A Christmas “Temper” Tantrum

Finished Box of Chocolates

Finished Box of Chocolates

Willie Wonka must have been a genius.  Of course I think he had a tempering machine long before the rest of the industry did, and I still don’t have one.  Therein lies the problem.

And then there were Oompa Loompas, another story altogether.  In fact, let’s take a moment to remember those little guys, and then we’ll get to the story of how I lost my temper this holiday season!


Cute, productive, and mildly disturbing–I know.  I always particularly liked the idea of a bratty little bitch being turned into a giant blueberry.  I like blueberries!

This year for Christmas I had the idea of producing boxes of fine chocolates for friends and loved ones, and I started planning and rehearsing back in September or so.  I’m always impressed by what I don’t know, and I genuinely love an opportunity to learn something new.  This was no exception.

I had envisioned a beautiful box filled with a spectacular array of colors, flavors, and shapes.  I wanted some fruit jellies–Pate de Fruit in French–and I already had a few chocolate molds.  I also wanted to experiment with transfer sheets to add a brightly colored artistic design to the flat tops of some pieces.

Blueberry Pate de Fruit

Blueberry Pate de Fruit

I made some jellies a few years ago using the recipe in The French Laundry Cookbook.  They came out perfectly, but we tried some at work back in the summer and they failed miserably.  I was determined to figure this out.

Pectin is very mysterious to me.  There are a number of different types, but none of them tell you how to use them, except to follow the recipe that comes with the pectin.  What if I don’t want to follow the pectin company’s recipe?

All fruits contain pectin, some more than others.  It is yet another “hydrocolloid“, and creates a very specific type of gel under the right conditions.  Those conditions seem to be dependent upon sugar content, acid, temperature, calcium, and the amount of pectin already in the source that you are attempting to gel.

There is a yellow one, a quick setting one, a slow setting one, a low-sugar one, a calcium-added one.  There is liquid, powdered, nH (whatever the hell that is), so on and so on…

Jesus, can’t I just get plain old pectin that will gel anything if I follow a uniform procedure?  Why does this have to be so difficult?  I’m fascinated by food science, but I’m not an expert at it, and at this point in my life my brain cells unfortunately are moving the other direction and I can’t figure out stuff that is too complicated.

I followed Keller’s recipe again.  Failed.

I followed someone else’s recipe.  Failed too.

Then after much research I discovered a company called Les Vergers Boiron, a French company that manufactures fruit and vegetable purees (and other products).  They publish a table that gives exact formulas for making pate de fruit out of every one of their fruit purees, and I found that the formulas work perfectly with my own puree or juice.

Boiron doesn’t say what type of pectin to use, but Keller’s recipes call for apple pectin.  So that’s what I got, and it worked out great with these formulas.  What I deduced was the problem with the French Laundry recipe is that it calls for the mixture to be cooked to 219 deg F.  Boiron, as well as other sources online, instruct that it be cooked to 225 deg F, and I even found one that went as high as 229 deg.

I stopped at 225, and voila–perfect!

Now onto the chocolate portion of the program…

The first thing one must know before even considering more advanced studies is that all chocolate must be “tempered” before you can do anything with it.

Melting chocolate

Melting chocolate

There are several different types of fat in chocolate, and they all melt and solidify at different temperatures.  To have resulting chocolate that sets quickly, breaks crisply, has a nice sheen to it, and doesn’t instantly melt in your hands, the chocolate has to be tempered.  That is that it has to be melted to a temperature where all of the different crystals are melted, then cooled to a temperature that they all recombine into a cohesive emulsion, then heated again ever-so-slightly to a fluid and workable temperature.

Figuring out women is easier for me!

Every fine chocolate for commercial use has these magic temperatures printed on their labels, as they all differ slightly.  Doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter how fast or slow I melt the chocolate, what thermometer I use, what I wear, what I stir it with, how I stir it, where I stand, the temperature of the room, the humidity–none of it matters.  I’ve tried every variation imaginable, and I simply cannot temper fucking chocolate perfectly!

By the way, to achieve a PG-13 rating a movie can only use the “F-word” one time.  Sometimes they save it for the end.  I’m shooting for an almost-family-friendly rating, and there’s my F-word for this episode.  Sorry, I just like the word, and it is fitting.

