and found old Halloween candy, or a forgotten chocolate bar in the bottom of your bag that you got as a snack. You’ve picked it up, it felt solid, and went “Woo! Bonus chocolate!” You go to unwrap it and… wait, that doesn’t look right.

It’s all weird and mottled-looking. There’s white stuff on on outside, and it feels spongy. You break off a little bit, and it… just kinda bends and pulls? No satisfying snap. It’s dull-looking, not the shiny chocolate you remember.

Dang it… it’s gone bad” you think, and go to chuck it out.
Well, I’ve got good and bad news for you- the bad news is that, no, you wouldn’t want to eat that chocolate. It probably wouldn’t hurt you or make you sick, but it just won’t be enjoyable.
The good news is that, if you want, you can probably bring it back.

The chocolate you buy, in order to make sure it can sit on a shelf at room temperature for a good long while, goes through a process called “tempering-” where the chocolate is melted down, then cooled and reheated very carefully to make sure it can tolerate reasonable temperatures and stay one uniform mass. When chocolate is warmed up and DOESN’T cool down properly (such as being stuck in a wrapper at the bottom of your bag for 8 months), it loses its temper and “blooms.” The cocoa butter and sugar separate and rise to the surface on their own, creating that mottled look and gross taste

As melted chocolate cools, the cocoa butter in it starts to reform and crystallize. It may sound weird to think of fat “crystallizing”, but if you’ve ever fried bacon, poured off the fat into a container, and noticed that the surface of the fat looks sparkley, it makes more sense.

Cocoa butter crystals can take up to seven different forms, each more temperature-stable than the last, with the 6th and 7th ones being the hardiest and most resistant to temperature abuse. Tempering chocolate is a process where you do two things at once:

  1.  Raise and lower the temperature of the chocolate so that only those toughest, firmest crystals survive.
  2. Through physical manipulation (i.e. stirring and moving the chocolate), those crystals are constantly broken down to be as small as possible- so small that your tongue can’t detect their texture, and you wind up with smooth, tasty chocolate!

Bakeries and confectioners have large tempering machines- essentially a big spinning bowl with a thermometer and scraper that they can control the temperature of very slowly and keep it moving throughout. These machines can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars- but the process itself can be done very easily on a small scale with equipment you have at home!

You need:

1. Chocolate (duh.)

2. A double boiler– two pots of similar size, one of which rests securely inside the other.
Direct heat from a stove (even on low) is WAY too hot for handling chocolate and will burn it quickly. Using a double boiler, the lower pot is filled with water, which steams up and makes sure the upper pot (holding the chocolate) doesn’t get above 212*F (100*C.) If you don’t have two pots, you can use a heatproof bowl that fits instead. Just be careful grabbing it!

3. A heatproof spatula or wooden spoon (my personal favorite)

4. A good thermometer.
They make special glass “chocolate” thermometers, but you can absolutely use any instant-read probe thermometer- the kind you use to make sure your roast chicken is done.
Some folks, including me, have used infrared laser thermometers. They are cool and all, but they only tell you the SURFACE temperature of the chocolate, rather than of whole thing, so use your own discretion. Those can be bought at home improvement stores (they’re USUALLY used to detect drafts near windows.)

It’s kinda crazy how many great kitchen tools you can get at a hardware store.

Bending the Arc

Like I said above, tempering chocolate is just a matter of warming and cooling the chocolate and stirring it constantly to make sure only the strongest crystals of cocoa butter survive. There are multiple techniques for exactly HOW you do this:
  • Tabling– The melted chocolate is poured onto a heat-absorbing surface (like a slab of marble) and pushed back and forth across the surface. Quality of the temper is determined by the appearance and thickness of the chocolate as it cools. This is very much an “old world” method, and while it’s still used today, you need to have a LOT of experience with chocolate to do it reliably.
  • Inoculation/Vaccination/ Seeding Method- This is the method I use and the one I was taught in school. After being melted, chunks of already-tempered chocolate are pitched in as the batch cools. Their presence A. helps the chocolate cool (like dropping ice cubes in a hot drink), and B. inspires Stage 6 crystals to form by introducing some into the batch. This is the best way for a beginner, though it will require a little math and calculation if you are trying to only melt a certain amount of chocolate. It also, of course, requires having already-tempered chocolate on hand.

  • Resting– This “method” isn’t really a method, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard of it being used outside of my old textbooks. The melted chocolate is put in a bowl, at room temperature, gets stirred occasionally, and otherwise just sits there. Results are variable to say the least- I’ve never worked anywhere where this method was used- or even taken seriously. If you’ve had success with it, let me know.
      For tempering chocolate, different types (and indeed, different BRANDS) have certain temperature ranges they need to pass through in order for those good crystals to form, and all others get wiped out. This is called a “crystallization arc” or “tempering arc”- some brands like Callebaut and Valrhona will print a specific one for that chocolate on the back of their commercial packaging.

