Monday, October 5, 2009

Chocolate is a cruel mistress

I had a job during high school in my family’s business in a rural town in Western North Carolina. Every couple of months, our family would make a trip to Ashville, North Carolina. We’d shop at the mall there. The highlight of the trip would be visiting the Belk-Legget department store because they carried Godiva Chocolates at their candy counter. I would purchase a 1 pound box. After offering a piece of candy to the rest of my family, I would consume the rest of the box on the drive home. Each piece was savored- the flavors exploding in my mouth. Within 30 minutes all that was left was the smell of the chocolate in the gold foil wrapped box.

Today, I still enjoy chocolate, but now it’s in a way that most people find, well, weird. Before I crossed the line from consuming it to working with the devilish compound, I reveled in the stuff. Every detail. The complex volatile compounds that give it its flavor profile in your nose as well as on your taste buds. The thick, rich liquid it becomes as the enzymes in your mouth, coupled with your body’s own warmth turn the solid mass into a velvety coating that slides down your throat. All of these sensual elements made chocolate my drug of choice.

Today, I actually enjoy the smell of chocolate more than tasting it. The fragrance to me is the purest sensory receptacle of the essence of chocolate. Not the mouth. To eat it is overwhelming, like drowning in flavor.

No, for me chocolate has become a challenge because of its structural complexity and its love hate relationship with temperature. In fact I see it in much the same way a carpenter sees a plank of wood. Or more accurately, as a gem cutter sees a piece of quartz, because chocolate is at its heart a crystalline structure of sugar, cocoa and cocoa butter. But because the crystals are less than 30 microns in diameter, we perceive the structure as a smooth, not gritty. Fudge, nougat and fondant are all crystalline based structures.

There is a delicate balance in taking chocolate, and reshaping it into another state. It’s called tempering. Every time you bite into a chocolate, be it Voges, Godiva or from the map on the interior of the Whitman’s Chocolate box, you have experienced chocolate that has been tempered. Chocolate that is “in temper” will have a high, glossy sheen, a distinct snap and a velvety mouth feel. Despite what you’ve heard or read, wax isn’t added to the chocolate to make it shine. It’s time, temperature and skill.

Essentially, you tear down the crystalline structure of the cocoa fats with heat when you melt it. This redistributes the fat crystals, sugars, milk porteins and the cocoa solids. You then cool it to stabilize and distribute the components, then reheat before the structure reforms. While it is in a liquid state, you shape the chocolate and then let cool so that the structure can reform once the fats in the cocoa butter have evenly distributed within the structure. Believe it or not, that’s the simple explanation.

The basic premise of tempering is something like this:

  1. Elevate the temperature of the chocolate above it’s melting point, but below it’s scorching point. That’s about a 9 degree temperature window. Also bear in mind that each type of chocolate [dark, milk, white] has a different melting point. In some cases, individual brands of chocolate will have their own unique melting point. Get it too hot, and the chocolate will seize. That’s where the cocoa solids will separate from the cocoa butter, creating a lumpy mess. A few degrees warmer and you’ll be smelling burnt chocolate.

  2. Next, drop the temperature 30-40 degrees, depending on the type of chocolate, below the melting point to its cooling point. Regardless of the type of chocolate, the temperature window at the bottom end is only 2 degrees. For milk chocolate it’s between 80-82 degrees Fahrenheit. 2 frickin’ degrees! If it gets 1 degree cooler it will start to “set” and you’ll have to start all over again.

    As the temperature starts to bottom out, you start heating it again to a workable temperature where the sugars, cocoa solids and cocoa butter are evenly distributed, but the structure is still largely unstable, but the thickening of the chocolate will indicate that crystals are starting to form.

  3. At this point, you must raise the temperature back up to 88-90 degrees. The mass will be liquid, but “seed” crystals will be present. At this point, in order to keep the chocolate both in temper and stable, you must keep the chocolate in the 2 degree range for as long as you need to keep working with the chocolate. A few degrees higher and your fat crystals will destabilize and you will have to start over. A few degrees lower and your fat crystals will start to form uneven crystalline structures and you will have to start over.

That’s just the chocolate part. Other factors can destroy chocolate’s delicate balance. The temperature of the room should be between 70-75 degrees. Humidity can also wreak havoc on your chocolate too.

That said, I have been working with chocolate now for about 6 or 7 years. I’ve never achieved “perfect temper”. I stand in chocolate stores in awe of the shiny jewels behind the glass. Each one a delicate balance of perfection of heat, fat crystals and skill.

So, now as the temperatures outside start to cool and the relative humidity starts to drop, I will once again head into the kitchen. This time I am armed with an infrared thermometer to carefully watch the ballet of the heating and cooling of the chocolate. The National Weather Service will help me monitor the humidity. The battle of will against the physics of microscopic particles that in a flash of patience and skilled mastery create a bit of magic that vanishes into a perceptual realm of ecstasy.

Sure, there are chocolate tempering machines that do all of the aforementioned steps with mathematical precision. At the end of the cycle, the chocolate can be held in a perfect state of temper as long as there is a power supply. It would be a $700 investment and a fast track to achieving predictable perfection. Maybe one day I will take that step. But until then, learning the ways of my cruel mistress will be far more valuable. And if I succeed, in many ways, it will be infinitely more rewarding.

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