Mocha Creams with a little "patina"

Mocha Creams with a little “patina”

Poorly tempered chocolate doesn’t break crisply, it crumbles.  It also has what is known as “bloom” on the surface.  This is a combination of un-emulsified cocoa fat and sugar, and you have probably experienced it when a candy bar has gotten too warm and then cooled back down.  Nothing wrong with it as a food product, just molecularly deranged and texturally void.

The chocolate that I am using is the darkest bittersweet couverture that Albert Uster has, called Onyx–a 73% cocoa solid chocolate.  Couverture is the name given to very high-quality chocolate that has a higher ratio of cocoa butter, and lends itself well to coating or enrobing, resulting in a smoother and shinier coating.

What I ended up with on my best attempts is chocolate that has the textural qualities of properly tempered chocolate, with little streaks of “patina” that don’t seem to affect texture.  So each piece holds up and eats well, but has it’s own individual character.  I suppose I can live with that.

I got the best instruction I’ve ever received from this video by renowned pastry chef and chocolatier Jacques Torres!

I got the tops of most all of my chocolates to shine.  Shine is important!  We all eat with our eyes, and shiny chocolate just looks good.

Joan and I love to try different chocolates when we’re together.  We like to try different bars, and we both always think about that scene in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory when young Charlie slowly opens his bar and finds the Golden Ticket!  We like to imagine that we will find one.  We like to admire the smoothness and richness of the bar’s appearance.  We like to touch it and feel the smoothness.  We’re awed by the sharpness of the designs that are embossed on some of them, and we love to hold a bar to our ears and hear the crispness and cleanness of it when it snaps.  We like to see how much pressure it takes to achieve aforementioned snap.

Yes, we love chocolate!  Few things are as sensuous!

I can attest that manufacturing the chocolate however is not as sensuous.  Nor is it as tidy and pleasant as those little Oompa Loompa people make it look with a song and a dance.  White–not a good color for a chocolate-making outfit.

Finished Raspberry and Mocha Creams

Finished Raspberry and Mocha Creams

My entire house is covered with chocolate.  My keys have chocolate in and on them.  My wallet, my phone, my coffee maker, my camera, all of my clothes, my cigarette lighter…Hell, I think the fish even have a little chocolate on them.

Anyway, I made some chocolates.

The generic term for a filled chocolate is “bon bon”.  Bon bons can be enrobed or molded.  Enrobed candies start with a firm center that holds it shape, and is dipped or otherwise coated with tempered chocolate.  Molded chocolates use…well…a mold.  Molds enable an infinite variety of cool shapes, and allow for softer, more elegant centers.

For this project I chose the molded variety, which requires chocolate molds.  You can’t find these at Michael’s or Hobby Lobby.  To make professional looking chocolates you have to buy professional molds from professional oriented vendor.  J.B. Prince is one.  Albert Uster has some, and there are a number of other websites that carry them.

The molds are made of clear polycarbonate polymer.  They are very durable if cared for properly, and the part of the mold that actually comes into contact with the chocolate is highly polished to allow for easy release and a shiny finished surface!

Probably the largest and best manufacturer of polycarbonate molds is a Belgian company called Chocolate World.  Seemingly you can buy directly from them, or they distribute their products through a number of American companies.  Chef Rubber is one of them, and they have a great selection that covers just about any shape you can imagine.

I needed special molds with which to use transfer sheets, which are called magnetic molds and are three times the price of standard polycarbonate chocolate molds.  The little cavities are open on both sides, and an array of very strong little magnets are encased throughout the polymer .  A transfer sheet is placed onto a metal plate which is then held firmly into place by the magnets on the bottom of the mold.  The mold is filled with chocolate, and once set the finished chocolates are expelled from the mold with the transfer on top.

I bought two magnetic molds from Chef Rubber, which turned out at the last minute to be the wrong size for the boxes that I later bought, and being past the return deadline I ended up purchasing two more outright.  So if you want to try your hand, I have a couple of extra molds that I could make you a good deal on!

Did I say that chocolatiering is an expensive hobby?

