Several months ago, I decided that cooking classes sounded like fun, and promptly signed up for three of them. Tonight was the first, but they're coming in rapid succession: all three are in the next two weeks. Despite a lifelong patronage of chocolate, I really knew nothing about how it was made, so many basics which are old hat to the experienced chocolate-makers among you (evieb, wibblepot) were entirely new to me.
I arrived a minute or two before 7, right on time for the class. But there was no one there - the store was locked and no one responded to my knocking. I knew I was in the right place, and after about five minutes, someone else showed up too, equally perplexed, and rather more annoyed than I about the mysteriously disappearing class. She thought the class might be over the shop, where she'd seen people from across the street; we threw snowballs at the window, but with no response. Thanks goodness a random man walked by and asked us if we were there for the chocolate-making class. The classroom is over the shop, but the entrances was off of a sidestreet, around the corner a good five storefronts distant! After class, the instructor promised to henceforth leave a sign in the shop window in case anyone else had the same problem.
The class began with a series of comparative chocolate-tastings, one white, one milk, one milk-with-hazelnuts, and three dark chocolates with various percentages of chocolate. Jenn Stone, the instructor and owner of the JS Bonbons chocolate stores (there are two), talked through tasting notes with the different chocolates which represented an assortment of brands, including Callebaut and Valrhona. My favorite was a very flavorful dark Valrhona chocolate, made with beans from Madagascar.
Each of us had a few pages of handout with notes on times and temperatures for chocolate, although I scribbled in quite a few other notes during the first twenty minutes, which was largely talking and demonstration. There are very few ways to ruin chocolate: burning it and mixing in moisture. (Also, it's bad to mix in too much air.) This is why the chocolate is initially melted over hot water, but not boiling water - too much risk of steam getting into the chocolate and ruining it. After melting, the chocolate needed to be tempered.
Tempering is done when chocolate is going to be used by itself, as a solid coating for dipping truffles, or to make bars of chocolate. It's not necessary for when the chocolate is mixed in with many other ingredients. It lines up the chocolate's crystalline infrastructure, which then sets quickly and has a great deal of shine to it. We learned three methods of tempering chocolate, two of them revolving around stirring the chocolate until the chocolate cooled enough and was agitated enough to be tempered. The third was the most common method of hand-making chocolates, tempering with a palette knife and scraper on a marble surface. We learned the "stripe test", putting a quick stripe of chocolate over a stainless steel spoon. If it hardens quickly enough under normal ambient kitchen temperatures (fridging is cheating), then it's tempered - 3 minutes for dark chocolate, 4 for milk or dark.
Then it was time to play with chocolate! There were sixteen of us, and each of the four tables had a bowl of tempered chocolate to share for making things. We were given bowls of strawberries, washed and dried hours earlier so that moisture from washing wouldn't ruin the chocolate. We were advised on technique: dip once, and deeply, then set the strawberry down on parchment paper; after a moment, move the strawberry to a different bit of the parchment paper, to avoid having a large foot on the strawberry. Use a cone of parchment paper to drizzle chocolate over the strawberries - it looks prettier, especially if you overshoot the strawberry on both sides while doing so, so your chocolate lines don't wiggle down the strawberry. Each table had a different combination of ingredients: happily, we were a dark chocolate table, with milk chocolate drizzle. We were warned that the strawberries and chocolate wouldn't keep - not even until tomorrow. We had to eat them tonight.
Next up were truffles. There's an entirely different course which JS Bonbons offers on making truffle fillings, so we were just provided with premade ganache in different flavors (dark chocolate, milk, coffee, cinnamon) and assigned to make balls from it without going into detail on how ganache is made. This is the point at which I learned how important body temperature is to chocolate making. Some people have cooler hands, some have warmer. We had three warm-handed people in our group, and we struggled with the ganache. In the containers, the ganache was so cold we had to forcibly pry it out. Yet, within seconds, our hands were soft balls of ganache mush if we weren't careful. We had very little time to roll it between our hands and make approximate spheres.
Happily, warm hands were an advantage for coating the truffles. I always thought truffles were dipped, but it's more that they're thoroughly smeared with chocolate. One scoop of chocolate and my hands had enough residual chocolate to coat another three or four small ganache balls. At the end, two of us compared hands. She had cold hands, and struggled to coat more than one in a row. The chocolate had dried in spikes and drips irregularly over her fingers. My hands were coated in a smooth, even coat of chocolate, still soft and usable from the heat in my hands.
At this point, most of the class time was used up. Jenn demonstrated whipping up maple pecan chocolate bark for us. She answered questions, including one on the whole process of chocolate making from the cocoa plant and the pods growing out of its trunk, to "conching" the chocolate, or mixing nibs with chocolate fat for 3-38 hours in order to give it smoothness and cohesiveness. Lastly, but not leastly, we pooled all the confections we'd all made and filled boxes with a variety of truffles, bark, and strawberries with different kinds of coatings.
I came away feeling that chocolate really isn't hard at all to work with. There are a number of tools - marble slab, palette knife, instant-read candy thermometer - which would make it easier, but ultimately, it's not very complex. I feel I know most of the really important tips for working with it, and have an appreciation and understanding of what makes good chocolate, the ways that high quality chocolates are made compared to lower quality ones. I didn't leave with an immediate feeling of having learned a great deal, but the more I think about it, I really did learn quite a few important things. And even better, I feel empowered to make chocolates.
Note: JS Bonbons now offers a wide variety of chocolate and candy-making classes. The Intro to Chocolate Making, the class I took, is a prerequisite for many, but not all of them. Recently added classes include making a full meal, all courses having a chocolate component, and a marzipan and gum paste class.