        For most purposes, however, temperature ranges are pretty consistent across brands for different types of chocolate- dark, milk, and white. This chart from the good folks at ChocolateAlchemy.com is the best I’ve found on the net:

A QUICK NOTE ABOUT DIFFERENT TYPES OF CHOCOLATE
Not all “chocolate” is CHOCOLATE. There are bunch of different types- from real chocolates formulated for specific purposes, to “chocolate-flavoured” candy melts. This is the kind that you find at craft stores more often than not. They’re not actually chocolate- just artificially flavored candy with a high amount of fat to make them easier to handle for the hobbyist or for simple decorative work. They do not need to be tempered, but if you decide to use them, follow THEIR heating instructions. Believe me, you don’t want to waste your time tempering crap, OR have a foul-smelling gritty mess on your hands.

Using whichever method you choose, once you’ve taken your chocolate (slowly) through those temperature ranges, you will notice the characteristics of properly-tempered chocolate!

  • It’ll be shiny.
  • It will harden up quickly at room temperature. You can drop a little bit on a sheet of paper and, within 5 minutes, see it harden, darken, and shine.
  • When cooled, at room temperature, it’ll break with a satisfying “SNAP!”

How To Use Chocolate (and generally not f*** it up)

Awesome! So now you know what chocolate is, what it’s made of, and how to temper it so it’ll stay firm and shiny!

Now… what do you do with it?

WHATEVER YOU WANT!

What follows is just a couple tips and ideas for what to do with chocolate:

Tips For Chocolate Working!

1. WATER IS THE DEVIL.
Water will cause your melted chocolate to cool way too quickly and “seize.” It’ll become gritty and gross, and there will be NO rescuing it. When tempering or using chocolate, keep water away as much as humanly possible. That includes the humidity of a refrigerator!

2. Oil-based Colors and Flavors
If you want to flavor your chocolate somehow, or color white chocolate, your colors and flavors will need to be oil-based, because WATER IS THE DEVIL. The most readily-available brand of oil colors I know is “Chef Rubber,” and you can use whatever flavored oil you’d like. Just be aware that flavored oils are expensive, and you will NEVER be able to make chocolate taste like anything BUT chocolate, with the addition of whatever flavor you are going for. Colors might need to be mixed with melted cocoa butter first, THEN added to white chocolate in order to make an even tone. You can buy cocoa butter bars separately from most suppliers (they look a lot like white chocolate, but lack sugar or dairy.)

3. Mise En Place!!
Once ready, chocolate needs to be held at it’s appropriate, “working” temperature. Unless you are REALLY sure of your ability to maintain that temperature, chocolate isn’t going to wait for you to get your tools, molds, bags, etc in order. Have all of your tools and materials ready and nearby! Once that chocolate is ready, it is GO TIME, and you don’t wanna be running around with chocolate on your hands trying to find the right tip for your piping bag.

4. Ganaches
Ganache is a beautiful thing. A mixture of hot dairy and chocolate that, depending on the ratios you make it with, can be a filling, a decoration, an icing, or whatever you need! It is pretty forgiving of flavoring (especially with liquor! A whiskey or rum ganache can be amazing), and can be piped, spread, or warmed up and used to enrobe!

Generally, ratios for a soft-solid at room temperature ganache are as follows:
Dark: 1:1 chocolate to dairy by weight.
Milk: 2:1
White: 4:1

You can tweak these ratios for the consistency you need. If you need the final product to be a bit more firm, use a little more chocolate, etc.
As for your dairy, you’ll likely find it easiest to start with heavy cream. Heat up your cream till it scalds, and pour it over the chopped chocolate in a heat-proof bowl. Cover in plastic and let it sit for a bit, then whisk till uniform.

Ganache is NOT shelf-stable, and DOES need to be refrigerated! It’s also VERY sensitive to temperature.

That’s about all I’ve got for you for right now! I’ll probably come back at a later date with some more pictures of this stuff when I have a chance.

In the meantime, there are TONS of blogs and chocolatiers out there who you can get more information from, and chocolate companies almost ALWAYS have information on their products available on their websites and in catalogs!

Best of luck, and

Stay Classy,

F***ing Up With Style

Good morning, friends and neighbors!

In sounds cheesy and ridiculous, but up on the wall behind my desk at home- the one I’m sitting at right now, in the shade of Miss Cleo’s cat tree- is a sectioned pegboard.

I don’t use it to organize my day- I have apps and reminders for that. Nor is it a “visionboard”- something where you tack up all the things you dream of one day making a reality. A neat idea, to be sure- but it feels a little hollow.

Instead, I have it sectioned in four. The first is called “Good Vibes.” It’s got memories of things that- duh- make me feel good. Mostly it’s reminders of cool moments in my life- the menu from my first Chaine dinner, a thank-you note from one of my patients back when I was a nurse, letters from distant friends.