Freshly filled molds

Freshly filled molds

Filled Raspberry Creams

Filled Raspberry Creams

Filled and sealed ganache squares

Filled and sealed ganache squares

Transfer sheets are basically a sheet of acetate, or thin, clear plastic upon which a design has been painted in tinted cocoa butter.  Melted chocolate is somehow affixed to the sheet and allowed to set, and when the sheet is removed there remains a smooth, glossy, colorful, edible design on top.  Sounds pretty easy right?

Well it turns out that there are a lot of things that can go wrong, and I was intrigued to explore each one individually–or so you would think.

I ordered the sheets from Chef Rubber, since I have purchased many other things from them before and had no reason not to continue.  They are in Las Vegas, and on the beautiful Autumn day that I placed my order it was still 79 degrees there.  Their policy is that they won’t guarantee the condition of transfer sheets unless they are shipped via overnight express–a privilege that was to cost more than twice the cost of the sheets.

So I took my chances.

The sheets arrived 3 days later, wrapped tightly in a silver mylar insulated bubble-pack envelope, seemingly unharmed.  And so far I am unaware that they were supposed to be in any other condition.  My first time with these things.

For the transfer pieces I chose a classic ganache, or truffle center–different flavors and a transfer design that somewhat matched each variety.  For others I wanted a liquid “cream” center.

Ganache Squares with Transfers

Ganache Squares with Transfers

High-end chocolatiers these days are making creative and intensely flavored centers that practically drip down your chin when you bite into them.  I wanted to learn how to do that, so I bought what seemed to be the preeminent book on chocolate making entitled Making Artisan Chocolates, by Andrew Garrison Shotts.  Undoubtedly Mr. Shotts is a talented artisan, but his book told me exactly naught about the subject that I so desperately needed direction in.

So once again I was on my own.  I remembered a similar incident a few years ago when I endeavored to touch up a few scratches on the side of a BMW I once owned.  I ended up painting the entire side of that car three times before I got it right, and taught myself the whole way through, no thanks to an industry that has seemingly few resources on the subject for a weekend hobbyist.

So here we go again.

I suspected that the base of the desired center is fondant–real fondant, not that silky-smooth Playdough looking stuff that is at the center of so many television cake-making programs.  Fondant is pure sugar, cooked to a certain temperature, and folded into itself to create a sort of emulsion that is white as snow and the consistency of, well, Playdough–until it is heated gently, at which time it is pourable.  I bought fondant from Albert Uster.

But there is more to it.  I discovered that when an enzyme called Invertase is added to the fondant it slowly converts the sugar into an inverted sugar, which will not crystallize and is a thick liquid instead of the paste that it once was.  This process takes a few days to a couple of weeks, and occurs once the filling is inside of the molded chocolate shell and sealed from the elements.  This is secret to the absolute magic of the Cadbury Creme Egg (yes, they are truly magical).

Lastly, I have long suspected that natural ingredients, while sounding good on a label, do not hold up to the bold flavor of chocolate, and I purchased some oil-based extracts that are designed to fit the need.  I have previously discussed this in my post on Macarons.

So now, let’s put this all together.

I had a difficult time getting the transfers to come out nice and bold.  Some of the transfer stuck to the sheet on most of them. I can’t figure out if the cocoa butter on the sheets was out-of-temper, or if the metal plate underneath the sheets was too cold. Don’t know if the chocolate wasn’t hot enough, but if it would have been any hotter it would have been out-of-temper.  I tried several different configurations, all with a different imperfect result.

I did forego artificial flavorings on the cream fillings.  Turns out that sugar masks flavors as well as chocolate does, and next time I will opt for flavoring.  I got the texture right, but it’s too sweet and not very flavorful.

Now to box it all up.  Packaging is a whole different story!

I searched and searched for just the right packaging, but for the volume I was making I could only find one source that really had anything close to what I was looking for.  I ordered boxes, trays, pads, and cups.

They came while I was at work, and UPS left a notice on my door.  I signed the notice and left it on the door so they would leave the package the next day.

When I got home the next afternoon the notice was gone and there was no package.  The neighbors saw nothing, and the online tracking insisted that the package was delivered.

It occurred to me that perhaps some thug followed the driver, saw the package, took it hoping to shave a few bucks off their own Christmas budget, got to the parking lot, opened it, saw it was just empty boxes, and chunked it in the dumpster.

I grabbed a flashlight and went dumpster-diving.  There, under a bunch of other rubbish, was my box of boxes!  Opened, but otherwise untouched, unsoiled, and undamaged.

Never sign the UPS notice, especially at Christmas time!

All in a day's work

All-in-all over the course of three days (not including test days) I produced something like 400 pieces of chocolate and pate de fruit, enough for 13 one-pound boxes, and enough leftovers to take to a small gathering and share with friends.  I’m pleased with the results, and I learned a whole lot!

Would I do it again?  Yep, but next time it will be better.

I had dinner with a friend, and the first recipient of a finished box.  He asked, “Why do cooks always say next time it will be better?  I always say that too”.

His wife concurred.

Because it will!

Because we learn.  Because we strive for perfection.  And because we take pride in what we do, and nothing is ever quite what our imagination envisioned.

Because we’re chefs!

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!


Blood Orange Pate de Fruit

Blood Orange Pate de Fruit

Basic Ganache Filling

makes about 40-45 molded chocolates

4 oz      Heavy Cream
4 oz      Bittersweet Chocolate

Chop chocolate (if using a block of chocolate) into small pieces and place in a bowl.
In a small pot, bring cream to a boil.
Remove from heat once boil is achieved and pour over chocolate.  Let sit for 5 minutes.
Whisk to completely combine until mixture is smooth and shiny.
Let cool completely to room temperature before piping into tempered chocolate molds.

Ganache Variations

Ginger Ganache

For the chocolate use 3 oz Milk Chocolate and 2 oz Bittersweet Chocolate.  Bring the cream to a boil.  Remove from heat and add 4 oz of peeled, finely chopped fresh ginger.  Let sit and steep for 10 minutes.  Strain, squeezing as much liquid out of the ginger as possible.  Remeasure strained cream and bring back to 4 oz.  Return to a boil before pouring over chocolate, and proceed as usual to make the ganache.

Earl Grey Tea Ganache

For the chocolate use 3 oz Milk Chocolate and 2 oz Bittersweet Chocolate.  Bring the cream to a boil.  Remove from heat and add the contents of 4 tea bags of Earl Grey tea.  Let sit and steep for 10 minutes.  Strain, squeezing as much liquid out of the tea as possible. Remeasure strained cream and bring back to 4 oz.  Return to boil before pouring over chocolate, and proceed as usual to make the ganache.  Add 1/8 tsp of oil-based lemon flavoring to the finished ganache.

Raspberry Ganache

Make Basic Ganache as usual, and add 1/8 tsp of oil-based raspberry flavoring to the finished ganache.

Peanut Butter Ganache

Make Basic Ganache as usual, and add 3 oz Creamy Peanut Butter to finished ganache.

Blueberry Pate de Fruit

1000 g        Blueberry Puree* (see note)
100 g           Granulated Sugar
25 g              Apple Pectin**
800 g          Granulated Sugar
200 g           Corn Syrup
15 g              Citric Acid
15 g              Water

Bring water to boil in microwave, add citric acid.  Stir until dissolved and set aside for later.
Bring blueberry puree to a boil.
Combine first sugar and pectin together in a bowl and mix together well.
Add pectin mixture to boiling puree, mix well, and return to boil for 2-3 minutes.
Without removing from heat add the remaining sugar to the boiling mixture in 3-4 increments.  Do not allow the temperature to go below 185 deg F.
Add corn syrup and continue to boil.
Cook to 225 deg F.  Remove from heat and add citric acid mixture.
Immediately pour into a 9″x13″ pan that has been lined with plastic wrap.
Let sit for 48 hours.  Remove from pan and cut into squares.
Roll in granulated sugar.  Let sit for another 48 hours before packaging or serving.

* I used frozen blueberries which I simmered just until they were thawed, broken down, and   boiling slightly.  Then I blended them with an immersion or stick blender and strained the resulting puree through a fine strainer or chinois.  A 3 pound bag of frozen blueberries yielded almost exactly 1000 g.

** Plain, pure apple pectin is not that easy to find where I live.  I purchased it here.

Blood Orange Pate de Fruit

770 g        Blood Orange Juice
115 g         Granulated Sugar
30 g           Apple Pectin**
1000 g      Granulated Sugar
155 g          Corn Syrup
16 g            Citric Acid
16 g            Water

Follow the same directions as for the Blueberry Pate de Fruit!