The second is “VICTORY!” This is my “trophy” wall, so to speak. It’s got the menu where I was first called “Chef Matt Strenger” over the desserts I served. It’s got my tags from runs I’ve done, and the program from my graduation from culinary school.

The third is “Inspiration.” Mostly it’s poems I like- especially “Invictus” by William E. Henley, and “Air and light and time and space” by Charles Bukowski (as much of an admonishment to me as anything- I think ALL creative-types should have that up in their workspace somewhere.) There’s a couple things about Tony on there too, of course.

The last is called “Failures.” Don’t be surprised- Stephen King used to collect all of this rejection letters from publishers. Michael Faraday used to do same thing with failed experiments, a reminder of the lesson he learned and to stay humble. It could probably have more on it- the sad thing is that most of my rejections came in the form of “form” letters… so less-than-rife with feedback.

In fact, there’s only one thing up on that board right now. I make sure it’s completely visible at all times. It’s a black-and-silver debit card- thoroughly magnetized and wiped, for a closed account, and with the thumbtack pounded right through the strip to be sure.
It reads “Black Hat Baker, LLC.”

Here’s a story about how to dream, fall short, f*** up, and work with what’s left.

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The BHB’s Top 10 Cookbooks That Are Just Plain Good Reads

Good afternoon, friends and neighbors!

Did you know that a cookbook can be more than a collection of recipes? It can actually be… A BOOK.

Yes, yes, how shocking.

 

If you think about it for longer than a second, cookbooks don’t need to as dry and dull as your college textbooks. Food is an extremely personal and social thing, and so people who choose to write a book of recipes have the opportunity to fill in the gap, so to speak.

A cookbook can absolutely instruct- “This is how you make my favorite jambalaya.” Much more interesting and enjoyable, however, is “I make this jambalaya especially for rainy, crappy days, because it reminds me of when I worked in this great restaurant in New Orleans. Let me tell you, the chef there was so particular….”

See that? The recipe became a story. It had a background, and a special meaning for the writer, which they just offered to you. Maybe you’ll never make that jambalaya except once or twice? Maybe it’ll become your favorite, and you’ll want to go to NOLA yourself one day, find the authors old restaurant, and taste the real deal.

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Special Post: Excerpts from the coming BHB Book!

Good evening, friends and neighbors!

This week has been more than a little crazymaking and exhausting, and as such, I don’t have a really solid blog post ready for today.

Animated GIF of a baby asleep on a toy train

Footage of me biking home today…
I’m sure I’ll have something a bit better next week.
In the meantime though, as a way of recompense, here are a couple excerpts from my upcoming book!

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The Eye For Detail

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

There are reasons I call myself a “baker,” and not a “pastry chef.”

Beyond the respect and station that I think comes with the “chef” title that I personally don’t think I’ve earned just yet, or the argument that “a chef is a cook who leads other cooks” and I haven’t had any cooks under my command for longer than a couple hours, there’s the fact that… well… I don’t think I’m quite crazy enough yet.

Let me explain- when I say “not crazy enough,” I mean that I still stand in rapt awe, wonder, and a little fear, of people who possess the meticulous attention to detail necessary to do certain things. Not just do them once or twice, but REPETITIVELY, and CONSISTENTLY. No cutting corners, no shrugging things off as “rustic” or “it’s meant to be like that”- if whatever these people do isn’t looking pristine, it’s unacceptable.
While I’m not exactly envious of the perfectionism these individuals have (my grandfather’s saying “Don’t let ‘perfect’ be the enemy of ‘good’” comes to mind- and he was a brain surgeon) I am constantly in wonder of the level of PERCEPTION involved in noticing minuscule details.

Like many things in this world, an ideal case study for it comes from a certain mouse.

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Side Work and Dishpan Hands: The Unglamorous Side of Self-Care

Good afternoon, friends and neighbors! It’s good to be back behind the keyboard. Emily and I had a great time down in Florida, despite a few hiccups along the way- a bit of motion sickness, misplaced forms of ID, you know… the usual. Right?

As I hoped, or possibly feared, Florida gave me a lot of quiet time to think. Of course, my wife, mother, and in-laws were present to streamline things and make sure I didn’t spend the entire time sleeping or lost in thought- but there were plenty of moments when I knew I had to get my head in order, and more than a little worried about what that order might mean.

It’s a very frustrating and disconcerting thing to be afraid of your own thought processes. Here I was, trying to take a vacation that I sorely needed, and I couldn’t even do THAT right. My parents-in-law- who were putting us up in their house in the Lakeland area of Florida- gave us a blank ticket for whatever we wanted to do. “Treat yourself!” they said. “Whatever it is you want to do, do it because you can. You need to relax!”

A wonderful invitation, and certainly something Emily and I availed ourselves of- but self-care is not the same as “treating yourself.” Self-care is often doing things you don’t want to do- or are afraid to do- because they need to be done to make yourself better.

 

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